In this episode, we take a look at some of the exciting collaborations that are happening on the fringes of beer, wine and spirits.
Brix Distillers is a rum distillery that opened in Sydney in 2018. And they are trying to re-educate Australians about the potential of rum, which – as I discussed with Kathleen Davies two episodes ago – is somewhat misunderstood in this country.
They’re also trying to make uniquely Australian rums aged in barrels supplied by leading winemakers such as Thomas Wines in the Hunter Valley region of New South Wales.
Turns out founder Andrew Thomas is a huge enthusiast for premium rum, so it’s a collaboration that’s close to his heart. I spoke with Andrew and Brix co-founder James Christopher recently to find out more about the project.
For several years now they’ve been collaborating on an unlikely but very successful beer/wine hybrid, the Chardonnay IPA.
The latest batch is out now so Luke and Scott joined me for a sample and an interview.
Theme music ‘Sandbox’ by Rudists.
Scott McWilliam of McWilliam’s Wines and Luke Scott of Prickly Moses Brewery on the Chardonnay IPA: Full transcript
LUKE SCOTT: Well it came about with a friendship, I suppose, from my time when I was in the Hunter, and Scott and I made some beers together with McWilliam’s and a brewery I was running previous to Prickly Moses. And Scott approached me and said, I want to do another collaboration between a winemaker and a brewer again. And he suggested a lighter style beer with a white wine, versus the beers we made in the past.
LUKE SCOTT: We did a Belgian blonde in a Chardonnay barrel, and then did some dark beers in Shiraz barrels and stuff like that. So the Chardonnay IPA idea was to use the fruitiness of the new world American hops to go with an unoaked Chardonnay that displayed similar fruit characters and would work in harmony.
JAMES ATKINSON: Do you get similar fruit characters from Chardonnay though?
SCOTT MCWILLIAM: Well my take on it was I thought Chardonnay would match really well with this hop profile. And also a little bit of background, Luke and I – you’ve got a winemaker who drinks beer, and a brewer who drinks wine. It’s a marriage made in heaven right? And so of course we’re going to collaborate. And I just felt that Chardonnay had some of those tropical notes to it, that would go well with the like-for-like tropical notes of the hops.
SCOTT MCWILLIAM: It was, I think, something that may have been a bit left field, and I thought, ‘well why can’t you blend wine into beer?’ The concept was to choose the right white wine to complement. I didn’t want contrast, I wanted complementary flavours. And that provided balance.
SCOTT MCWILLIAM: When you do a left field product, it can’t be so extreme that people just try it just for the sake of just wanting to try it just because it’s a bit weird. And then just go, yeah, well that didn’t really work guys did it? I wanted something that was actually going to go, ‘Shit, that’s really good. Where can I get it?’ That’s what we were trying to aim for.
JAMES ATKINSON: And Scott tell me about the practice of actually how you went about the blending. I think that’s probably a discipline that not many brewers would be exposed to, but it’s obviously something that’s very common when you’re making wines.
SCOTT MCWILLIAM: Well the actual practical side of it’s really simple. Yeah, it’s a matter of a measuring cylinder, and literally just doing just different percentages and seeing what works. The complicated bit I think is what goes on in your mind beforehand as to what you want to achieve, and then trying to work out how to achieve that.
SCOTT MCWILLIAM: So the concept was alright, this beer has this hop note that has a lot of passionfruit, and that’s what I see on the aroma-
LUKE SCOTT: Tropical. Yeah.
SCOTT MCWILLIAM: It’s tropical, but mostly passionfruit, so obviously being an IPA, hops is the major component of the flavour profile in many ways, and so choosing a wine to be complementary meant that it had to obviously match the power of the hop being such a tropical flavoured hop. I know I describe it as being passionfruit, and it’s almost like Sauvignon Blanc in many ways. But I didn’t feel that Sauv Blanc was actually going to match with this. I thought that the Chardonnay would be best, because Chardonnay has other tropical flavours, more your peach, and melon, and those sorts of things. And whilst it’s all in the tropical fruit spectrum, it adds more complexity rather than just putting Sauv Blanc which would have been putting passionfruit on top of passionfruit sort of thing. I didn’t see any reason to do that. I really feel that we stretched the complexity of the flavour wheel for this by adding Chardonnay.
SCOTT MCWILLIAM: The beer as a base by itself was very powerful flavour. And the Chardonnay added back at about seven per cent – it in fact toned down the beer a little bit. Really sort of broadened out those flavours into more than just one or two main flavours and going for extra dimensions, but also calmed down some of the really powerful concentration of the hop note that comes through.
