Skip to Content

Day 6, Australia, Friday NIGHT: Sydney Pub Tours

Photo courtesy of Lord Nelson Brewery.

For most of the first week, we were dead tired by evening and up early in the morning. Friday night was the first time Erik and I ventured out after dark, to join Sydney Pub Tours, which combined tasting good beers with learning the city’s history. It was pricey at $255 Australian, but well worth the splurge.

We were a few minutes late meeting our group at one of the historic pubs in The Rocks, leading our guide to call me on my Google Voice number. Because we were carrying a Tep Wireless hotspot,* we were online, and my phone actually rang, which was the first time this had happened with a local call from Australia. We hadn’t realized before the trip that getting a call from a few yards away would be more exciting than getting a call from the United States, which had already happened once (while we were at Taronga Zoo, we talked to the contractor working on our house).

Soon we were crowded around a table in the back room of The Mercantile Hotel, an Irish pub where, our chipper guide Gaz told us, had once hosted U2 on a tiny stage for a press conference. There we sipped the first of five pints that came with our tour price, and met our pub crawl companions, who turned out to be a couple of young me who had brought their dad and uncle for Father’s Day presents, and who also worked for the tour company. I was the only female. These guys were all nice, but I was kind of disappointed that we had been tacked on to a group who was otherwise having a family night out. Fortunately, our guide was a pretty cool guy, so chatting with him made up for any sense of being the odd couple out. Also, beer helps you make best friends with anyone.

We left the Mercantile and walked to The Australian Heritage Hotel, Gaz pointing out historical features of The Rocks neighborhood on the way. We wished we’d visited The Rocks on our own after taking this tour, because it was with Gaz that we really understood what those old foundations with oversized furniture, where the kids had played a few days earlier, really were. They were the actual footprints of the workers’ homes that filled this entire neighborhood, cheek by jowl, and each held a family of 10 people or so.

The Australian boasts 160 Australian beers, as well as a well-preserved vintage building. We ate a pizza dinner here as well as drinking a second beer. We each got an individual pizza with a choice of kangaroo and crocodile. Of course Erik and I got one of each so we could taste the exotic meats. They tasted, well, fine. Pretty good pizzas.

Over dinner, we got to know our tour mates a bit. The two dads were immigrants from England. This surprised me a bit because you always think of Australians having come over 100 years ago, maybe as prisoners. But they were not the first English immigrants we met on our trip, so apparently new Britons are turning up there all the time.

Leaving the Australian, we passed some old government-owned houses that our guide told us the feds were trying to force low-income people out of, since they had amazing harbour views and could be renovated to sell for millions. There were some protest signs in the windows.

Next came The Glenmore, which was really more of a whiskey bar. It was a glamorous building with multiple levels. The real attraction here was the view of the Opera House out the upstairs windows. While we sipped our beers and looked out at it, one of the guys on our tour (who also worked as a tour guide) told us he’d figured out what building housed the dentist office depicted in the movie Finding Nemo as across from the Opera House. He whipped out his phone and we almost spit out our beers when he showed us a picture of the little brown building we were staying in.

We tried to tell him that we were staying in that building, but between the noise and the beer I don’t think he really got it because he was not in the least amazed by the coincidence. He kept telling us that there was really a dentist office in that building We didn’t have the heart to tell him that there was definitely no dentist office in the building, only apartments. Later in the trip, we had the chance to watch Finding Nemo, and we realized that the “real” location didn’t exist, because the Sydney scenery in the drawings is kind of a hodge podge, but if it were anywhere, it would be farther out toward the ocean than our dentist-less building was situated.

Nemo view.

Actual view from our little brown building.

Also while standing around in The Glenmore, our guide explained the gross story of why so many vintage hotels in Sydney have tiles on the walls. It’s because of “the six o’clock swill,” a law that was put into place during World War I to discourage excessive drinking. It backfired. See, the Australian government decided that all pubs should close at 6 p.m., which means that if you got done working at 5, you raced to the pub and downed as many beers as you could in that one hour. You were going to waste your time fighting your way outside to the redback dunny (the outhouse — more on that later). So you just pissed where you stood, and innkeepers decided that tile made for easier cleanup.

