Wig & Pen duty manager Finn McGrath in the brewpub's ageing room. Photo: Rohan Thomson
It has been an eternity in marketing and advertising terms since beer was looked upon as a tipple exclusive to the working-class man and woman. In recent years, the beverage has moved upmarket in terms of variety, price and snob appeal, but its old association with horny-handed sons of toil continues to haunt those who make, sell and drink it. For proof, one need look no further than the reaction in certain quarters to the announcement that the Wig & Pen is moving into the Australian National University's School of Music, to wit the foyer of Llewellyn Hall.
Some long-term subscription holders to the Canberra Symphony Orchestra, which performs year-round in Llewellyn Hall, have expressed concern that noise and traffic generated by the popular ''brewpub'' will be extrinsic to the concert venue, and that it may corrupt those students, many of them of primary school age, known to frequent the School of Music from time to time. One critic of the move has even raised the possibility that concerts and recitals will be disrupted by brewery machinery and loud rock music.
That reaction – understandable perhaps to someone who has never visited a brewpub or who associates them with the Munich bierkellers – misses the point. The relocation, orchestrated by School of Music director Peter Tregear, is calculated to connect the university and its grand performance space with the wider community as an "arts hub" with the potential to encourage people who would never normally visit a concert hall to consider attending a performance.
Far from being a roisterer's hangout, the Wig & Pen is frequented by people of varying backgrounds attracted by the chance to sample unusual (and well regarded) beers in convivial surrounds. A swag of medals collected at the annual Australian International Beer Awards attests to the fact its brews are intended not for swilling but for imbibing. Nor is it a venue for live or recorded music; and the sounds produced by mashing, boiling, fermentation and filtering are probably less pronounced than those made by a normal commercial kitchen.
The Wig & Pen's present location on the ground floor of Canberra House is shortly to disappear with that building's demolition and redevelopment. The brewpub has had a lengthy association with the School of Music, helping to raise money for student trips and performances. The idea to move it sprang from a campaign by an ANU student for a pop-up jazz club (a temporary club in a non-traditional party space) in Llewellyn Hall. But when Professor Tregear learnt that Canberra House was to be demolished, he and his management team pitched the idea of the Wig & Pen moving in on the ground floor of Llewellyn Hall.
Lachlan McOmish, the owner of the Wig & Pen, has promised that every effort will be made to retain the charm and atmosphere that has helped bring the brewpub to national attention, and has said he is confident that it will not disrupt orchestral performances in its new location. For good measure, he has also flagged the likelihood that the pub's menu will be revised to offer more affordable food for students and staff.
That older devotees of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra might question the wisdom of locating a micro-brewery within the city's premier concert space is understandable. The two are hardly traditional partners. Yet, as Professor Tregear would be the first to admit, Llewellyn Hall is not a venue that is vibrant with activity outside of CSO and other concerts. A licensed bar, plus tea and coffee facilities, generally operates before and during intervals when larger events are staged, but that is pretty much it. So when performances are over, concert-goers generally head straight for their cars and home. The Wig & Pen will give them the opportunity to enjoy a post-concert drink. More importantly, when the concert hall itself is not in use, the precinct will have some much-needed vitality.
Respect for Llewellyn Hall's primary musical role should be uppermost in consideration of changes such as this. But anything that exposes the community to high art, and helps bring life to an under-utilised arts precinct, is to be applauded.