Johnathan Hepner is co-owner of Bucket Boys Craft Beer Co. He’s a qualified Cicerone who specialises in importing rare beers from all over the world. We sat down with a Prancing Pony IPA at Titus Jones, across the road from the store.
On becoming a Cicerone.
I was among the first group of people to become a Cicerone in Australia, there were eleven of us who passed the first time. I started studying when I took over the Lord Raglan around five years ago, then I got really serious about it when they made the deal with Cicerone Certification Program.
We started Bucket Boys in the middle of me studying, in the last six months. We formed the business in December of 2015, I took the test in February 2016. After we started the business and actually got the money in the bank, I left Batch [Brewing Company]. They were refurbishing the bar at the time, everything was changing, so it was a good time for me to go. I spent the next three weeks just studying, no job, nothing.
We moved up to the mountains, because we couldn’t afford to rent a place. We were living with my mother-in-law, while my son and my wife and I were sharing the spare bedroom. I would come down here [to Sydney] and stay with my brother Tim for days at a time, going around and drinking beers and studying.
After I took the test, you don’t find out if you’d passed. For the tasting you do, they tell you the answers right after you taste them. But, the best part about it, was that I completely bombed my tasting, I freaked out. I was getting ready to finish up and had little bits of the cups left and I thought, “I reckon this is all wrong.” So, I got a new piece of paper and redid it all and changed a lot of stuff, and ended up missing only one out of the sixteen! If I had turned in the first one, I would have failed.
I would have done a lot worse [with Bucket Boys] if it weren’t for the Cicerone. You leave pretty confident about what you know when you talk about beer. It’s a good confidence boost and that’s why I did it. I didn’t do it for the qualification.
A lot of selling beer is just confidence. It’s not unseated confidence, like the people that go out and bullshit and sell a bunch of stuff. When people come in to the shop, I know that when they leave, they’re leaving with something that is good. It’s good quality, they got what they asked for. I know that, because I have the knowledge.
Imagine someone comes in the shop and they don’t really know what they want, they just give you an idea. You have to filter that through your knowledge and what you have in stock and it’s a lot of work – so you have to know about styles, freshness, different breweries and who makes what beers, and how they’re different from other breweries…
On the aim of Bucket Boys.
I feel like people were taking pieces of what they could do [with a bottleshop], especially in Sydney, but they weren’t doing it well. I wanted people to come in and not feel like they were in a bottleshop. I didn’t want one that felt like a comic book store, where people with beards were looking at dusty old bottles. When you walk in to our store, the first thing you see is everything but the beer. That’s on purpose. We wanted it to be like almost going in to an art gallery, you walk in and have the fridges and the shelves and you can go in and stand and just look. It’s spacious and everything is on display.
Then, there’s the conversation. We want to have a conversation with everyone. That’s why you have to walk past the front counter to get to the beer.
We get people coming in asking for Coronas or something we don’t have, and they leave with something in their hands 95% of the time. We suggest something that tastes similar and ask what they’d usually drink, that’s the conversation. We’re not trying to convert people, but our goal is to not let people leave empty handed.
It’s really fun, because it can be kind of a challenge. It’s like “what are you having [to eat] tonight, let’s try pair it up with something.” BYO opens up so much. “Are you going to eat the pho tonight, or the pork. Do you like spice? Do you like lagers or want to try something different?” It takes a lot of energy, but it’s fun!
It’s not about what you have in store, it’s about locality. The people here like craft beer, because they’re living in the Inner West, and they’re young, so they have energy to drink. Still, if there were five craft beer stores in Marrickville, it wouldn’t affect our bottom line. It’s not about what you have on the shelf – anybody can buy some of the best beers – it’s all about what happens when you come inside the store and that’s what people come back for.
On the secret to beer and food matching.
Just pour Saison Dupont with everything! It’s all you need to know, it’s the Golden Gun of beer.