LUKE SCOTT: Yeah that’s right. Typically with IPAs they’re going to be all sorts of really strong hop characters that are come through through different piney notes to bitterness. For some reason, amazingly the Chardonnay sort of rounds out and softens the hop bitterness and rounds it out in the middle in the palate I suppose, it accentuates the flavours. They work together.
SCOTT MCWILLIAM: It’s about balance. And when making wine, you’ve got to end up with a result that’s balanced, and it has complexity from that balance, and all the flavours are synergistic, and they come together to create this amazing complex drink.
JAMES ATKINSON: What are the hops in the beer?
LUKE SCOTT: So it’s a single hop, Mosaic. And it does throw a lot of different notes in different ways. It’s quite a punchy aroma flavor hop that can throw tropical, peach, grapefruit, passion fruit. Well the history of Mosaic as far as I know, when it was developed, when they chose this hop out to be commercially available, they sent it to some of the best American brewers, and the 15 brewers they gave it to for trials all came back with different characteristics and different notes. Hence why the called it a mosaic hop. It’s an amazing hop, and it’s got even better over the last few years, I suppose as it’s nurtured in the vine. The hops got better, and better the last two years. And this batch is just banging.
JAMES ATKINSON: And so the recipe that was constructed then, in terms of the beer that you brewed, Luke. The single hop, the proportion of Chardonnay to the IPA, has this stayed the same the whole time?
SCOTT MCWILLIAM: Yeah. Yeah it was quite interesting to see at five per cent and eight or nine per cent, the difference that it made. A couple of percent either side made a huge difference to the balance. And seven per cent just seemed to be that sweet spot.
JAMES ATKINSON: Scott, you know, McWilliam’s Wines is probably one of the household name wineries in Australia, really. Quite a conservative brand traditionally. This is quite a pioneering beer to have made. I mean, have you taken this back and shown it to some of the family and seen what their reactions are to a beer that’s got Chardonnay in it?
SCOTT MCWILLIAM: So interestingly enough, I lived in California, about 15 years go and I fell in love with IPAs, and I came back to Australia, and we weren’t selling IPAs in the marketplace here in Australia. And this is one of the ways that I met Luke. Because I found this beer that I really enjoyed that I found out later that he’d made. And we met. And I started to make my own beer at home, because I couldn’t find really good high end IPAs back then, 15 years ago in Australia. And I’ve done the Brewing and Malting course at Ballarat University.
SCOTT MCWILLIAM: I did approach McWilliam’s about looking at the craft beer industry because I’d been living in the US and I saw things were really booming over there. And I’d known that we were a little bit behind here, in this market space, and I thought if we getting to evolve and diversify McWilliam’s wines a little bit, this would be of interest. It was politely declined and I understand and respect the reasons for that. But that also gave me a free pass to then go do a collaboration.
JAMES ATKINSON: And McWilliam’s had had some kind of association with beer in the past as an importer, is that right?
SCOTT MCWILLIAM: Yeah. As an agent for Becks, we grew that threefold and then it went over to line, so we then decided to bring in a German beer called Holsten and look it was just part of our portfolio expansion. But making a beer was interesting how I remember showing Luke through Mount Pleasant, and I could just see his brain ticking over it’s like, all right, we can convert that tank. I reckon we can make beer here. And my mind was ticking over because I was like, these assets are sitting idle, unused for literally ten months of the year. How can we get the most out of this equipment? Lower our overheads, and more to the point, make beer?
SCOTT MCWILLIAM: And so it never really got up. But there’s always time. Never say never. May happen.
JAMES ATKINSON: Well yeah. I mean, at that time you probably wouldn’t have been on the board of the company. So now you can start making things happen.
SCOTT MCWILLIAM: Well I’ll say never say never. And if we have a McWilliam’s beer in the future, it’s going to definitely be something that I’ll be backing 100%, whether it works or not. Is the market ready for wine makers to make beer? I think we’re seeing it a lot already.
JAMES ATKINSON: What do you think would be the biggest challenge for a company like McWilliam’s to just sort of go, we’re going to start diversifying and start making beer?
SCOTT MCWILLIAM: It’s a big call actually, it’s something that’s not our core focus as a business. And when you’re running a commercial business at the size that we’re at, you have to make commercial decisions and the commercial realities sometimes will dictate that a project like that might not actually be economically feasible. Which is a little disappointing, because as wine makers, we all love to play. And we all love to experiment. And adding a different product into the portfolio other than a wine or grape based product is a pretty big call.
