Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Some fine drinking to be had at The Rocks, Sydney

Moving on from Canberra, we spent a few eventful days in Gold Coast, Australia's paean to sun, surf and cheezy tourist traps.   Although we caught the city in the midst of a bit of a random cold snap, rather than the 30-plus degree weather that they enjoyed a week prior, we instead were treated to far milder temperatures and rain storms that are more indicative of a tropical climate in autumn.  Nothing too exciting beer-wise in the city, but that’s to be expected.  A road trip to Brisbane – about an hour north – would have yielded a potential visit to the XXXX (Four X) brewery, but XXXX isn’t a great beer whatsoever, and based on its website the brewery looked like it was aiming for the drunken reveller crowd, rather than the discerning beer-geek.   Nothing wrong with that, it’s just that I’ve done it before and didn’t feel like renting a car.   The pubs around town carried the usual macro fare, wines and cocktails that one would expect in a tourist zone.  I certainly managed a great deal of drinking to be sure, but nothing really worth posting on the blog.  For the next great beer experience would have to wait for Sydney.

Sydney possesses exactly as much scenic beauty as I had expected; anyone who has been there before can certainly attest.  The harbours, the Opera House, the gardens and parks all contributed to a wonderful experience exploring the downtown core, and I eagerly await my next visit. Nearly every corner turned or park explored elicited a “this is nothing like Toronto and I love it” remark from yours truly.  Our hotel wasn’t too far from Darling Harbour, a trendy district of restaurants and bars encircling a gorgeous harbour front and surrounded by the majestic skyscrapers of downtown Sydney.   We tended to do most of our dining here, which was quite excellent.  Nearly every dinner special came with a free glass of wine or beer, but the beers weren’t anything special so I tended to stick with wine in the evenings.   A few pubs and eateries around Hyde Park featured the usual Australian macro lineup (as well as the ubiquitous Guinness, which I must admit tasted really strange down under).  To truly find the great pubs and beers of Sydney, the best bet is to head to the oldest district of the city, The Rocks.

The Rocks is located just west of the Opera House and sits just underneath the Harbour Bridge, so it’s right in the thick of things.  A quick walk from Circular Quay and you’re surrounded by historic buildings which take the form of restaurants and fun little shops, with an excellent weekend outdoor market taking up the side streets.  Those lucky enough to call Vancouver home might find a similar experience in Granville Island.  And, like Granville Island, the Rocks is also home to a brewpub – and a damned good one at that. 

The Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel is one of Sydney’s oldest establishments, and yes, it is a functioning hotel (though it was a bit pricey and the word is that service there isn’t terrific, especially on busy nights).   Like a true Victorian pub, the walls are stone, the atmosphere is slightly dank, and the bar is long and full of inebriated patrons.  The kind of place I like.  The Lord Nelson is naturally dedicated to the memory of England’s near-mythic naval hero, and thus the beers brewed on-site reflect the hero of Trafalgar.  With Aussie rules football on the telly, we sipped schooners of Victory Bitter (the HMS Victory was Nelson’s ship), Trafalgar Pale Ale and Old Admiral Strong Ale, all the while surrounded by images of the great naval battles of the Napoleonic Wars, which would have been fresh in the minds of the early generations of Australia’s settlers.  The bar was quite busy, preventing me from chatting with the bartenders or brewmaster, but we were served very quickly and were pleasantly satisfied with the selection on tap.   Certainly a place I hope to visit again in my next trip to Sydney.

Though not a brew pub, the adjacent Hero of Waterloo – just up the street from the Lord Nelson) – is nevertheless a historically significant and intriguing place to whet one’s whistle.    Officially founded in 1843, the Hero is named after another legend in British History, Lord Arthur Wellington – victor of the battle of Waterloo and (briefly) Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.   Since I live in the city of Waterloo, which borders the county of Wellington, the significance of this historical figure is not lost on me.  According to the blurb on the front of the menu, the pub was “popular” with troops from the Sydney garrison, and thus has seen its share of interesting stories, the most intriguing being the secret tunnel which connects the pub to the harbour front, allowing clandestine smuggling of spirits, beer, and occasionally, drunken patrons who “voluntarily” took the Queen’s shilling and were impressed into the Royal Navy.  Or so the legend goes.
The pub itself is a delightful throwback to the Victorian Era, with its stone walls, multiple fireplaces, and bar staff that seems to represent every vestige of the former British Empire – the bartenders were Scottish and Irish, respectively; the band were playing the best of classic American jazz, and I’m fairly certain one of the chefs is from India.  I’m sure if there was maple syrup and back bacon available, it would have been served just to complete the set. 
The tap list was among the better varieties I’d encountered in my travels – the usual Cascade, Hahn’s Dry and Carlton Draught lagers were of course present, along with at least three or four James Squires ales, and a couple of house specific ales.   I enjoyed a James Squire Porter and (an underwhelming) Hahn’s White, while Michelle sipped on Squire’s Amber Ale and Pilsner.  Prices were about as good as one would expect them to be; indeed, for the atmosphere and location, I’d have happily paid more.  The stone walls provided an excellent reprieve from the early autumn heat, and the band’s tunes kept the evening rolling.  It was at the Hero of Waterloo that our accents and excessive politeness ‘outed’ us as being Canadian, and a gregarious and friendly family of Aussies asked us about our travels, whether we liked the city, and how we were getting on.  But after the pleasantries were taken care of, it was time to ask the big question: “Can you say a-boot”?   Christ...  Good news, though: apparently they found our accents to be quite charming, and they just loved listening to us talk, which is about the same as Canadians feel about Australian/New Zealand accents.   Nice to know that the shoe fits on the other foot.   They told us how much they loved the Trailer Park Boys; I apologized on behalf of Canada for Justin Bieber.  A grand evening all around. 
The Rocks is truly a magical place, steeped in the history and culture of the city of Sydney.  The architecture remains distinctly Victorian, and the streets lined with shops, pubs and restaurants give the district an open-air, market feel.  These weren't the only two pubs worth visiting in the district, of course; down George Street you will find 'The Fortune of War' across the street from First Fleet Park, while those looking for a change of pace can have a stein at the Lowenbrau on Argyle.  Nestled in the shadow of the Harbour Bridge, and never too far away from the Opera House and the gorgeous waterfront, the Rocks is one of the finest places to knock back a few pints in Sydney.  Just be sure not to get too intoxicated, lest you find yourselves swabbing the deck as one of the Royal Navy's newest 'recruits.'


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