The shanty towns stretching the peripheries of South African cities, bars have long been designed to be hidden. Shebeens were illegal during apartheid and were designed to be shut down hastily. In a very different setting on Melbourne's Manchester Lane, a corrugated iron screen lifts up to reveal Australia's first not-for-profit bar, now made permanent after years of pop-ups and fundraising.
Along with the inspiration for the bar's name, the bar’s South African roots grow deep. Venue manager Sharon Custers is from South Africa, while co-director and brains behind the initiative Simon Griffiths also spent some formative years there working on aid projects based around makeshift housing.
"A shebeen is usually four walls made of corrugated iron with someone's mama inside brewing her own beer," explains Sharon. "The vibe is very lively and fun. There's usually entertainment, liquor and live music and we wanted to capture that vibe."
After years in the pipeline, the team finally opened up their iron hatch on Friday and the reception from the public has been electric. The staff are knowledgeable and passionate about the charity organisations Shebeen supports and their enthusiasm is infectious.
When a bartender at Shebeen hands you a drink, not only are they putting a few dollars towards the development of that beverage's country of origin, they're also handing over a piece of local produce and invitation for discussion. When purchasing a Windhoek Lager, the menu will inform that the profits are going to the mothers2mothers campaign, which helps prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS from mothers to their children in Namibia.
Griffiths spent some years travelling and working in the developing world, coming to realise that fantastic initiatives often struggle simply because of the lack of reliable funding. "The notion of Shebeen is to change the channels that allow organisations to develop," says Griffiths. "We want to tap into everyday consumer behaviour in a way that they haven't been able to before." Beverage companies like Schweppes and Brown-Forman and interior architects Foolscap either donated products or gave their time and services for cost price or pro bono. So despite opening Shebeen on an incredibly tight budget, top-shelf tequila, mixers and design have been incorporated into the venue through their willingness to merge with the mainstream.
All the food and cocktails on the menu are inspired by the 11 developing countries being supported through the initiative. Griffiths and Shebeen's bar manager Sam Francis tested several different recipes in his home kitchen in Fitzroy, pickling everything themselves and making sauces from scratch.
At first, an Afro/Asian/Mexican-style bar might sound confusing, but the moment you walk in, all the details come together. Shabeena Colada cocktails are served up in faux pineapple shakers, coats are hung on colourful lobster-shaped hooks, stools are covered in printed fabrics from Kenya and the staff uniforms have been designed by Melbourne fashion house, Alpha 60. Every element of this quirky beach-style bar with a social conscience is just a happy, colourful slice of culture.