La Petit Rocher's Belgo-Brisbane Beer

July 2, 2024, by Mick Wust

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La Petit Rocher's Belgo-Brisbane Beer

When you come to La Petit Rocher, you need to leave your expectations at the door. Because when you hear about a Belgian-inspired brewing project by beer legends Ian Watson and Rocky Reed, you might expect all their beers to showcase traditional Belgian flavours.

You’d be wrong.

It’s not that they don’t know what they’re doing. Ian and Rocky have more than 35 years of beer industry experience between them, as well as an obsession with Belgian beer. Case in point: when we meet up at Saccharomyces to talk for this article, they’re wearing matching “Saison” t-shirts. And the moment Rocky sees Saison Dupont is on tap, she stops reading the beer list and immediately orders it for the three of us.

But while they love the old favourites, and do draw inspiration from various Belgian beers and breweries, Ian and Rocky aren’t setting out to replicate Dupont or follow BJCP style guidelines. With La Petit Rocher, they’re making “contemporary Belgian-inspired beer,” bringing together traditional European brewing methods with modern ingredients and processes. 

While they’re playing unexpected riffs on some of the classic styles – and even creating their own hybrid non-styles – the idea isn’t so much to depart from tradition but to be in sync with the spirit of Belgian brewing.

“I want people to know that [Belgians] are the great adaptors of the beer world,” Ian says. “Belgian beer, we think of it as this ancient thing. And it is! They’ve had a strong beer culture for a long time. But if you were to go back 100 years, or 150 years, while we would recognise it as being Belgian beer, we wouldn’t recognise the styles as being the styles.”

If you ask him, Ian will gladly talk you through how Belgian brewers have rolled with the times, and how historical events have influenced the ingredients and styles and flavours of Belgian beer. And it’s this always-evolving, just-try-and-stop-us attitude of Belgian brewers that’s really struck a chord with Ian and Rocky. The DNA of La Petit Rocher holds a mix of old and new, of tradition and inspiration and innovation, of being fancy yet rebellious.

“Rocky is one of the most elegant and refined people you could ever meet: the most beautiful woman in the world," Ian says. "I come from a dirty-down punk rock background. And that’s what LPR is.

“It’s that blend of elegance, sophistication, and – the term seems cliché, but – a rock ’n’ roll party, at the same time. And we have got that down in our actual business plan itself, our own mission statement and executive summary.

“Which is a very un-rock ’n’ roll thing to say!”

 

It's a party. It's sophisticated. It's vandelier.
It's a party. It's sophisticated. It's vandelier.

 

This cool-yet-glamourous, luxurious-with-street-cred vibe is at the heart of LPR. They’ve even invented their own term for it, complete with its own entry on Urban Dictionary: vandelier (rhymes with “chandelier”).

“We’re trying to get it out there,” Rocky says with a grin.

If it’s not clear already, Ian and Rocky do want to capture a touch of classiness with the La Petit Rocher brand. The logo includes a cut diamond; the label of their first packaged beer – One Night Saison – has a gold sequin look; and while they’re canning for now, in the future they’re keen to put their beers in tall, sexy bottles.

“Our tagline is: ‘Biere for the Bon Vivant,’” Ian says. “For someone who wants good times and luxury … but it’s a luxury you actually can afford.”

La Petit Rocher beers aren’t so much beers to be cellared as beers to be celebrated.

As Rocky puts it: “It’s that classic saying: ‘Don’t save the bottle for a special occasion. Open it, and that makes the special occasion.’ You hear that about a nice bottle of champagne all the time, or a nice bottle of wine, and the same goes for a bloody good bottle of beer.”


La Petit Rocher's Beers

Extra Special Belge and Queen of the Night
Extra Special Belge and Queen of the Night.

 

Speaking of opening bottles: 20 minutes into our interview, Ian turned to me and asked: “You want try some beer?” 

His voice was tingling with illicit excitement, like he was trying to sell me a stolen watch. I almost expected him to flap open his trench coat and reveal that it was lined with bottles of beer. Instead, he pulled a couple of beer bottles from a paper bag.

“This is XSB – Extra Special Belge.”

I lifted the amber ale to my nose, (perhaps foolishly) expecting the familiar malt-forward aromas of a special Belge. When a wave of new world hops slammed into my face, I was taken aback – Rocky and Ian laughed.

“It’s not a special Belge,” Ian says. “It’s an extra special Belge!”

