It’s remarkable how often and over just how many years you can hear about a business – how good they are at what they do – and almost cross paths but still never meet. That said, Chilled Solutions’ work with independent breweries and bars tends to necessitate they won’t be seen: they work behind the bar before businesses open their doors, or appear when nobody else is around.
But just because you haven't spotted them when drinking at your favourite bar, it doesn't mean you've not appreciated their handiwork, as it's an essential part of keeping craft beer flowing.
The Melbourne-based operation specialises in beer taps and refrigeration systems: they design and install bar systems, maintain them, fix them when they're broken, and do just about everything that transports beer from a keg to the (hopefully) perfect pint in your hand.
Behind the business are Bridie O’Brien and Lee Nyssen, who met when working together before deciding to strike out on their own back in 2018. Since then, they’ve built a reputation among small breweries, bars and anyone else who pours booze.
Their professional backgrounds mean they were particularly well-suited to start Chilled Solutions too. Bridie is a beer reticulation technician who spent close to a decade at Cookie in Melbourne's CBD, where she developed a passion for craft beer working alongside one of the city's earlier advocates, John Cope-Williams of Better Beer Imports and SURE Brewing; Lee was a refrigeration mechanic who had previously worked for Coke doing installations and refrigeration before switching to booze installs.
During Bridie's time at Cookie – which had 36 taps pouring beer from the small number of Victorian craft breweries in existence at the time alongside much-lauded international brands – the business expanded into other venues, and her role evolved so she was also looking after beer lines and ensuring the team understood how to look after beer.
“I was training staff at all those venues about maintaining standards and I was really good at the procedures,” she says. “So there became a point where I realised it was my skillset and something I wanted to do.”
It was the kind of experience friends in other venues were keen to lean on too, as Bridie built a reputation as the person you'd call when things fall apart just as service is about to start.
“I’d just pop on down with a few O-rings and two shifters and go, ‘Let me have a look and bang on this for a little while’,” she adds.
When launching Chilled Solutions, the pair were driven by the desire to offer a one-stop-shop as well as a painless experience to the hospo workers she’d formed ties with over the years.
“Hospitality is always word of mouth and I knew a lot of people who were starting things,” Bridie says. “All these kids I came up with were at this stage where they were starting their own businesses.
“We really filled a gap in the market for independent brewers and also venues who want that flexibility of being able to put what they want on tap.”
Lee says those existing relationships meant brewers and venue owners took a chance on them when they started out.
“I think Bridie having that hospo background has been so important with all the connection in the beer industry, but the breweries really supported us early on and had that trust in us,” he says.
“I feel like we filled a gap where there wasn’t that much of a customer-service focus. There wasn’t much after-sales care, the job would get done and that would be it – but we’ll answer your call and sort issues out if there are any.”
In part, that support comes from the training Chilled Solutions offers staff at the four-week mark after an install to help them understand their new, or vastly improved, beer system.
“There’s a lot of education and training people to make sure they look after their stock,” Bridie says. “There’s also a lot of what they can do to limit wastage and run it efficiently.”
They have a staff member focused on servicing systems and their offering also includes working with taproom or bar staff when things go wrong: when they do, they can go wrong quickly with calls and troubleshooting typically reaching fever pitch as the weekend approaches.
“If something worked yesterday, it’s going to work today, so it’s just navigating what’s changed," Bridie says.
“You can have issues with beer systems and then Lee and I walk in and it’s pouring a perfect pint. That’s so infuriating when you’re running a bar because then it’s like, ‘Well, you should have been here last night when there were 300 people trying to get a beer and all I was pouring was foam.'"
Thanks to their complementary backgrounds, they believe their strength also lies in understanding beer systems intricately.
Lee explains: “Because if the beer is warm in a venue, the response is often that you have to call a fridgie because the chiller isn’t working or the glycol is down. But we can just rock in and fix pretty much anything from start to finish.
“But it also means we can design systems properly since we have a really good understanding of the heat-load, and can make sure everything is set up properly without outsourcing anything.”
The systems pouring beer in a growing number of Australian venues is also becoming more complex: Bridie saying handpumps are back in vogue, while they’ve been busy supplying side pulls for breweries looking to pour the perfect pilsner.
But it’s not just beer that makes the work more complex. The team at Good Measure, which opened on Carlton’s Lygon Street earlier in the year, also pours cocktails, sake and prosecco through their taps, all of which require different carbonation levels.
Recently they’ve been working on a particularly substantial job at The Keys in Preston. The leisure centre is set be one of Melbourne’s most impressive venues and includes a vintage bowling alley, arcade, bar and beer garden. It also features 42 taps that are Chilled Solutions’ handiwork; while many of them will pour craft beer, they’ll also feature The Dude’s favourite drink: White Russian.
A milk-led cocktail on tap speaks to the kind of experience bars are increasingly eager to offer and that punters love (presumably not just Big Lebowski fans either). As such, they're challenges Chilled Solutions need to work through. Bridie says it’s not just a case of building the right kind of line – staff really have to understand how to develop the right recipe to make it work.
“Unfortunately, you can’t just pour Kahlúa, vodka and coffee into a keg, put it through a nitrogenated system and expect it to come out like a White Russian,” she says. “There are a hundred-and-one good reasons why you shouldn’t put milk into my beer system, but there are always ways to work around things.
“A lot of it is fine-tuning recipes, finding a stable product and maintaining the system.”
What we enjoy on tap might be getting more complex, yet the infrastructure and support around systems hasn't necessarily kept up – Bridie says beer techs are something of a dying breed. If they had more time, both Bridie and Lee would love to train more people and help raise standards.
“The thing about this trade is that you can’t go and do a course to learn it,” Lee says.
But, as Bridie adds, good beer lines and good maintenance are essential for breweries and venues that want to make sure people keep walking through the doors.
“The customer is more educated now, so the industry does have to keep up to a standard,” Bridie says. “It’s not like 20 years ago where you could say, ‘That’s how the beer tastes – deal with it.'
“Because now someone will smell it and go: ‘Hooley dooley!’.”
You can read other articles in our Collaborators series, which shines a spotlight on businesses existing around the craft beer industry, here.