To even the casual observer, it seems like the craft beer scene in Wollongong and the surrounding NSW South Coast region has been going from strength to strength. The likes of Illawarra Brewing, Dusty Lizard, Five Barrel, Resin Brewing and Reub Goldberg Brewing Machine have been joined in recent months by Seeker and Principle Brewing, while independent breweries can be found along the coast all the way to the Victorian border.
Indeed, so vibrant is the tourist region's beer scene that it even has its own beery travel guide in the shape of the South Coast Ale Trail which highlights its appeal beyond the natural beauty and beaches.
Further bolstering the area’s craft credibility and love of all things local is the arrival of Mogwai Labs, a new liquid yeast business launched by Josh Allen. Josh is neither new to the beer industry nor to lab work: he was one of a trio of mates who launched Sydney’s Merchant Brewing Co in 2015.
Although Merchant is no longer operational, Josh’s time brewing across Sydney was the initial spark that led him to launch Mogwai. Back then, he often found it a challenge to get hold of specific yeasts he had in mind for beers.
“There was always the struggle of getting it from overseas, or you have to [propagate] it up from homebrew pitches,” he says. “Being a gypsy brewer, those limitations are even more highlighted.”
Beyond brewing with Merchant, Josh’s career has left him well-placed to start a yeast business. He spent's more than ten years in medical research focused on cancer cell replication biology and neuroscience; before that, he studied biology at the University of Wollongong, and recently moved back to the coastal city from Sydney for a change in lifestyle.
The Mogwai name itself is inspired by the movie Gremlins* – Josh says he likes the way the connection ties into the important role yeast plays in fermentation. As fans of the film will know, some pretty significant changes occur to the mogwai if you feed them after midnight.
“It’s about transition and change where, when you add yeast, you’re creating a product,” he says.
The new business is based at the University of Wollongong's iAccelerate innovation centre, where Josh is aiming to provide a diversity of yeast types to brewers.
“We want to focus on the entire brewing spectrum, so from your common yeast strains, right through to wild and foraged yeasts or mixed cultures,” he says.
Mogwai’s library includes domesticated yeast strains, such as those suited for classic English ales, Belgian beers, hazy IPAs, and a Norwegian kveik variety. Largely, the strains chosen are favourites of Josh’s and some of the most popular in modern craft brewing. As with the business name, their titles are largely inspired by pop culture: Bodhi, for example, is a California ale strain named after the character in Point Break.
The library is continually expanding with Josh keen to work closely with brewers and discover what other strains he can make available from his lab.
As with many Australians preparing to launch their own brewing companies, Josh made a trip to North America three years ago to study the small-scale yeast industry. But over the last 12 months or so, his focus has been more local, working closely with the likes of Five Barrel and Reub Goldberg Brewing Machine to see how the yeasts perform in the real world.
“Being a new business, I’m really craving and looking for as much feedback as possible,” he says. “Both those breweries have been amazing in regard to that – and that’s for better or worse; yeast can be pretty subjective in terms of performance and there are just these ongoing conversations about how the yeast is going.”
Looking ahead, the plan is to get yeast into the stainless of brewers further afield too, and beyond selling classic strains, Mogwai has also been built to help breweries address issues with yeast and to store brewers' own strains for safekeeping.
“If you’re a brewery with this unique house strain,” Josh says, “that is your magic source to all your beers, and you need a safe place to store it. We can offer that as well. Then breweries have access to it, either just for them or for whoever wants to use it.”
He's also been building up a collection of locally-foraged yeasts for brewers. With a growing number of brewers and beer drinkers looking to buy and support local, he sees the ability to offer a yeast sourced from Australia’s own environment, rather than something that originated overseas, as a really exciting tool for brewers to harness.
“Yeast is the final frontier in regard to that,” Josh says. “So, to be able to help a brewery, whether it’s around the Illawarra area or not, to forage a local wild strain here means they can produce a truly unique, local product.”
The process of foraging for yeast that might result in a quality beer is a pretty slow one – both a lot of work and hit and miss.
“The act of foraging is quite a simple process,” Josh explains. “Usually, it’s a bush walk where you’re taking swabs or collecting what you need. But getting those samples back to the lab where you start processing them, well, I’ve got this crazy amount of samples at the moment.”
Anyone keen to try one of Josh’s foraged yeasts won’t have to wait long: Five Barrel's GABS 2022 release features yeast foraged from the Wollongong area. Farmhouse Ale isn’t just made with local yeast either, with fresh hops from the South Coast and barley grown and malted in New South Wales also part of the brew.
Five Barrel founder Phil O’Shea says the idea for the beer had been on his mind for some time, stemming from a desire to spend more of his time as a business owner working with local ingredients suppliers.
“I’ve really wanted to get out to the hop farms, grain farms and malting, and really learn more about our ingredients,” he says, with the beer itself starting to take shape last year.
“Everywhere [Josh] goes he sees something and takes a sample,” Phil says. “He had access to some local Australian golden wattle, so he took some samples from there and isolated out some yeast strains.”
Farmhouse Ale is Five Barrel's first GABS beer in their six-year history too.
“We wanted to do something that really played to us as a brewery, so it made sense to do something that was really interesting for us,” he says.
The mixed culture beer uses two strains isolated from golden wattle by the beach in Port Kembla and both are lachancea thermotolerans - which makes them the same genus and species of yeast as the popular Philly Sour - while each produces different flavour and souring properties. Phil found one to contribute more sourness than the other, and the less sour strain out-competing the other to produce an ester profile he’s particularly keen to return to in other beers.
“The beer has come out quite funky, and it's got a lower pH but not tart enough for us to say it’s a sour beer, so it’s more of an Australian farmhouse beer,” he says.
“It has some of that phenolic quality and a really nice ester profile with this amazing citrus quality. I genuinely imagine it would work quite well in a hazy-style IPA because the fruit you get from this yeast really smacks you in the face.”
Alongside Mogwai’s cultures, the beer uses fresh Centennial from Ryefield Hops in Bemboka and malt from Voyager, with Phil making the journey to both locations with his brewers and finding himself energised by the experience of getting so close to the raw ingredients.
“On the way back from the trips, we were so pumped and buzzing and had so many ideas for things we wanted to do,” he says.
It’s an excitement that extends to the wider Mogwai project too.
“One of my criticisms of the industry was the lack of a supporting industry,” Phil says of his early years in the industry. “We imported growlers from the States and didn’t have a yeast lab here or anything like that.”
Since he started working with Mogwai close to a year ago, the door to the brewery has been left open for Josh, and the Five Barrel team has embraced the ability to get lab support when it comes to quality control too. What's more, he believes for the industry to flourish breweries need to make sure they invest in other small businesses.
“I feel like it’s something that genuinely needs to be supported and developed in the industry,” Phil says.
“In the wine and the spirits industries, the heritage and the story of the product is just so bloody important to make you stand out, and beer is no different. I think we all need to recognise that, take it on board, and use local wherever possible.”
Given Australia’s advanced manufacturing capabilities – of which Mogwai are an example – and the prime hop and barley growing regions located in different parts of the country, Phil believes the local beer industry has plenty to be excited about.
“I’m just so pumped for the future of beer in Australia,” he says. “We can do so much of the hard yards ourselves, we just need to recognise the investment is worthwhile. And that starts with breweries like us using local wherever possible.”
You can view other entries in The Collaborators series, including a story about Melbourne-based Bluestone Yeast, here.
*We have to admit to some disappointment among The Crafty Pint team that Mogwai Labs takes its from the movie rather the Scottish band, but given the band is named after the movie, we'll still take that as a win of sorts.