The malt base is influenced by Belgian pale ales such as De Koninck and Palm, and the yeast comes from Orval, but Ian says the biggest inspiration for this heavily-hopped beer is De Ranke’s XXX Bitter.

“Nino from De Ranke, and De Ranke as a whole, is a brewery that’s really influential to me, even though none of their beers are necessarily amongst my favourite beers … Just what he’s done, and his passion in his approach: he loves hops, and he’s a Belgian brewer.”

Rather than use traditional Euro hops in XSB, Ian went with an “old new world hop” and a “new new world hop”.

“I’ve played a lot with a lot of hops in Belgian beers for a long time, and found certain hop varieties that seem to work in with the essence of phenolics better than others.

“Chinook is one that technically, going by my theories of that, shouldn’t work. But it fucken does. And Eclipse is one that should work, and it does work.”

 

Ian's brings his love of hops to bear when he makes Belgian-style beers.
Ian brings his love of hops to bear when he makes Belgian-style beers.

 

While the hops are the first element to stand out, there’s a complex interplay between the ingredients; Ian credits the Orval yeast for accentuating the bitterness that gives XSB its punch, which is in turn balanced by the rich malt character from the all-Voyager malt bill and the fruitiness from the dry-hopping and the yeast esters.

“[Extra Special Belge] kind of is a jump into the deep end of LPR beer. It’s not what you’re expecting. It’s one that I almost pulled from the lineup for our opening releases because I was worried for some people it’d be too assertive for what they’d expect from contemporary Belgian beer.

“And then Rocky was like, ‘No, it’s fucken tasty, and this is what LPR is!’”

When it was time, we moved on to the next beer, and Ian told me it was called Queen of the Night … then refused to tell me anything further until I’d tasted it.

Like XSB, Queen of the Night surprises the palate. It doesn’t fit neatly within a style. It’s kind of a saison, kind of a tripel, and has a third unexpected element I won’t share so you can taste the surprise for yourself.

“It’s just its own thing,” Ian says. “It’s very LPR, and we’ll be doing more of this.”

Of course, after my previous article about Ian's synaesthesia, I had to ask him what colours he sees when he tastes these beers.

"I was thinking that the other day," he says. "He’s gonna ask me about the colours again!

"XSB is multiple shades of green, and a bit of a boney colour as well, like ivory, creamy off-white."

He says the decal for XSB will play on this, as it's the colour he was aiming for when he first brewed the beer.

"I had that colour in my head, and as soon as I tasted it, it was kind of the colour I was looking for.

"Queen of the Night is like a bronze and gold. It’s kind of neither – but it's bronze and gold."

As well as these two beers, LPR will be launching with two more in July.

One they've been brewing for personal enjoyment for years: One Night Saison. It uses Voyager malts for a fresh bread malt profile and Hallertau Blanc hops for solid bitterness and white wine aromatics. Ian’s also created a blend of saison yeast strains, selecting three for their respective strengths: one for its fruity esters; one for its high attenuation; and one for its soft and full mouthfeel.

As for the final beer to be released in July? It’s still a secret to me, and I’m happy for it to remain that way until the launch night.


The Beginning Stages Of LPR

Ian's and Rocky's shared obsession of Belgian beer is at the heart of LPR.
Ian's and Rocky's shared obsession for Belgian beer is at the heart of LPR.

 

La Petit Rocher – traditional yet innovative, upmarket yet down-to-earth – may seem almost oxymoronic at first. But Ian and Rocky paint a compelling picture of how they fit together seamlessly – and, somehow, it works.

“It’s the beautiful red velvet chaise-style daybed, with the deep oak-coloured trimmings to it,” Ian says. “And it’s every bit as much that as it is a pair of Doc Martens or Connies.”

La Petit Rocher works, not in spite of its paradoxes, but because of them. It works because it’s not just Ian, and it’s not just Rocky. It’s the combination of their backgrounds, their experiences, their personalities. Together, they are LPR.

“We’ve joked for a long time that when we get our place finished we’d have one of those red velvet daybed chaises there for Rocky to lie on to watch me brew, and direct me as a brewer.

“She’s really behind it all – I’m just the hose boy!”

Ian’s had dreams about starting his own brewery almost as long as he’s been in the industry. But, while a few opportunities came up over the years, the pieces never seemed to fall into place, in part because his vision was grand and needed to include a full hospitality offering. Eventually, he settled into the mindset of: “I’m never going to do it.”

