Melbourne’s La Sirène Brewery specialises in local interpretations of Belgian Farmhouse Ales. It uses traditional techniques, including bottle conditioning, and wild fermentation from Australia’s first coolship fermentation vessel.
Owner/brewer Costa Nikias visited Wellington last week to host a degustation dinner and attend the Pacific Beer Expo. He told Beertown.NZ the story behind his uniquely scientific approach to traditional brewing.
“There wasn’t one moment when I discovered I loved beer. I think I should have picked it when I was at wine school and skipping classes with another student so we could drink beers all day. We kept skipping class to drink great Belgian beers because I was quite fascinated by them, but we still finished the winemaking.
“I became a winemaker, then after a year or so I started to ask if it was really what I wanted to do. I had a lot of pent up creativity I wanted to express, so I went to brewing school at Ballarat and the World Beer Academy in Chicago, and worked setting up breweries, and then I set up La Sirène.
“La Sirène was purely set up as a hobby brewery. We wanted to make our renditions of Farmhouse Ales and really get to understand what it means to be a Farmhouse Ale brewer.
“I was quite intrigued about the flavour profile of Farmhouse beer, and how nuanced it was depending on where it was made, and that had a link to wine that I really resonated with. I was importing it one case at a time from an online distributor, but unfortunately by the time the beers got to us they was half of what they used to be, because they don’t travel well. So we had this hare-brained scheme to make our own Farmhouse Ale.”
Despite setting his sights firmly on traditional Belgian beers, Costa says a lot of his brewing philosophy comes from winemaking.
“I want to understand what we’re doing, I want to drill down deeper. I think I make beer like wine. It’s slow, it’s methodical, it’s an understanding approach. Our bottles and stainless steel crown caps come from champagne techniques.
“Making a beer is a biological system. It’s about understanding how the yeast interplays with the hops and the malt. There’s so many complex reactions that brewers don’t understand. A La Sirène we know a lot more about how our yeast works now, and it’s adapted to our environment, so it’s a lot more predictable. I think we’ve mastered the art of brewing slowly – our first saison took 40 trials to get right.
“We don’t see ourselves as craft brewers, we’re more artisanal brewers and that’s because we make our own rendition of historical styles. We take the time for the beer to be ready before we release it. Our beers take four to five weeks maturing in the tank, then four weeks to three months in the bottle in a temperature controlled room for that conditioning process to happen. I’ve got a batch of saison back at the brewery that should have been released two weeks ago, but we’re not happy with it so we won’t release it until it gets where it needs to be.
“We work for the yeast. The yeast is king in our brewery, it drives everything. All we do is make sure the yeast is happy, it’s well-fed, and it’ll do the job for us.”
Costa and his founding partner set about importing yeast from Belgium, and this is the basis for most of La Sirène’s current range. But Costa was fascinated with traditional wild-fermented beers, where naturally-occurring yeasts and bacteria are encouraged to enter the brewery and do their wild thing. After hundreds of years’ experience, Belgian brewers are able to use the technique consistently, but would it work in an entirely different environment? Finding out takes a lot of time.
“Brewing with wild yeasts is a lot more unpredictable but a lot more exciting. I guess it’s about making a beer with a sense of place. That’s what really drive me personally.”
The wild yeasts blow into the La Sirène brewery from the surrounding area, which has a national park, a plant nursery and a florist.
“We’ve spent about four years collecting indigenous yeast and bacteria, and send them to a lab where they isolate them and analyse their fermentation properties. We’ve caught hundreds and we get a full report on each one. We might pick ten that we think have potential and we do a performance test on them at our brewery. We take the isolate and do a little wort test on attenuation, flavour profile, aromatics, diacetyl, you name it. If it gets the tick, it joins our Culture Club project.
“The Culture Club’s ultimate idea is to have a selection of bacteria and yeasts, all isolated from our own brewery, that we can pitch into anything. Eventually I’d like to be able to prepare a different slurry for different uses, but that’s a long term goal. It will take ten years to work out our own in-house yeasts.
“We’ve been doing hundreds of pilot trials with spontaneous fermentation for four and a half years, and we’re starting to get repeatable results, and that’s when we started to do something with it commercially, hence the wild Tripelle. Version one was our first commercial spontaneous fermentation that we knew would work, we just didn’t know how long it would take to ferment. Version two was the same beer done at a different time of the year.
“It takes commitment. Leaving a bit of wort out in your garden is not going to cut it. You need to do that over a period of time and get lab tests on what you catch. It’s a serious investment in time and resources. You have to be careful because you’re dealing with enteric bacteria. Enteric bacteria carry pathogens that can hurt people. So you need to do testing to identify the good bacteria and bad bacteria.”
Copying ancient Belgian techniques in inner-city Melbourne takes a special approach, and Costa hasn’t visited Belgium to see how the locals do it. “I should go one day, but to be honest, I don’t think I’m ready. I know I’d be influenced and I want to make sure I’m very sure about what we’re doing before I go over there.”
I suggested to Costa it would be a lot simpler to bang out large volumes of New World IPA and be done with it. After all, he also works as a brewing consultant, and knows how to produce craft beer using industry-standard techniques.
“La Sirène is The Siren. It’s a response to a calling to make beer with a passion and to have fun with our styles. I want to make beers that are refreshing, bold, complex, interesting, yet super drinkable. To get something that’s drinkable but complex and amazing and ethereal in nature, you need to work harder to get that.”