After a tumultuous seven weeks that would make a roller-coaster feel queasy, the team at La Sirène are set to reopen the doors to their bar later today – an event they feared would never take place after they were locked out of their brewery with just two hours notice last month.
Costa and Eva Nikias and their team will be pouring beers at their Alphington home from 5pm after regaining access to the building on Wednesday, but the future of the popular "urban farmhouse" brewery remains far from certain.
Along with more than a dozen other businesses impacted by the closure, their lease has been terminated by the landlord, Melbourne Innovation Centre, and they've been given 90 days notice to vacate. Their hope now is to open dialogue with the City of Darebin – the local council responsible for the initial closure – and attempt to secure a new lease with them on the building in which they've been brewing for more than a decade.
"It's been a really difficult time. There's been so much uncertainty," brewery co-founder Eva told The Crafty Pint. "There's been a lot of detachment; you get numb, not knowing where your compass is, with everything turned upside down.
"We were completely blind-sided, given two hours to leave the premises, to tell staff we're not operating. It's been devastating, completely debilitating."
That they're able to welcome guests once more follows a court challenge against the City of Darebin by the Melbourne Innovation Centre, which took the local council to VCAT seeking an injunction that would allow traders back in; as reported in The Age on December 22, they were successful. As a result, locks were removed on January 5 and traders were allowed back in this week, a move that saw the La Sirène team scrambling to have their venue ready to open today.
They plan to welcome patrons on more days than last year while they seek a permanent solution, but already the impact on the business is significant. They lost trade at what is typically the busiest beer-drinking time of the year; beer that was in tanks at the time of the closure has spoiled; they've had to switch off accounts with major retailers; and there's the cost of getting the brewery and bar operational again after sitting idle for weeks.
To date, Eva says the impacted businesses have only been given $20,000 in compensation in total – roughly $1,300 for each business.
"We have to get everything cranking again and try to get as much beer stockpiled in case we have to move immediately," she says. "Then figure out whether we have to find new premises.
"We found out on Tuesday night we could go back in on Wednesday, so in three days we've switched it all back on. The support we've had from staff and family and friends, and the messages we've received, have been overwhelming."
To recap the story of Bar La Sirène to date, the years-in-planning venue opened inside the building housing their brewery at the start of October, blending the vibes of a laneway wine bar with an industrial taproom. It instantly attracting plenty of positive media coverage as well as praise from the public.
Two months on from opening, the brewery team announced via their social pages that they'd been forced to close their bar indefinitely "due to circumstances beyond our control". The local council then put out a statement claiming asbestos long known to be within the walls and roofing of two buildings at the Melbourne Innovation Centre at safe levels had now been deemed unsafe, which had led them to lock out more than a dozen businesses with immediate notice. Following that, MIC management brought in a team to conduct further tests who stated the buildings remained safe; Eva says subsequent assessments by WorkSafe and the Environmental Protect Agency (EPA) confirmed their findings, which led to the reopening.
During the lockout period, businesses feared they'd never regain access to the premises. Owners were asked to provide lists of items they'd like removed from the buildings and returned to them – if they could be removed safely – which was of little comfort to Costa and Eva; you can't realistically pick up a brewery, barrel room, bar and coolship then start up somewhere else, after all.
Some of the impacted tenants have been relocated, while some aren't seeking to remain onsite, but others like La Sirène hope to stay on. In the brewery's case, it's not just the logistics and the cost involved in a move: many of their beers celebrate the adjacent Darebin Parklands. They use open vessels and a coolship for some releases, a process which allows local microflora to contribute to the fermentation process, so to move would see them lose part of their unique story.
With the popular and long-running Alphington Farmer's Market taking place on land adjacent to the MIC, Eva says: "If there's going to be a bigger food and community hub, it feels like we would want to stay there too as there are people who see us as part of the community in Alphington.
"We know that people have loved [having the bar here] – it's been an instant love affair. I was fixing up the flowers yesterday and this couple in their Ute drove past and asked if we were opening this weekend. They said it was fantastic and they were really excited."
As they prepare to pour their first beers in weeks, Eva expressed gratitude for the support they've had from the community – both local to the brewery and the wider beer community too. It's the sort of support and advocacy that may prove crucial in their attempts to secure a new lease.
She also says the reaction that followed the sudden closure last year, showed her and Costa they'd "created something meaningful and valuable to people."
"Maybe we mean something in this space," she adds. "Costa and I are humble at the end of the day in the sense that we've just focused on our little project. Hopefully, council will reach out to us and start a dialogue as we do see ourselves as brand Alphington and part of the community."
Bar La Sirène opens at 5pm today at 2 Wingrove Street, Alphington, then from midday to 6pm tomorrow. From next week, opening hours are Wednesday to Friday – 5pm to 11pm; Saturday – midday to 11pm; Sunday – midday to 6pm.