But when he and Rocky started dating, she insisted he worked towards putting his own beers out into the world; she couldn’t even conceive of letting it pass him by.

Rocky says: “The whole concept, there’s lots of barriers to that, namely money. [But] for Ian to never just brew the beer that he’s really passionate about, after 20 years of building other people’s breweries – still passionately designing their recipes, making their beers, and doing it with whole heart and love – but to never just have his own beer out there…”

And so, while Ian had the seed of an idea, he credits this push from Rocky as the catalyst for the La Petit Rocher project.

He says: “She was really adamant: ‘Let’s make it a mission for how you want to do it.’

“I probably should say what La Petit Rocher is. It means The Little Rock. That’s Rocky – she is the little rock. Just the way that she enticed me and directed me: ‘You need to be releasing your beer.’ She’s like a siren, sitting on the little rock, singing her siren song for me to brew saison.”

 

Yes. They're one of those couples.
Yes. They're one of those couples.

 

At first, the brewing project was going to be almost secretive, and they were going to simply give away the beer they made. But the more they spoke about the concept, the more excited they got, and over a few years it evolved into a full business plan. Their joint vision is still grand, and still about more than just the beer. But – at Rocky’s insistence – they’re kicking it off by starting with the beer, and will slowly chip away at any obstacles until they can offer the full LPR experience.

“I was really hesitant to do anything before [we could do the venue]. But Rocky was really like: ‘No, we’ve got to get our beer out. Let’s do it.’”

They’re making the beers at Happy Valley Brewing, where Ian is head brewer, with a truckload of support from brewery owners Cheyne and Sara Meehan, which has allowed, finally, La Petit Rocher to come to life.

Of course, you could look back further than the last few years to find the first causes of LPR; you know, butterfly flaps its wings and causes a hurricane, and all that.

We’ve outlined Ian’s career in beer before; from his time as Australia’s first beer sommelier in the early 2000s to his current role as head brewer at Happy Valley, he’s been talking about, serving, selling, food-matching, and brewing beer for 22 years and counting.

He fell in love with drinking Belgian beer early on, but it was a visit to Belgium in the mid-2000s that fuelled his appreciation for the individualist nature of Belgian brewers.

Ian explains this by paraphrasing a story from the late beer writer Michael Jackson:

“In Germany, you’ll go up to a brewer and go, ‘Fritz. Your pilsener is awesome! But it tastes just like Hans’ down the road.’ And he’ll say, ‘Ja. That’s how you make pilsener.’

“In Belgium, you can go to a brewer and try his saison. You’ll say, ‘Pierre, your saison is wonderful. But it tastes nothing like Jean Claude’s.’ And he’ll go, ‘Oui. This is how I make saison. That is how he makes saison.’

“Both great, but two totally different approaches to beer.”

It seems Ian absorbed the spirit of Belgian brewers on his trip, and that approach to brewing became a big part of the LPR ethos.

But La Petit Rocher is shaped by Rocky as much as Ian.

“It very much is both of us,” Ian says. “Rocky will tell you the beer is all me, but no, that’s not quite right. She has a massive influence on the beer, and I’ll listen to her feedback on beer incredibly so. She has a palate that is much better than she’ll give herself credit for.”

 

Rocky's nuanced palate and extensive beer knowledge have a massive influence on LPR's beers.
Rocky's nuanced palate and extensive beer knowledge have a massive influence on LPR's beers.

 

Rocky’s nuanced palate is the result of decades of enjoying beer, since well before Brisbane had a thriving craft beer scene, when there were only a couple of places a person could find interesting beers. She’s grateful for the enthusiasm and knowledge of a bottleshop attendant at what used to be Festival Cellars in Red Hill: a young scoundrel by the name of Kieran Ryan, who’d later go on to open The Scratch Bar.* With his guidance, Rocky discovered a variety and quality of beer that developed her taste and set her on a new path.

“Kieran and Ian are the two most significant players in nurturing my love of everything beer,” she says.

With that, Rocky’s career in beer hit the ground running. In 2012, she started repping for a beer importer, and from there went on to work for Fortitude Brewing, then Newstead Brewing, before landing at Craft Wine Store, where she still works today as Beer Curator.

Oh, and the previously-named Festival Cellars? That’s now Craft Red Hill. Rocky’s come full circle, helping others to discover the world of beer in the place where her own love for beer first blossomed.