// up, Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel, a castle-like stone block building that bills itself as “Sydney’s oldest continually licensed hotel still trading within its original fabric,” and was the only actual brewery on the tour. This place was hopping and it was getting harder to hear our guide, but we really enjoyed this place. We learned that one of the ales they make, Quayle Ale, is named after that hapless U.S. vice president, who had spent a day touring around Sydney and then told a television interviewer that his favorite part had been tasting an Australian beer here. When he returned the next day and asked for the same thing he’d had before, they said, “You mean Quayle Ale?” And he, not realizing he was being teased, said, “What a coincidence!” After telling the story for years, they eventually decided to create a real Quayle Ale. It was a nice light wheat beer, and I enjoyed it. You can only get it there.

Why are all these places called hotels when they are actually taverns, you might ask? Our guide explained that too. In the early days of the country, only hotels were granted liquor licenses. Maybe the officials wanted local businesses to make money selling alcohol to passers-by, but not corrupt local families? At any rate, as today, selling drinks is more profitable than renting out rooms. So anyone who wanted to have a pub would be required by law to operate a hotel, even the “hotel” was just a couple dusty rooms upstairs that were never used. Nowadays, that’s no longer the law, but the name has stuck to these old places.


Our final stop was The Hero of Waterloo Hotel. I believe this is where we tried some James Squire beers, including 150 Lashes Pale Ale, and learned the story of the name behind that brand. Squire, who had been a saloon owner back in England, was a prisoner transported to Australia for punishment. Caught stealing from the colony hospital, Squire explained to authorities that he had only been trying to brew a bit of beer. The officials running the colony were delighted to realize they’d finally managed to arrest someone who knew how to brew beer. In order to keep his beer flowing, Squire was given not the expected sentence of death for his theft, but 300 lashes, 150 right away and 150 after he recovered from the first bout (so as to prevent him from dying and not being able to make any beer).

After getting served, we were able to escape the crowd and slip down to the empty cellar, which is not open to the public. This was the coolest part of our tour.  According to our guide, the cellar was originally meant to be the ground floor — it has a fireplace — but before a roof was put on, a storm filled it with rain, and the prisoners making the stone blocks were just told to build up higher. There is a sort of cell down there, which is said to be the entrance to a tunnel that once ran to the harbour, where drinkers shanghai’d at the bar could be transported secretly to ships.

Down there, where it was quiet, Gaz was able to use the blocks to illustrate a discussion of how long it took prisoners to chisel them out, and why many of them are covered with markings. The reason, he said, is that prisoners were stealing completed blocks from one another. To prevent that, their jailers began requiring each prisoner to mark his block all over with a distinctive marking. You can still see these markings on blocks all over Sydney.

When our tour was done, we went back upstairs and hung out with Gaz a bit, chatting, while Erik tried another beer (five was more than enough for me — I had to give him my last one to finish). Gaz’s wife, an American from Minnesota, turned up at the bar with friends, and we got to meet her too. They were a charming couple, and meeting them was half the fun of the tour. Well, learning all that history and tasting all those beers was a lot of fun too, so maybe I should put meeting them at 1/3 of the fun.

Oh, and a miles note before I go today: Before going to Australia, I applied for the Arrival+ Barclaycard, in part because it does not charge foreign transaction fees, in part because it has a chip, which was not yet standard on our other cards last fall. You can use the chip with a PIN, which I was hoping would make it easier to use in machines in Australia, since I had had difficulty using a regular credit card in terminals in Europe. In reality, I had very few transactions that asked me for the PIN, but oh well. This card allows you to redeem points for any qualifying travel expense over $100. Because Sydney Pub Tours is a tourism company, this tour turned up as a “travel expense” on our credit card statement, it turned out to be the only qualifying expense from the whole trip. So we actually got this trip free by using about half of the 50,000 points we got for getting the card and spending $3,000.

* Tep provided me with their wireless hotspot free in exchange for writing about the device.