Visiting Black Arts Brewing and Blending is a high risk situation. The tasting room is limited to 15 guests at a time because of its neighbour, the Mobil Altona Refinery, and the potential need for fast evacuation.
Lurking deep within industrial Williamstown, it’s also hard to find, small, and rapidly filling with barrels.
With no brewery onsite, they follow a blending and ageing model that feels increasingly familiar. Brands like Wildflower, Dollar Bill, and Molly Rose have established themselves using similar models; and breweries like Boatrocker, 3 Ravens and La Sirène have released a slew of barreled and blended beers over the years, while on the other side of Melbourne Future Mountain are only into week six of their adventure.
However, Black Arts aren't coming in as fresh faced as it may appear. The beer has been in the works since 2014, and components of its first blends are already three years old. Co-founders Michael Leslie (above right) and Joshua Murnane (above left) tell The Crafty Pint they would’ve loved to have been in the market earlier but knew the beer would be benefit if they waited. Fortunately they had time.
“We don’t have anyone leaning over us to say, ‘You gotta release this beer’,” Michael says. “We’re still working day jobs, we don’t need to support ourselves off this yet. We have the luxury of being able to say, ‘I think it needs a couple more months’.”
The pair met while he was working at homebrew store, Grain and Grape. Joshua was a passionate homebrewer who had an epiphany.
“I had a Mikkeller Hues, which was so delicious. Flavours that I had never had in a beer. I had that and was like, ‘I want to know how to do this’,” Joshua says. “So I rocked up to Grain and Grape and said, ‘Who can I talk to about sours?’
"This dude [Michael] was like, ‘I know a bit’ ... and three hours later he was still talking about sours.”
“It wasn’t three hours,” his now-business partner interjects, but concedes it was a big chunk of his day. As they chat, interrupting each other and going off on tangents, you get the sense that first conversation never actually stopped. The pair just kept talking.
Since then, Michael has worked at Stone & Wood, 3 Ravens, Hawkers and the Clifton Hill Brewpub. He’s now head brewer at Riders, where the wort for Black Arts is currently brewed. Joshua was co-owner of beer-centric Footscray restaurant Fox in the Corn before selling his share of the business. He spent time behind the bar with Stomping Ground, and Slowbeer, before a stint brewing at Red Dot. Now he works the canning lines for East Coast Canning.
The first two Black Arts releases are inspired by Belgium. Golden is a nod to Cantillon Gueuze, while Red looks to Rodenbach. However, the intention is to make sure the products are their own thing, despite the influences. As a result, the Golden has a beautiful tropical pineapple aroma derived from brettanomyces, and the red is has less vinegar character than a Rodenbach.
“We picked all the flavours that we thought would complement each other the best," Michael says of the Golden. "Especially the brett character. Brett is a big love of mine.”
To achieve the results they used a grab bag of yeast and bacteria: some commercial cultures, some wild ones the pair collected while homebrewing, and some cultured bottle dregs from lambic producers. The plan is to keep reusing and blending these cultures until there is a house style they both agree on. That means the beer will evolve for each bottling.
“Every vintage is going to be completely different. We’re using the same process, we’re using the same ageing time, and the same palates.” Michael explains. “There are going to be similarities but we’re not stressed about making the same beer time and time again.
"We’re going to make the best beer we can from the barrels when we’re ready, and release that.”
The makeup of the barrels themselves will also evolve. Right now it’s a mixture of small format 225 litre barrels, 300 litre hogsheads, and 500 litre puncheons. The latter is where they want to grow the program. Joshua has been working away over the last three years, contacting everyone who was selling barrels on Gumtree, trying to make connections. Now, he says, every few months he gets an email offering him a stack.
For now, the first beers will be packaged in limited availability. Only 1,073 Golden and 804 Reds will be available. There will also be kegs and at the tap room they will showcase dry-hopped and fruited versions, while a bottled apricot fruited variant is also on the way. In addition, there are plans for wine and beer hybrids, plus koelschip beers using a copper koelschip onto which Joshua has welded a lid. The plan is to inoculate the beer in different parts of Victoria, before closing it and driving it back to the brewery.
Anyone keen for an early taste can head to the brewery's twin launches on May 4 at Carwyn Cellars and their taproom – registration needed for the aforementioned safety reasons.
Post launch, the beers will be on sale at Carwyn Cellars, Mr West, and Grape and Grain. If keen to buy from further afield, bottles are also available online and for takeaway at the taproom, which will be open the first Saturday of each month at 4/63 Macaulay Street, Williamstown North.