Through these years, Rocky’s and Ian’s paths intertwined as they worked together at Fortitude Brewing, they each posed nude for the Males With Ales charity calendar, and they formed a bond through their shared love of Belgian beers. (Maybe the calendar jumped their friendship forward a few stages, too.)

By the time they started dating, it seems that La Petit Rocher was all but inevitable.

 

Beer and nude calendars is as good a basis for a relationship as anything.
Beer and nude calendars are as good a basis for a relationship as anything.

The Launch And Beyond

It may be hard to pin down exactly where and when LPR was born, but the time and place of the launch are more straightforward: at Saccharomyces Beer Cafe during the bar’s annual Belgian Beer Week.

Ian says, “We love this space, we love the Saccharomyces team, Simon’s a mate … doing it in Belgian Beer Week just seemed the absolutely natural time.”

On Wednesday 17 July, La Petit Rocher’s first four beers will be on tap alongside beers from Madocke, Fick, Slow Lane and Caldera at SBC’s event-within-an-event, Bloody Bonza Belge.

“We’ve really enjoyed beers from all of those,” says Ian, also citing brewers like La Sirène and Sobremesa. “Those that are on a similar wavelength to us. They’ve all got Belgian influence, but they’re all doing it differently. No one’s doing the same thing.”

After the launch, Ian and Rocky are planning intermittent releases of LPR beers, each time accompanied by a pop-up event.

“Every few months we’ll do a drop, and we’ll probably release one beer in a full-size commercial release batch” – that is, packaged for wider release – “and then we’ll do [pilot batches of] a couple of other beers to support a pop-up night. And we’ll use those beers as experimentation, as potential previews for upcoming LPR beers, to gauge people’s reactions. Just to have a bit of fun with as well.”

The idea of those pop-up nights is for them to create an experience closer to the one they ultimately want to give, with the kind of music, food, and mood they want to accompany their beers. Because, right from the start, Ian and Rocky have said La Petit Rocher is about more than just the beers. The whole concept revolves around a future venue; Ian and Rocky have a long-held vision of a contemporary Euro-inspired brasserie and bistro, and have already sketched out many of the details.

“Luxurious decor, but I’m not talking about something where you’re scared to touch anything. It’s a place for you to come and party. Where the music is refined, with still an edge to it as well: think of everything ranging from Django Reinhardt to Mötley Crüe to C.W. Stoneking to the Misfits to Nancy Sinatra, all in one breath.”

The food will focus on Euro bistro quick eats.

“There’s just such a wonderful amount of unexplored foods and dishes in Euro bistro food, particularly around the French and Belgian stuff. And I think it’s really unexplored in Australia at the moment in beer.”

While they’re keeping most of their menu ideas under their hat, they were happy to divulge one: Ian’s chips, which he’s been perfecting since he was a teenager.**

 

Thirty-five years have passed, but Ian's obsession with frying perfect chips has stayed the same.
Thirty-five years have passed, but Ian's obsession with frying perfect chips has stayed the same.

 

“He’s the chip master,” Rocky says. “You’ve never tasted chips like his.”

“I’ve been obsessed with chips and loving chips since I was a kid,” he admits. “When we finally get the whole thing done, I’m hoping people will come almost for the chips over the beer!”

Rocky and Ian are excited to get their beers into people’s hands in July. But it’s clear that’s not going to satisfy them; it’s only going to stoke the fire in their bellies even more as they work towards fulfilling their vision.

“The beer is the heart and soul, but LPR is the synergy of components. Aspects of the beer make more sense when you see aspects of the food, what we want to do with the ambience… It’s about the whole experience of all that together,” Ian says. There’s a gleam in his eyes.

“It’s vandelier.”


Head to Bloody Bonza Belge at Saccharomyces on Wednesday 17 July for the launch of La Petit Rocher. Ian and Rocky will be there to run a guided tasting and a Q&A session, hosted by yours truly. Tickets are available to the public, but Crafty Cabal members (and their mates) get a discounted tasting paddle and the best seats in the house – join the Cabal and get your tickets here.

You can keep up to date with LPR on their Facebook page.

*Incidentally, Matt Emerson of Brewski and My Beer Dealer also developed his addiction to good beer during Kieran’s time at Festival Cellars. Kieran has a lot to answer for.

**Ian wouldn’t tell me his secrets, but he did say he boils the chips first and that the water chemistry is key. Trust a brewer to bring water chemistry into it.

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