Joe Wee is the smiling owner of The Noble Hops in Redfern. He runs a bar which prioritises both the local neighbourhood and perfect beer quality.
“We’re trying to launch our own beer. That’s next. We’re going to try to do something edgy, something trendy.”
Joe looks like he’s trying to hide a smile.
A New England IPA, maybe? He can’t stifle it any longer, a grin envelopes his face.
“Yeah it is. Hazy. Not really my thing but if everybody likes that kind of stuff we’ll give them something hazy. Imagine having a hazy IPA as your house beer. That’d be pretty cool, right?”
It would be cool. It could also be a significant step in Australian beer.
But this is as our conversation is wrapping up. It’s a conversation that’s punctuated by locals waving at Joe as they walk past the large front window where we’re sitting at The Noble Hops.
What struck me throughout our meandering chat was that, aside from launching a hazy house beer and all that entails, Joe is doing an incredible amount for the local beer scene already.
A lot has happened in the last few years.Imagine having a hazy IPA as your house beer. That’d be pretty cool, right? Click To Tweet
From Man Caves To Beer Bars
“So I was a mechanical engineer before this,” Joe tells me, “and working in a relatively male dominated industry. Everyone was talking about setting up their own man cave, building bikes and maturing their own salami and shit. And brewing their own beer. I was the only one who pursued the beer bit.”
Like so many others who get into the beer industry, Joe had got sick of his day job. Aside from home brewing, opening a bar was a good way for him to follow his passion.
To say he has ‘a background’ in home brewing is probably doing Joe a disservice. He’s a former winner of the People’s Choice award at the Uncle Hops home brew competition during Sydney Craft Beer Week.
It was around this time that he took over the space on Redfern Street. Why there?
“It was available,” he says.
Living nearby, and seeing a lack of local competition in a place undergoing something of a transformation, the Redfern location made sense to Joe.
“We’re not competing with anyone at the moment,” Joe tells me.
There are other bars but nothing with beer as the focus.
Neighbourhood First, Beer… Also First
“My intention from the start was to create a beer-focused neighbourhood bar,” Joe says with conviction. “I don’t want to be Sydney’s best beer bar, I just want to be a beer-focused neighbourhood bar and Redfern is the perfect space.”
He concedes that as a beer bar The Noble Hops will become a destination for craft beer enthusiasts but, he says, “the community bit is more important than the beer industry bit, for me anyway.
While plenty of customers are there for the beer, Joe understands they can be a fickle bunch. They’ll come and go. Whereas locals will be there because, well, it’s local.
“These are the guys that live here and these are the guys that are going to put money in my pocket,” he says laughing.
Joe says that for many of the locals the bar is a new experience but “for you guys”, meaning beer enthusiasts, “it’s just another bar with a load of good beers.”
Given the reception that it’s had, it’s safe to say that The Noble Hops is more than just another bar.
Always New Beers
“I spend a lot of time every week looking for new beers,” says Joe when I ask him about creating a beer list. “One of our business ideas is to always have new beers on and beers that breweries want to launch.”
Joe cites layers of management at other venues as slowing down the process of getting new beer. Whereas, he says, “we have flexibility to do what we want and we can ring up the brewery ourself and say ‘what have you got next?’”.
He clearly has a good relationship with breweries around Sydney but he knows where his priorities lie.
I ask whether he’s been approached for tap contracts. “All the time, all the time.”
He’s adamant he won’t be tied down by a particular brewery.
Getting the right beer list isn’t always straightforward though. He wants to keep the list fresh and interesting but he also has to ensure there’s something for everyone.
“We spend lots of time trying to find an okay beer – it sounds crazy – but to find an okay beer that’s relatively affordable so that everyone can afford a drink.”
The implication being that nobody should be put off buying beer, everyone should feel comfortable and welcome. It’s this simple approach that allows the bar to retain a down-to-earth, neighbourly atmosphere.
Balancing The Beer List
To balance the list Joe segments his taps. 30% are affordable and approachable, 70% provide licence to play with.
Within that 70% you’ll find new or rare beers but the 30% is equally interesting.
“I’ve gone local for that because they’re reasonably accessible,”says Joe.
“Places like Batch and Wayward are extremely reliable. I could just say ‘can I have two kegs of a certain beer for Thursday’ and they’ll be there and it’ll pour fine because it doesn’t have to travel far. That’s how we do it.”
It was from further afield though that Joe first found inspiration in beer; from America, particularly West Coast style IPAs. For him, they’re the ultimate showcase of how good a beer can be when it’s fresh.
“You could age a really crappy stout in a barrel for two years and it’ll taste really good. You know what I mean? That’s how I see it anyway, I could be totally wrong.”
This subject of beer quality is something that comes up again and again speaking to Joe. His intense focus on it is even more evident if you sit at the bar and see him work.
Do It Right First Time Or Don’t Do It At All
I’ve seen Joe when the beer is not quite right.
“I’d be like ‘nah, it’s shit’ and ring the brewers and be like ‘your beer’s not pouring well at all’.
“I don’t want to waste a drop of beer. We shouldn’t. There’s no point buying a 50 litre keg when you can only pour 35.”I’d be like ‘nah, it’s shit’ and ring the brewers and be like ‘your beer's not pouring well at all’. Click To Tweet
Joe keeps up with his side of the bargain too. He’s precise in explaining exactly why he invested in the system he has, from the short lines to the beer pump. He dives into the science, almost losing me on the subject of atmospheric pressure.
The goal is to minimise the effect he has on the carbonation and flavour of the beer. This means keeping things lean.
“From the start,” Joe says, “I wanted a very, very efficient system so there’s minimal wastage. There’s no point selling a million different beers and wasting them.”
“For me, it’s either do it right first time or don’t do it at all. For me, customers are customers, patrons come in, whether you’re a beer snob or just an average beer drinker, I want to make sure it’s the same.”
I’m Trying To Be A Cyclist-Friendly Bar, Man
Those who have spent time in The Noble Hops may have noticed the subtle decor that references cycling heritage.
“It is my personal mark,” Joe nods as I pose the question. “A lot of people come in and don’t even realise there’s a cycling thing going on. Most people who know me, know it.”
It’s a real passion for Joe. He flies like a Tour de France winner through the historic relationship of beer and cycling, from Belgium to modern day Oregon, referencing climate, terrain and hop-growing.
“Bikes and beer as culture are definitely intertwined… Cyclists drink as much beer as beer enthusiasts do. One hundred percent.”
He concludes his story of beer and cycling with a combination of regret and hope.
“In Australia, cyclists tend to drink a lot more coffee but I’m trying to encourage more cyclists to drink beer. I’m trying to be a cyclist-friendly bar, man.”
We Have Our Own Thing Going On
As our conversation goes on, we meander off-piste for a while, discussing whisky (the menu for which matches the beer at The Noble Hops). Some locals drink it but many of the beer enthusiast clientele don’t even notice it’s there.
“I drink a lot of bourbon at home… I had a lot of good times in the US drinking good bourbon.”
This leads us to discuss the relationship between beer and whisky in the US and then onto the relationship between the American and Australian beer scenes.
“I think we’re pretty similar. I don’t think we’re really behind, the way I see it. We have a whole new market going on.
“Beer-trend wise, in terms of beer styles, I think we try to adopt what Americans are doing. But overall… I don’t think so. I think we have our own thing going on.”I think we try to adopt what Americans are doing. But overall... I think we have our own thing going on. Click To Tweet
Joe Wee is doing a lot for the growth and democratisation of good beer in Sydney. He’s not shouting it from the rooftops. He’s just doing it for his neighbourhood and he’s doing it his way, to very high standards.