JAMES ATKINSON: Well guys, it’s been a great chat. We’ll leave it there. Thanks so much for joining me.
SCOTT MCWILLIAM: Pleasure.
LUKE SCOTT: Pleasure James. And thanks for having us. It’s a joy to be on this podcast.
James Christopher from Brix Distillers and Andrew Thomas from Thomas Wines: Full transcript
JAMES ATKINSON: Alright well James Christopher from Brix Distillers, and Andrew Thomas, thanks so much for joining me for a chat.
JAMES CHRISTOPHER: Thank you.
ANDREW THOMAS: My pleasure.
JAMES ATKINSON: James, tell us about the Brix Distillers story.
JAMES CHRISTOPHER: We have been planning something for a few years now, but ten weeks ago, we finally got open our little rum distillery in Sydney, in Surry Hills. We wanted to be in the centre of Sydney, and we wanted to be a locally made Sydney rum. We wanted to make something with all Australian products, so we’ve sourced our molasses and our sugar cane that we’re using to make different batches of rum from Queensland. Our molasses comes from the town of Bundaberg, and the sugar cane that we use, we juice and we ferment for really small batches of agricole style rum. We source that just west of the Gold Coast inland. So that was the main thing for us to source local sugar cane and molasses. We’ve also had our still made 100 per cent in Australia. We haven’t gone overseas to have it manufactured. So we’ve tried our hardest to make all the equipment in house, made in Australia as well.
JAMES CHRISTOPHER: But then moving forward, everything is that we’re making from scratch is fermented in Surry Hills, in our distillery. It’s distilled in Surry Hills. And it’s bottled in Surry Hills. And then moving forward, we wanted to complete the ageing process for our aged rums trying to keep that as local as possible so instead of bringing wine barrels in from overseas, ex-bourbon barrels and sherry barrels from Spain, which is a perfectly great thing to do, and it’s what a lot of rum distilleries do around the world. But we wanted to keep that process as local as possible as well, so we’ve gone out to all the wine regions in New South Wales and made friends and buddies with all the wine makers out there, and asked them if once they’ve finished using the barrels for the wine if we can, you know, get them to store our rum in and age our rum in.
JAMES ATKINSON: And that’s where Thommo comes into the picture. When was it that you got approached to see if you could supply some oak to Brix?
ANDREW THOMAS: So I first met James and the guys here at Brix about four months ago, they made a trip to the Hunter Valley and we had mutual friends that connected us together and it was from my personal point of view quite fortuitous because I’m a big fan of top shelf rum. So, I was just as excited about this new venture as these boys were. And so they came to visit me at the winery, and yeah we talked about our barrel program at Thomas Wines. You know, we’re after – it sort of depends but after five, six, seven years the oak that we use, it’s all French oak, becomes surplus to our requirements and generally we just put a sign at the front and people snap them up for flower pots or you know, out on their back patio or whatever, and they get sent out quite quickly, but to my mind, this is a much better end result.
JAMES ATKINSON: How did you become such a rum enthusiast?
ANDREW THOMAS: I don’t know, I’m not someone that sorta came through Bundaberg Rum because Bundy to my mind, with all due respect, is not the kind of rum we’re talking about here. We’re talking about top shelf rums, we’re talking about the rums that you would kinda drink in brandy balloons, you know, rums that have been barrel-aged for many years and they’re just so diverse, across the world, and quite delicious.
ANDREW THOMAS: Well I’m a big fan of a Dark N’ Stormy too, we’re drinking one here today, while we’re speaking to you, and there’s Dark N’ Stormies and there’s Dark N’ Stormies. And when you take your rum to a higher level, and it’s not just the rum, there’s all these artisan, boutique ginger beers that are being produced these days too, so you combine top shelf rum with really great, quite spicy ginger beer, you know, the heat I think is the key in the ginger beer, and a couple wedges of lime, and maybe a little mint leaf, and it’s just absolutely delicious and refreshing sitting here on a nice warm day like today.
JAMES ATKINSON: Do you think you’re taking a bit of a punt with these barrels you know, doing something that no ones really ever done before?
