More than a decade after moving into a warehouse in Melbourne's inner northeast, the urban farmhouse and wild ale specialists at La Sirène have opened their doors to the public.
It's been a long time coming, but the appetite appears to be there: after a soft launch for friends and family last Friday, by the time they swung open the barn-like doors at 5pm on Saturday, owners Costa and Eva Nikias found their beer garden filled with 30 people – including a number of families – eager to see what they had in store.
The clue is there in the name they've chosen: Bar La Sirène. The aim was to turn a section of the warehouse on the edge of Darebin Parklands into a space that feels more like a small bar than brewery taproom or cellar door. Look up above the barrels or through the gate at the rear to the green-lit coolship and you know you're in an industrial building, but stood at the bar or sat at one of the tables you could easily imagine you've wandered into somewhere in a CBD laneway or a suburban wine bar.
"Every part of this bar is a reflection of me and Eva," Costa (pictured above with the magnum) says. "We've left no stone unturned. It's a reflection of who we are as people and our vision for La Sirène.
"Someone described it as a little cantina, and it has an industrial wine bar vibe. Being able to sit among the barrels is important."
Certainly, you can't miss the barrels. They're above the bar, form walls, and, in the case of one stack at the rear, feature artwork inspired by the Darebin Parklands and created by Benjamin Knock, the same WA-based street artist whose work decorates the main doors.
Collaboration extends to other parts of the venue too: neighbouring businesses in the Darebin Enterprise Centre worked on the bar – fashioned from French oak "to honour the fact that we exclusively use French oak barrels" – and the furniture inside, which is made with cedar and Oregon wood from Eva's family.
It's been many a year since he's worked in hospitality – other than when hosting events at venues across Australia – but Costa's past serves him well in the new venture. He grew up in and around the bars and clubs run by his dad in Adelaide, and worked as a winemaker before giving in to his passion for saison and making the switch to brewing. And now he has his own the aim is to present an experience in keeping with the elegance that's always suffused La Sirène's beers and brand.
There's a predominantly local wine list featuring a number of winemakers with whom they've collaborated, such as Bannockburn and Dominique Portet, plus piccolos of Lanson champagne – "so everyone gets the right amount of bubbles" – and Chablis available by the glass.
The menu is a mix of 72-hour-fermented spelt pizzas, toasties, house-roasted nuts, cheese and charcuterie, plus tapas-style snacks imported by the team at Movida, and there's a selection of beer cocktails too: Fred Negroni features their Farmhouse Red, Zested Margarita their Zested Sour, and Citray Gin Spritz their Citray Sour, for example. When next winter rolls around, look out for an espresso martini made with Praline.
Of course, most will be heading to Alphington for the beers, and there's plenty to choose from. At time of writing, there are 14 on tap, of which five or six will be on rotation, but they've deliberately left space between taps to add more; don't be surprised to find 20 in a few months.
Accompanying those are at least as many again in can and bottle, including a number of blended wild ales and the brewery's single barrel expressions – my tip would be to grab a bottle of the peachy 011 if there's any left. A selection of beers from their museum collection are displayed on a wine rack, so if you fancy heading back in time give them an hour's notice to crash chill your pick. And there will always be magnum pours on offer – on the opening weekend it was Paradoxe, allowing those so inclined to try the same beer on tap and from magnum.
"Making beer in magnums, or even methuselahs, the geometry of the bottles gives it a fuller fermentation," Costa says. "I get a lot more ester profile and it dries the beer out a bit more."
Arguably the clearest statement of where La Sirène see themselves now, however, is found on the menu. Costa and initial brewing partner James Brown started out with a focus on making saison before the former started broadening his horizons to explore the wider farmhouse ale realm. These days, having developed one of the country's most expansive barrel programs as well as some complex house cultures, and using open fermenters for many of their beers, it's no accident that one fridge is crowned with the words: "FUNKY SOUR & WILD" or that another sign close to the entrance reads: "OAK AGED WILD ALES".
Thus, when you peruse the beers on the clipboard menus you'll find not just the name, style, ABV and price of each but also a guide to just how sour they are. There's the Organic Pilsner, Urban Pale and Praline for those wanted to avoid sourness altogether, yet plenty with a four-out-of-four rating, particularly in cans and bottles, for those on an acid trip.
"The sourness is a by-product of the fermentation characters that are there, so the sourness in our beers tends to be a bit more complex," Costa says, adding that their intention is to lure people who drink wine to try their beers, many of which are inspired by Burgundian whites.
"Putting it on the menu was important as some people get the sourness aspect of beer, but some might not, and because of that we're not going to have people saying, 'Oh, this is sour.' The more wild, funky characters – people can handle that."
It was around five years ago that I stood with Costa looking into a part of the brewery then used for storage, with boxes of bottles conditioning on pallets. He told me then that this was where they were going to open their bar.
It might have taken another half decade to reach that point but, even one weekend in, he's already looking ahead at possible future uses for the rest of the warehouse space: long table feast with a farm of barrels on one side and the coolship on the other, anyone?
Bar La Sirène is found at the Darebin Enterprise Centre, 2 Wingrove Street, Alphington, which is rather handily right next to Alphington train station. Just follow the signs from the entrance to the site. For now, it's open on Friday evenings, Saturday from midday to 11pm, and Sunday during the day.