June 3, 2014 by Crafty Pint
For the second year running, the crowds that rocked up over three days to this year’s Great Australasian Beer SpecTAPular during Good Beer Week proved themselves to be a sweet-toothed bunch. Last year, it was Queensland’s Bacchus Brewing that took out the People’s Choice title for its Raspberry and White Chocolate Pilsner, while last month the title went to Melbourne’s La SirÃ¨ne for Praline, with the beer finishing comfortably ahead of the remainder of the 100-plus strong field.
The timing was just as sweet for the brewery’s co-founder Costa Nikias as, two-and-a-half years after we tasted their first batch of Saison (sampled while standing at the back of Costa’s car in a Collingwood side street), La SirÃ¨ne is planning to seriously step things up. The Belgian beer obsessives have been rather laid back in their approach to releasing beer since launching at the end of 2011 but, with a steadily expanding brewery now installed in Alphington, expect to see much more of their beer far more regularly and widely.
“We took over the brewery site in January last year,” says Costa (above, admiring his winning beer). “It was just a shell, a factory that was originally used to build tanks and trucks â a heavy machinery warehouse. Then, about six months ago, I felt that we weren’t challenging ourselves to reach our potential and that we should focus on making sure that people can get our beers regularly.”
For those new to the La SirÃ¨ne story, Costa started out as a wine maker, including time spent at the iconic Bass Phillip winery in East Gippsland where he developed his passion for and understanding of organic wine making and the use of barrels, before becoming a brewery consultant. He has since travelled the world installing brewing systems, including one recently set up at the Clifton Hill Brewpub for whom he also developed a range of beers.
In 2011, he launched La SirÃ¨ne with James Brown, whom he had met when studying winemaking and with whom he shared a passion for Belgian beers. They sourced a unique yeast strain from a French village and from there began creating Belgian-inspired ales, all beautifully packaged in champagne style bottles.
Today, the yeast strain is a hybrid of the original import and another commercial variety and the brewery is under the stewardship of Costa and wife Eva. The plan is to place greater focus on La SirÃ¨ne, taking it to new levels in terms of output – something that will be music to the ears of beer lovers who have already sampled their wares.
Among the beers they will be able to get their hands on is the Praline, a decadent blend of chocolate, vanilla and toasted nuts that is based on a Belgian stout and manages to be relatively light on the palate and dry at the finish despite a recipe list that includes Mexican cocoa, organic Indonesian vanilla and local hazelnuts. It’s a combination that proved a winning one at GABS, much to Costa’s delight.
“It’s humbling. I’m rapt,” he says. “It’s great to get that sort of feedback. It shows that our level of creativity is what people want.
“We had done some trial batches and got it to where we thought it was a nice blend. It’s quite a luxuriant beer but not sickly sweet and is the darkest beer that we’ve ever done; in fact, it was the first dark beer we’ve ever done and has set the bar quite high for us now.”
As for choosing what style of beer to brew, he says the intention was to create something suitable for winter and also to combine two of his favourite things: Belgian beer and Belgian chocolate. What’s more, “you will never catch us doing an IPA,” he says.
Following its win, the Praline has been brewed again and is likely to become part of La SirÃ¨ne’s ever-expanding core range, which is set to feature its straight Saison and Wild Saison plus the returning Farmhouse Red and a new Saison de Miel brewed with honey from the Bellarine Peninsula.
Further down the line, there will be some seriously limited releases too. The brewery has a small but steadily growing collection of barrels inside of which a number of experimental brews are developing. Thanks to his winemaking background, Costa has an in depth knowledge of cooperages and which local wineries obtain their barrels from the finest French coopers. And, such is his passion for working with oak, 50 more barrels are already on order while he is eyeing up a second warehouse adjacent to the current one, ready to expand the La SirÃ¨ne operation.
Having spent the past few years almost constantly on the road fitting breweries and consulting for others, it seems that the decision to stay at home a little longer â not to mention the recent win at GABS â is creating considerable excitement for the future.
“I’ve been at the brewery full time for the past month,” he says. “And I don’t want to leave!”