Sydney has a diversity of beer focused venues. At the centre of all such spaces is the bar itself. The design of this shapes the experience for customers and bartenders.
The positioning of taps is an interesting one and something that many beer drinkers will often overlook. In the case of Wayward, it looks impressive and thrusts their core beer brands into the eye line of customers.
Taps Shifting Forward
Over the years we’ve come to expect large beer taps resting on the bar. We can easily see the decals and order a drink. This hasn’t always been the case. It’s something that’s become more pervasive with the growth of major beer brands.
Traditionally the bar itself was the patron’s space. Now it’s been reclaimed, somewhat by landlords, but mostly by beer companies. Putting beer brands front and foremost has reduced the space available to customers.
Bitter Phew, Australia’s premier beer venue according to Beer & Brewer and Sydney’s best according to the Sydney Beer Week Awards (2017), keeps kegs in a cool room directly behind bar with the shortest possible lines to the taps on the back wall. It’s the same with their sister venue Creek & Cella but not every venue takes the same approach.
A Democratic, Shared Space
The issue of particular interest is dominion of the bar. Who does the space belong to? It’s not always the customer.
It’s a sad departure from what was once intended as a communal space around which people could gather.
This debate doesn’t really exist in our beer and pub culture but it deserves consideration. I lean towards the bar being the domain of the customer. (But then my time in hospitality was limited and far from as advanced as the service offered by Bitter Phew or Wayward.)
The concept of the bar as a communal space is echoed by Dylan Hayes of Bitter Phew who says, “in one of my very first bar jobs, a manager explained to me his belief of the bar being a democratic space where everyone’s opinions can be shared, listened to and tolerated.
“That kind of freedom of speech philosophy is what attracts me to the bar space being as open as possible. As a bartender, I don’t want to feel barricaded in the bar. I want to be able to lean over the bar and shake someones hand or give a regular customer a hug.”
This concept of the barricade was raised independently by Frida Lamberth Wallensteen, also of Bitter Phew.
“Having taps on the bar can make it difficult to hand customers a beer, it can create a barricade,” says Frida.
The openness of the Bitter Phew bar is clearly an important factor in how the space and the vibe of the bar is constructed. It creates a relationship between bartender and customer.
For Tom Evans, formerly of The Royal Albert Hotel, however, having the taps on the bar allows for more consistent contact with customers. “I prefer having them on the bar rather than on the back because you never turn away from the customer,” says Tom.
“I can be serving and if they change their mind or there’s a problem they can tell me immediately rather than me pouring a full beer… I can pour a couple of beers while I’m chatting.”
Enhancing The Atmosphere
While taps taking up valuable elbow space is the most obvious shift in the aesthetic and utility of the bar, it’s not the only decision that shapes how people interact with a space.
Bar seating encourages a communal aspect, a mechanism for social interaction and spontaneous conversations. A big enough bar can get away without seating if standing is accepted and, through the atmosphere of the place, encouraged.
In some cases this just isn’t possible. Seating around a small bar where people need to queue to be served doesn’t foster a comfortable experience for patrons or bartenders. Larger traditional bars such as The Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel and The Royal Albert Hotel combine service and leisure well. The atmosphere (and a lack of alternative space) means lingering around the bar is accepted. In these cases, it works.
This balance of swift service and leisurely drinking is another example of where a bar like Bitter Phew excels. Sitting and standing around the bar is encouraged but there is a designated space for people to get served. The relationship works for all involved.
“When it’s busy it would be more stressful if we didn’t have the space for people to get served,” says Frida.
As both a bartender and a regular punter at good beer bars, Tom Evans believes the bar is a shared space. “I often joke on shitty nights how good would the job of a bartender be if there weren’t any customers but the truth is it wouldn’t be,” he says.
“It only works because there’s people there. It’s always a conversation, it’s always a two way thing and that’s the strength of it. That’s why you prefer to be at a bar than to drink at home. I want to be able to have a chat and interact.
“If you can share that space with your regular punters it does enhance the atmosphere of the space.”
Creating An Experience
I’m in favour of the bar area being the domain of the customer, retaining its function as a gathering point for personal interaction.
“Having the beer list behind the bar [at Bitter Phew] makes people think about what they order rather than just looking at badges,” says Frida. “It makes the communication between us and the customers better.”
It shapes the experience for all involved. For Frida, there’s an enjoyment in “having those conversations and making recommendations.”
Dylan has experienced Bitter Phew from both sides of the bar.
“Having been a customer for a few years before I found myself tickling the taps at Bitter Phew,” he says, “I learned to love the breaks in conversation that you would get when the bar staff here would turn around and carefully pour the beers.
“In a world where everything is fast and instant, there’s a meditative pleasure in having to pause and watch the bartender work, anticipating the delicious beer you’re about to drink.”
Designing The Bar Space
The pleasure in this experience is balanced by an acceptance that beer fonts and tap decals are commonly front and centre on the bar. It’s so ingrained that we rarely think about it.
In wonderful, traditional Aussie pubs such as the Royal Albert or the Forest Lodge Hotel, it just works. It feels right. Plus for the beer geeks among us, there’s a thrill in scanning the decals for what’s new, what’s interesting. And that’s before you even start on the geeky sub-culture of decal and label design which can provide equal amounts of joy.
More venues are putting a focus on the beer they serve and competition between venues is increasing. Now they need to think carefully about how they shape and curate the space and what it means for the customer’s experience.
“It’s about figuring out what works in that bar,” says Tom. “Having [taps] as a feature is really cool and it does enhance the design of the bar but I think it’s more about what you’re going for with the design of the whole bar… You want it to work, you can’t just open a bar and not think about that.”
If something doesn’t feel quite right, even if the patron can’t put their finger on what it is, the venue could lose custom to a more welcoming space. While the ideal is for the bar to remain an open space for customers, what we don’t want is the bar to become no-man’s land. It at least needs to have an identity, some ownership, for its purpose to be clear.