Late in 2011, a buzz started spreading around the Melbourne beer cognoscenti that there was a hot new beer in town, a saison that had appeared all of a sudden. Bearing the name La Sirène and packaged in champagne bottles decorated with artwork of an elegance not usually found in the beer world, it was impressing all who tried it. Being avowed saison fans at The Crafty Pint, we hunted down its maker, brewing consultant Costa Nikias, and were soon sharing a coffee with him.
He told us how he and a mate, James Brown, who had met while studying winemaking, had decided to turn their passion for Belgian style ales into a small commercial venture. They'd done it properly too: hunting down via contacts in Europe their own unique saison yeast strain, which they purchased from a family in a small European village and air-freighted to Australia. The first sample failed to survive the trip intact; the second didn't, taking up residence in a lab at the university where microbiologist James worked.
It was quite the tale, but would the beer match up? We moved to a suitably elegant location (OK, the boot of Costa's old school Merc in a Collingwood side street), he pulled a chilled bottle from the boot along with two beautiful stemmed, branded glasses and out poured this glowing orange nectar with the most towering of fluffy white clouds as a head. Let's just say the beer matched up: a delicate, subtle yet complex delight that rivalled any saison ever produced in Australia.
We became instant advocates, encouraging friends to try it whenever they saw it. Which, over time, wasn't that often.
With Costa spending most of the time focused on his brewing consultancy business and James busy at the university, their trips to brew at Jamieson Brewery, in the Victorian High Country, were few and far between. For them, despite the acclaim – which only grew with each new release – it was a hobby as much as a passion. At least for a while.
In 2013, Costa decided it was time to give the people what they wanted. In between fitting them for others, he installed his own brewery in an old tank-building factory in the Melbourne suburb of Alphington, James departed and Costa's wife Eva stepped in. Since then, the focus has switched increasingly to La Sirène, output has grown significantly, more warehouse space has been leased and a rather large amount of oak barrels have been gathered. The barrels have been selected by their cooperage rather than for what was once inside them, a legacy of Costa's time in the wine industry (and his geek like obsession for detail).
For the most part, the beers tended to be variations on a theme: a wild saison, Super Saison, the Fleur Folie honey saison, an annual Saison Noel. But increasingly, the La Sirène wings have been spreading. A Belgian stout featuring cocoa, vanilla and hazelnuts called Praline took out People's Choice at the 2014 GABS festival before an experiment with spontaneous fermentation, barrels and cherries led to a delicious Kriek. And since then little has been off limits, whether that's been releasing highly-hopped farmhouse pales, sessionably low ABV wild ales in cans, or all manner of wild and spontaneous ales celebrating their local environment.
The beers are lapped up by beer lovers and those who don't usually drink beer in equal measure, with fine dining restaurants finding a home for the beers. The experts agree too, with the original Saison (now Flor Saison) taking out Champion Belgian and French Ale at the inaugural Craft Beer Awards.
Setting out to brew nothing but Belgian farmhouse style beers in Australia is a ballsy move. Sending those beers into the world in clothing more akin to wine equally so. Yet, with Australians warming to such styles and having set impeccably high standards, it looks like paying off in spades. That the brewery is ten minutes walk from Crafty Towers – and now comes complete with a bar open on weekends – doesn't hurt either.