An Australian walks into a South African-style bar that bears an Irish name, and is served a Mexican beer by a French waitress from near the Swiss border.
It's no joke. This is the latest addition to Melbourne's popular bar scene, a vibrant alleyway spot with a memorable handle: Shebeen. This old Irish word means an illegal drinking establishment - a sly-grog shop, in Australian parlance.
In South Africa, shebeens were often found in the black townships during the apartheid era, being down-to-earth shacks in which locals could drink, dance and talk. It's this model that entrepreneur Simon Griffiths had in mind when he created his Melbourne bar.


Read more: Feeling the warmth of a coldie



Carved out of the shell of a long-closed live-music venue, Shebeen has a relaxed vibe that's set by itsno-fuss decor: low cane lounges with cushions upholstered with recycled leisurewear, potted plants and chairs that look as if they have come straight from a 1970s garage sale.

The rear wall is painted with giant cartoonish figures, their legs sprouting from coffee cups and hot dogs. Opening to the adjacent laneway is a corrugated-iron hatch that serves the outside tables.

It should seem like a dive, but somehow it's just right, a super-relaxed space with people chatting amiably in the dim interior at the end of a working week.
Chrissie, the French waitress, passes me the thick menu and we chat about the merits of an Indian 8 per cent lager versus the Negra Modelo, a dark lager from Mexico (a mere 5.4 per cent alcohol). However, more is at stake than my intoxication level - a part of every purchase of beer and wine contributes money to international aid projects.

Decor aside, this is the most remarkable thing about Shebeen - it was set up as a "non-profit bar", from which all profits beyond its operating expenses are donated to charity. Each drink on the internationally diverse menu is matched with a charity from its region of origin. That's why the menu is so thick - at its rear are pages of detailed notation about each aid project and who it assists.

Profits from the Indian Haywards lager go to Vision Spring, which provides low-cost eyeglasses to Indians. Root Capital, the charity associated with the Mexican lager, provides credit to small agricultural businesses in Latin America.

Other aid projects on the list include Digital Divide Data, which offers scholarships to disadvantaged youth in Cambodia, Laos and Kenya; and Room to Read, which develops literacy skills throughout the developing world.

How did Griffiths get the idea for such an unconventional venue?
"It was the idea of Zanna McComish, a friend I went to university with," he tells me. "She had been volunteering in Tanzania and was sitting on a beach drinking a warm beer on a broken chair, thinking it was one of the most amazing beers of her life. She said 'Why can't we re-create this back in Melbourne and use the profits to do good stuff?"'

For the project to succeed, Griffiths feels strongly that the bar experience must be impressive.
"To make money for charity successfully, we have to run a good venue. We've tried to make Shebeen a mishmash of the different cultures and countries we work with. There's a lot of Africa, Aztec and Asia in the interior, and also in the music and laid-back service. The idea is that we've created a space that makes you feel like you're in a different country, but you're not quite sure which."

That feeling is enhanced by the eccentric cocktail selection. "We've got an amazing Pineapple Mojito, which will be going onto the menu, and a stretched coconut milk bourbon, which is pretty wild."

Sounds interesting, but my immediate challenge is to choose between beers. Upon deliberation, I decide in favour of the Mexican contender. I'm joined at my table by Ali Alexander, a Melbourne-based jewellery designer.

As we alternate between drinks and the bar's free chilli-flavoured popcorn, we agree Shebeen's charitable model leaves one with a virtuous aftertaste. Just as importantly, it's fun. And memorable.

"The Melbourne bar scene's so great because it's so diverse," Alexander says. "There are so many different types of bars, and this is another type. Everyone can have their own bar. Some people can have lots of bars!"
I'll drink to that. And make a donation as I'm doing it.


Read more: Feeling the warmth of a coldie