It's rare to see an institution in Canberra's much-changing hospitality business but the Pot Belly bar must surely qualify. The Pot Belly is nearly 40 - it was established in 1976 - and has been serving drinks to everyone from old Canberra hands who've been watering there for generations to northside newcomers surprised to find a little bar tucked away on a quiet retail strip next to car yards, restaurants and a Laser Tag shop.
Now it has a new lease on life - new owners who are giving it a focus on craft beer and art. They're three couples: Lisa Portolan and Joel Baines, Kym Wojcik and Callum Copeman-Fleet, and Ben McDonald and Angela McKeegan. Baines will be familiar to members of the capital's home brew scene - he's the president of the Canberra Brewers group - and has stocked the Pot Belly's taps exclusively with craft beers, some of which can't be found anywhere else in Canberra.
The dream, initially, belonged to Wojcik and Copeman-Fleet. "We've talked about owning a pub or starting a pub but it's always been a bit of a pipe dream," Wojcik says. "But when we saw this the timing and everything was just right for us." They were drawn to the history of the Pot Belly. "It was a real traditional pub feel which you don't get in Canberra very often. So we really liked the look and feel of the place and felt that it had a lot of potential," she says. They teamed up with McDonald and McKeegan and then tracked down Portolan and Baines as the resident beer expert.
"It was a great opportunity to get into the bar scene and be able to provide that gap with craft beer in Canberra," Baines says. "We've got some amazing breweries that are doing their own thing but not as many bars that are doing craft beers. We get to bring in beers that nobody else has in Canberra so people can get that fix." Among the beers they've got are the Vanilla Milk Stout from the Thirsty Crow in Wagga Wagga, the midstrength Reset Robot, and the Cavalier New World Pilsner ("if you normally drink a mainstream beer that's the best one to get your teeth sunk into"). Copeman-Fleet says he hopes to extend craft beer's presence in the community. "There's only a couple of bottle shops in Canberra where you can go and get a good true craft beer and as far as a venue in Canberra there's nothing that I'm aware of that will do craft beer," he says. Wojcik says the wine and spirits lists will also have a heavily local focus with interesting new drops that people might not have seen before. "Just to begin with our staple is to get some good beers on tap. Our spirits are impressing people with the small variety that's available now and hopefully that will grow," Baines says.
Everyone's still got their day jobs, in IT, running their own businesses, working in the public service and the Australian National University. But they're keen to put a range of live music on stage, including jazz bands, and there will be an "artsmash" later this month in which local artists are invited to let loose on one of the pub's walls. "We wanted to respect the history that was here so that's why we haven't ripped anything out," Wojcik says. "We just gave it a bit of a refresh and put our mark on it but there's so much history here. We want people to come on the journey with us and be open to new things."
Portolan will also host the launch of her debut novel, titled See Saw, at the pub - before taking time off to give birth to her and Baines' first child. There's an official launch party planned for May 30 with tasting paddles, the chance to talk to some brewers, music and a DJ who'll be doing a live radio broadcast from the party on Raw FM. And then it will be down to business, which Baines says will involve more and more locally produced food, drink and art. "It's boutique in all ways and it's craft in all ways."
The Pot Belly's launch party is on Saturday, May 30. Weedon Close, Belconnen.