A Shebeen Story

A Shebeen Story

Friday February 22, 2013 Written by Chris

Writer: Chris Harrigan Photographer: Clever Deer

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a good fortune will part with it more easily if he's guzzling alcohol. With the opening of Shebeen, Simon Griffiths and Zanna McComish are maximising this maxim to help projects in the developing world.

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Inspired by the South African drinking sheds of the same name, Shebeen is a not-for-profit speakeasy that provides internationally-sourced beverages to the thirsty public, and donates the profits to a development project in the drink's country of origin.

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The idea started five years ago when Griffiths, who sat on the toilet for 50 hours last year to raise money for his similarly ethical toilet paper start up, joined forces with uni friend and Harvard Business School student Zanna McComish after she returned from volunteering in Tanzania with a desire to turn the notion of not-for-profit on its head.

Last week Shebeen finally opened its warm, booze-hoarding doors on the site of a disused Melbourne jazz club, with the help of a creative team who have donated years of time and vision to pull it together. Interior architects Foolscap have led the way, with The Social Studio and Coco Flip also working to turn the space into a part-ethical, part-boozed-up, part-artistic hub of activity. Next week Moonshine Cinema will begin screenings, with other endeavors to follow. The drinks are already flowing.

Shebeen is located at 36 Manchester Lane, Melbourne. Open Tues-Sun 5pm-late. Moonshine Cinema program and tickets are available here.

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SHEBEEN Q&A - WITH SIMON GRIFFITHS

How long have you been working on Shebeen?

Zanna first mentioned the idea to me on Australia Day, 2007. I spent the rest of that year living and working in Africa, so I tried different beers along the way and jotted down ideas for the bar in a note pad. I returned to Melbourne in 2008 and started piecing together a business plan whilse doing a couple of other things, and in 2010 I really started to work on it seriously.

What was the hardest part of making the project work?

The two most difficult tasks were finding the cash and finding the venue. We ended up raising capital through a number of social investors, who put up their cash on the basis that it could achieve great things socially, but would not create any financial return – it wasn't an easy sell! The remainder of our capital came from product partnerships with Brown-Forman, who produce Finlandia Vodka, Herradura tequila and Chambord; and Schweppes. We owe a lot to our financial supporters.

Finding a venue in the CBD that was the right size and price was the next problem. We ran into liquor licensing issues on our first lease, then entered into a year-long negotiation on our second (and current) lease. It wasn't until November last year that we finalised everything.

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What drinks are you currently serving, and what initiatives do they support?

We serve beer, wine, cider and tequila from 11 different countries and 100 per cent of our profits go back to seven different beneficiaries in those countries. We also have a full spirits bar and cocktail menu. The Shebeen-a-coladas have been going down well.

There are 12 different beers to start with, but we are expecting this to grow to about 20 in the coming weeks. One of my favourites is Windhoek Lager from Namibia, which supports mothers2mothers - an organisation that works to stop the transmission of HIV from mothers to their newborn babies. We've got wines from South Africa and Chile too. The profits from our South African wines go to Room to Read, who work to develop children's literacy skills, and our Chilean wines support Root Capital, who provide loans to agricultural business in poor, environmentally vulnerable communities.

How did you source your products?

A lot of the countries we stock are former European colonies, or have a history of working with European brewers, so they produce really good beer. The tricky part of sourcing was creating a diverse portfolio of flavours – we didn't want to sell 20 beers that all tasted like Asian lager. We've ended up with some great stouts, a darker Vienna-style lager, a more hoppy pilsner, a rice beer, and a few other interesting products. Wine was a bit more complicated. We sourced wines from the Stellenbosch region of South Africa, and also found some beautiful Chilean whites and reds. We are pouring seven wines to start, and the wine list will continue to grow over time. We've worked with some very knowledgeable pallets to ensure the wine is top notch.

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What about the food?

Like the interior of Shebeen, the food is a mish-mash of cultures. We've got a particular focus on jazzed-up Vietnamese style banh mi's, but instead of cold terrine we are filling them with parfait and crispy pork belly, lemongrass and chili marinated tofu with crispy noodles, Moroccan meatball with pine nuts, and Mexican chipotle pulled pork with (our very special) crack sauce. We are also serving free popcorn, and are mixing popcorn salts with flavours from the developing world. The chili lime salt is a winner.

Tell us a bit about Moonshine Cinema.

The space that we've opened to the public occupies less than half of our total venue – it's phase one of a three-phase opening plan. To celebrate the opening of this first phase, we've partnered up with Speakeasy Cinema to co-present Moonshine Cinema. Over the next fortnight we are screening four movies in a part of the venue that we're yet to renovate, all of which have with a musical focus. On Sunday March 3, Speakeasy has organised to screen the Australian premiere of Sigur Rós's Valtari Film Experiment and on Saturday March 2 we're doing a stand up dance party style screening of Girl Walk // All Day – a dance film set to Girl Talk's "All Day".

There's a full feature on Simon Griffiths, Shebeen and Who Gives a Crap in Smith volume three. You can buy volume three here, or subscribe here.