In an somewhat portentous article to kick off 2017, The Crafty Pint published a piece in which, among other things, we suggested there are too many brewing companies in Australia. The reasons are many and related, including a rapid proliferation over recent years, increased competition for tap points and shelf space, not enough new venues to help spread the load and the ensuing and inevitable downward pressure on prices.
Considering that wider picture, you can understand why many breweries that have traditionally been open to gypsy brewers are becoming more discerning when it comes to choosing who they let in to brew; after all, from a strictly commercial perspective, beyond renting some tank space for a couple of weeks, where is the long term benefit to a bricks and mortar brewery in having what is effectively a competitor set up under your own roof?
If, as a brewery owner, you choose to spend an entire day with someone as they learn the ropes in your brewery, that’s too long to be in the close company of a charlatan. You need to actually get along with this person. You want them to bring interesting ideas to the table. You want whatever they’re making in your brewery to be something you can be proud of too. In short, you need to feel some good vibes.
Riaz Shalla gives off good vibes.
The co-founder of the new gypsy brewing outfit Little Alchemist Brewing, who The Crafty Pint first bumped into by chance on a sofa late one Sydney Craft Beer Week evening, portrays an enthusiasm for brewing that verges on wonder. When speaking to him just prior to their first commercial brew day about the prospect of being able to share a beer he’s created, there was a feeling he was about to pinch himself awake from a great dream. Here is someone exuding positivity and with whom a meeting seems better ended with a hug than a handshake.
And that seems a fine way to set the tone for the first of the Who Brews...? series in 2017, our regular feature shining a light on up and coming brewers. So, as they prepare for an official launch en route to some distant magnum opus, here is Riaz to talk about their first wicked creation, putting a touch of magic in every bottle and why Little Alchemist is a bit like the world’s greatest punk cover band…
Name: Little Alchemist Brewing
Who are you?
Who, who, who, who?…. My business partner is Richard Ridge, whose background is in IT and runs the business operations. He’s also proven to be a dedicated product tester. Then there’s me, Riaz Shalla, with a career background in the television industry but having had the opportunity to work with some of Sydney’s local brewers and have a passion for brewing. Our partnership works well in that it allows me to focus on the brewing side of the business and we’re able to bounce ideas off one another.
Where do you brew?
We’re based in Sydney and that’s where we concoct recipes on our pilot system before up-scaling the recipe and travelling to Nowra where we brew with Tim and Tess at HopDog (cue early mornings and road trip tunes!). We’re lucky to have teamed up with them on their 800 litre system which has been fantastic and a perfect size for our first brews. Working with them has been an invaluable learning experience and an absolute pleasure – I would highly recommend popping in to check out their tasting room if you’re ever in the area!
Why do you brew?
Certainly not to make money! Hmmmm, why does anyone brew? For us it’s because we love creating beer that is unique and special that you can share with family and friends. We’re currently brewing bridging beers to get people interested in trying something a little bit different and broadening their experience and palate.
What beers have you released to date?
At the moment we have our Wicked Wit-ch out around Sydney. This is our take on the classic Belgian style ale that's pale and cloudy in appearance. With a small amount of citrus peel and coriander seed added late to the boil the beer has a fresh, zesty aroma perfect for an Australian summer afternoon. We’ll be looking to expand our range in the next few months as we roll from summer into autumn.
What’s the inspiration behind the brewery name?
Originally, we wanted to brew under a different name but, with the hundreds of breweries out there, trying to find one that is unique and means something to you and the customer is pretty difficult.
When I was a kid I loved magic, as I think most kids do, and enjoyed watching or reading anything I could about it. In most stories there was a mysterious character that was able to conjure up magical potions and remedies that always fascinated me. I fell deep into the rabbit hole and couldn't get enough of it.
During high school science classes I was introduced to the art of alchemy. The basic principle of brewing and alchemy are very similar, they are both a chemistry that involves taking ordinary substances and turning them into something extraordinary, which is what we aim to do at the LAB.
Was there a beer or a moment that set you on the path to becoming a brewer?
I’ve always enjoyed sharing beers with friends and family but I had never looked into how it was actually made until one of my friends invited me around to brew a beer. It was a cracking summer's day and I was honestly amazed at how seemingly easy this mystical substance was to create (boy, was I wrong on the “easy” front!).
After our first brew, I went out and purchased all the equipment we needed to set up a small brewhouse in my garage. We’d get our friends together to make weird and wonderful beers and have been doing it ever since.
What beers are in your fridge right now?
Right now my fridge is mainly filled with beer. Besides a few LAB beers, I almost always have Nomad's Freshie Salt and Pepper Gose, which I find a great introductory beer for people who don't like sour beers but are interested. We’ve tried to do something similar with our witbier, making it more of a bridging beer for people who normally don't drink wheat styles.
I also have HopDog's Cherry Bombah!, Yulli's Norman, Rocks Hangman, Exit's Milk Stout and Moon Dog's Pash Rash. Unfortunately, I just finished Fortitude Valley's Pacer which is, in my opinion, the best light beer out there – at only 2.8 percent ABV it’s one you can happily sit on all day.
What would be your desert island beer?
That’s a really tough one because there are so many great beers in the market at the moment. I would be happy if I got stuck with anything from the guys at Grifter Brewing. Their Serpent's Kiss would hit the spot and help me deal with the impending doom of a volleyball being my only company!
If your brewery was a band, who would it be?
I think of ourselves as a brewery that takes the classics and turns them on their head, a little like Me First and the Gimme Gimmes.
Where do you hope your brewing company will be ten years from now?
Ten years from now it would be nice to take on brewing as a full time gig and set up our own brewpub a little closer to home. We want to keep bringing people beers that excite us and hopefully get them excited too.
Where can people find your beers?
Currently our bottles are exclusively stocked at Porters Liquor in Balgowlah, but you’re able to find our beers on tap at multiple venues around Sydney. The best way to find out is looking us up on Now Tapped! Currently we’re on tap at:
You can also try Little Alchemist’s Wicked Wit-ch at their belated official launch on Saturday, January 21, 2017, at The Captain Cook Hotel in The Rocks.