There are two crucial members of The Craft & Co team you probably haven’t heard of. Quite possibly the hardest working members of staff at the Collingwood restaurant-deli-bar-brewery, they have been with the company since before the venue even opened its doors in 2015.
Their names are Rocky and Chuck Norris. They spend every day in the kitchen. And they are the sourdough starters.
The kitchen team kicks off each day by creating pizza dough from either Rocky or Chuck, while the other is fed wort from the brews made on the in-house brewery behind the kitchen and given a day to rest. By the time the pizza hits the table you and your girlfriend, business acquaintance or second cousin are sitting at for lunch, it has been in the making for 48 hours.
Head chef Dom Marzano says he had his mind set on sourdough wort-infused pizza bases before they even decided on a menu for the Smith Street venue.
“Chuck and Rocky are older than Craft & Co," he says. "When I was doing test runs in May last year, I had my equipment out in the car park and, every Friday, I would bake. I would do test runs with pizza dough and all sorts.
“That’s how wort and grains got into it, because I started to experiment and decided that it really worked. It fits in with our story and fits in with who we are – the cycle of it is all right there.”
The pizzas – now a staple of The Craft & Co menu – focus on simple and classic ingredients, much like a traditional Italian pizza. But, Dom says, considering their sourdough base and beery leanings, they would never pass muster for an Italian traditionalist.
“But that’s the point really – we want everything here to work cyclically. One element feeds the next, then the next, then the next.”
With that in mind, they make bread with spent grain from the brewery, match cheeses to the latest beers on tap and offer a full pairing menu, with charcuterie and cheeses matched up with beer, wine, or spirits.
As they have mixed up the beer list, the different pairings have evolved from season to season.
“We had a red ale on tap which went with so many things," says Dom. "It was really hoppy and gave really particular notes to certain cheeses. It worked with a brie, carried a wash rind beautifully, and with a blue it was incredible.
“Washed rind cheese loves hops. The more stinky and creative the cheese, the better it goes with hoppy or heavy or rich beers. If you’re into something that’s bold, with cheese and beer it’s a case of the bolder, the better.”
But it is not just the cheese that needs to be considered, as seasonal changes might take the meat or beer in different directions than the team has planned for.
“Because we deal with craft brewers, every brewer has nuances and things they like to do to their beer to give it its own character. The different elements can be endless.
"If you look at Moon Dog, they make things like their pine and lime Splice of Heaven, for instance,” Dom says. “Getting some of those wonderful, crazy flavours to match cheeses or meats is a fantastic challenge.
“Smallgoods and cheese makers have the same kind of mentality, so the variety is huge. Sometimes it all comes down to the milk and the season. If the milk does this, then they try that. You can end up with a really small or limited run of a product, then put it together with something just as limited on the beer side. We change it seasonally, but if you’re dealing with artisan producers, they chop and change all the time. If we only get a limited run of a certain beer, then we’ve got to change it up again.”
Whether for their general menu or a special event – they regularly host classes and dinners – there are certain pairing concepts that are good to refer back to, says Dom.
“There is always an element you can find enjoyable, and everyone will experience it differently too.
“But there are some rules, like that what grows together goes together. Texture and mouthfeel play a role, as do flavours that carry other flavours. You try and get them to match, but sometimes they just need to go head to head.”
There are certain freedoms with beer pairings that can’t always be found in a glass of wine, he says, which can broaden the experience at a beer dinner.
“Traditionally with a wine pairing, you try and make sure it matches and makes the dish and wine walk together in step. With beer matching, sometimes you can really go at it and it becomes even more interesting. They don’t have to match – they can battle each other to see what wins.”
A huge part of pairing comes down to storytelling: how do you explain why the elements were chosen, and what message are they evoking to the guest?
“People really love the story of the bread, and how we incorporate that. At the moment, because we’ve just brewed a pilsner, we have pilsner bread with both the wort and spent grain. People really love that.”
Similarly, anyone familiar with making sourdough is quick to ask what the starters are called.
“You have to name your starter, especially when you get into multiples. I always give them 48 hours to rest. So if Chuck is used today, he’ll have 48 hours before he’s used again. The slower that we brew them, the more flavour we can get,” says Dom.
“Sometimes those points get lost on people. But for people who bake, they always ask, ‘What’s your starter’s name?’
"It’s almost like naming your kids, because that’s the amount of care we treat them with. It would be a catastrophe if we ever lost them. They’ve been with us since day dot.”
If you're a chef or brewer doing cool things with beer and food, why not get in touch with Kerry as we might like to include you in a future Beer Food feature.