Taking beer to Australia may seem like delivering coals to Newcastle, but Western Australian hotelier and publican Maurice Brockwell did just that when he introduced the British and Irish theme pub to his compatriots. And so far he has pulled it off in spectacular fashion.
Brockwell's home town, Perth, now boasts three English and three Irish theme pubs. The concepts - two British themes, the Moon and Sixpence and the Elephant and Wheelbarrow, and three Irish, Fenians, Bridie O'Reilly's and Rosie O'Grady's - have proven so successful that each new Irish venue quickly usurps its predecessor to the title of largest Guinness seller in Australia, and Brockwell's latest English pub, the Elephant and Wheelbarrow in Perth's Northbridge, equivalent to London's Soho, regularly has a queue of would-be drinkers snaking its way down the street.
"I had wanted to do a British pub for years. I have always liked the concept, the ambience," explains Brockwell, managing director of the Western Plaza Hotel Corporation, the company which has developed each new pub either singly or in joint ventures with Sydney-based hospitality firm Transmetro Corporation.
"I have never liked Australian pubs, so it was a personal thing to set up the theme pubs," says Brockwell. "At the time people joked with me that I couldn't pull it off. But there are an enormous number of expatriates in Perth. The city's background is very Anglo-Celtic, so the market was worth a punt."
Brockwell's idea was a long time on the table. Having visited the UK during the sixties and seventies he had encountered first-hand the British concept of a public house, finding his ideal on a trip to Wales in 1979. But it was nearly eight years after this trip that Brockwell finally convinced the Western Plaza board to take the financial plunge the concept needed, allowing him to open his first British theme pub in Perth, bearing the same name as its Welsh mentor, the Moon and Sixpence.
Acquiring the lease of the Langley Hotel, Perth, in 1987 was the key to opening the first pub on this corner-of-the-city site. His Irish manager influenced his choice of theme, and so Fenians opened with all the authentic Irish touches gathered by the team of architects who had been despatched to Ireland to research the concept.
"We worked really hard to get the right ambience, the feel, the carpet, the glasses," says Brockwell. "Most of the staff are British and Irish, because our customers like the accents. It is all part of the theatre. It is all part of what makes the pub such a talking point."
The first major difference between Brockwell's pubs and the typical Australian bar is in the frontage. The majority of Australian bars are part of a hotel, and the exteriors do not proclaim the bar's existence. The interiors are usually pared down, with most of the drinking being done sitting at the bar or around high tables with stools. Brockwell's pubs announce their existence in true British and Irish fashion. The exteriors have strong facades, carefully created by artistic signwriters, and are named to be remembered and easily identified. Inside, customers can relax with their drinks sitting in comfortable booth seats around wooden tables, surrounded by plush carpets, brass fixings and knick-knacks. They can also tuck into a menu of traditional pub grub, featuring such delicacies as an Irish or English breakfast with black pudding, or beef and Guinness pie.
Australian drinkers are also getting used to having a whole new range of beers available to them. In addition to the multitude of Australian-brewed lagers, sold at Aus$5.50 (£2.07) a pint, they have the opportunity to taste British ales and beers. The majority of the pubs have 20 British and Irish beers on tap costing Aus$6 (£2.26), including Kilkenny, Caffrey's, Bass, Beamish, Theakstons, Tetley's, Newcastle Brown Ale, and of course Guinness at Aus$4.80 (£1.81) a pint. Compared to the Australian lager, served ice-cold and in a wide variety of glass sizes up and down the country, the traditional pint, served at room temperature even on a blisteringly hot day, is intriguing for the Aussie market.
"What they drink here is lager, extremely cold. British beers are ales, with more body and more taste," explains Brockwell. "There is the theatre of the pint. Creaming ales are served rolling and people love looking at it, watching it settle. Selling patterns vary from city to city but there is a general acceptance of beers such as Caffrey's and Kilkenny. We stock all the Irish beers and also all the British beers that come on to the market."
Yet despite the way Australians, always eager for something new, have taken to the idea of going down the pub for a pint, Brockwell has suffered official resistance along the way. The external facades have caused problems with local government.
"The local council said it would be out of keeping with the other properties on the street," laughs Brockwell as he indicates the assortment of shop windows that adorn Murray Street, Perth, where the Moon and Sixpence is sited. "Then they decided it wasn't English enough.
"We had monumental problems in Sydney. They didn't want such a strong facade on historic buildings, which I can understand, but they said no to other plans too. It went on for months and we had to make major compromises."
But the problems he encountered in Melbourne, one of the most British of Australian cities, did not involve facades and eventually had to be referred to the state parliament for clarification.
"In Melbourne we were the only pub selling pints and that was contrary to the state law. It was a legal weights-and-measures question. I ended up approaching a state minister in order to get it all sorted out," says Brockwell.
And the pints have proved a popular product. Melbourne has four Irish pubs, including three Bridie O'Reilly's, with a fourth due to open later this year. Brockwell also intends to open a British theme pub in the city. He is opening more pubs in Sydney and will soon take the concept to Brisbane, Queensland.
But Brockwell is cagey when asked about the financial success of the pubs. Although he readily proffers information on the costs of setting one up - on average between Aus$1m (£376,700) and Aus$1.5m (£565,100) - he is reluctant to go into detail about consumption levels, even refusing to substantiate his claim that his pubs are the biggest sellers of Guinness in Australia, and ignores all questions about the turnover of the pubs, either individually or as a group. His wariness could be because, like all successes, his concept is in the process of being copied by others keen to jump on the bandwagon.
So just why has the concept worked so well in a country that was already pretty set in its beer-drinking ways? Brockwell believes it is because the pub appeals to new and untapped sections of the market - those who previously never have gone to a pub, and those whose idea of England and Ireland has been fashioned by television programmes such as Keeping Up Appearances and Heartbeat.
"Women love it. It's not macho. They feel safe going to one of these pubs in a group or alone. Many of them would not set foot in some Australian bars," says Brockwell. "I find that younger people, who are used to noise and flashing lights, like our pubs. They feel more relaxed, and this is a part of the market that has had no experience of a British pub."