JAMES CHRISTOPHER: It’s an educated punt. We’ve tried a few rums from around the world that have been aged in ex-chardonnay or ex-shiraz barrels, and they are really, really interesting. And really different, and our hope is that we can try to achieve something like that as well. There’s not a lot of rum distilleries in Australia, there’s a couple of the big ones we all know, we’ve got a whole bunch of great gins and whiskies coming out of Tasmania. A lot of liqueurs and beautiful stuff being done, but no one’s really tackled rum. So we’re trying to tackle rum first of all, but then give a point of difference to make us a little bit more interesting than what’s out there, and yeah, we just hope to achieve a really high quality product, and as we’ve been talking about, the end product that comes out of it at the end of the day depends a lot on the vessel it’s been sitting in for a long, long, long time, up to, you know, five, six, seven, eight years. If you don’t have a quality barrel in there, that a wine maker that’s treated it right, then that’s gonna sort of, have a high chance of being tainted or coming out the back end of out of balance.
JAMES CHRISTOPHER: So we are taking a punt but we’re also only dealing with guys that treat their barrels with respect and have a really great barrel program. So for us, part of this little project is to go out and actually visit the wine makers as we’ve done with Thommo, to visit the guys and see what they’re doing out there and showing us their system so we can inspect, we inspect every barrel and we hope and trust that they will only send us the quality barrels that they have. Our head distiller Shane Casey, he might have some chardonnay barrels or some pinot gris barrels, we’ve got our hands on at the moment, which will be really interesting. And he’s geared those to a lighter, fruitier rum.
And then we get into some of the other stuff that we’re talking about with the shiraz barrels from the guys in the Hunter, who make great shiraz, then we want to, we want to go in with a bit more punch and match up with those bigger, heavier, spicier wines.
JAMES ATKINSON: And then what happens to the oak after you finish with it?
JAMES CHRISTOPHER: So we’ve already been approached by a whole bunch of craft beer brewers in Sydney, and we hope that they’ll come along and take them and do some barrel aged beers, and some beautiful, big, rich stouts that go into ex-Shiraz, ex-rum barrels, will pull some great flavour out of that and enhance their beers, and then down the track, you know they might give that barrel back to us, we can then pull flavour out of their beer and the cycle just goes on and on.
ANDREW THOMAS: It’s going to be a really interesting process. To be honest with you, I don’t think anyone really fully understands what the outcome’s gonna be, and that’s kind of what makes it really exciting. So, for example, I sent these guys down a couple of barrels about a month ago, and we’re here today doing this wine promotion, and those barrels have already been filled, and James sent me a photo the day they were filling them up, and I’ve had a taste of that rum out of the barrels I sent down, and my first question to Shane was has it picked up any colour? Because these barrels that I sent down have had some well, I only do Shiraz and Semillon so of course they’ve had Shiraz in them, and the colour, and of course some of the character of these wines will penetrate into the oak, and then of course, then when you put a higher alcohol strength spirit i.e. rum into those barrels, that’s going to leach some of that colour and potentially, some of the residual flavours that those wines will impart into the barrels, back out into the rum. So he poured a little sample out for me, and it’s just got the faintest.
JAMES ATKINSON: A little blush.
ANDREW THOMAS: Yeah, of pink. And you know Shane’s a distiller and I’m a winemaker, but we’re kinda on the same page, and I said, of course you’re not worried about that slight colour because with time and barrel that will oxidise through a nice sort of brown, rum, barrel-aged rum colour. He said ‘yeah, no there’s no problems at all. In fact it’s perfect’, so it’s only early days, but I kinda would like to think that down the track with these wines have been in the barrels for long enough, and we’re talking a few years here, that there’s gonna be a difference between the rums. The same kind of rums that perhaps went into my barrels and maybe some Brokenwood Wines barrels, there will be some subtle differences in what comes out a few years down the track. Based on the origin of those barrels, they’ve, you know, they could potentially be marketed with you know, the winery that’s attached to the wine that was in those barrels, and it’s just really exciting stuff.
JAMES ATKINSON: I’d bet you’d love to have some Brix rum, ex-Thomas wine cask to sell in the cellar door.
ANDREW THOMAS: I’m going to be tasting this thing every time I drop back in.
JAMES CHRISTOPHER: I think what Thommo’s just saying there is, every barrel in our eyes, we want every barrel to be different because we’re not here to make one just generic, you know, mass product, we’re here to see what every single barrel does to different rums as we make them. We want different nuances, we want different flavours, colours, all those, all the aromas, we want it all to be different. So then we can then see how to treat each one whether we do a little blending with them all if ones too heavy on the spiciness or a char, we can blend all that together to get a very well balanced rum. Fingers crossed we get some really, really amazing single barrel rums that we just go, yep, we’re not touching that. That’s a single barrel release. We can tell the story of that barrel, six, seven, eight years down the track, we’ll have a whole range of stuff we can play with so it’s exciting.