Vegan beer, sake and wine hybrids with Yulli’s Brews: S5E2

Founded in 2014 by Karl Cooney and James Harvey, Yulli’s Brews makes 100 per cent vegan beer at its brewery and restaurant in Alexandria, Sydney.

These days, the vast majority of beers on the market are vegan. In fact Lion, the number two brewer in Australia, has informed me that it too makes entirely vegan beer.

However, I know for a fact there’s still a lot of confusion out there about which beers meet this classification.

So I invited James, better known as Harvs, and Yulli’s head brewer Tom Davies, for a chat on this topic.

We also discuss Yulli’s journey to date, its expansion into making sake, and an interesting beer/wine hybrid they have in the pipeline.

Since recording this interview, Yulli’s like many other breweries has been forced to close its Alexandria taproom due to COVID-19.

You can support them during this difficult time by seeking out their beers from bottleshops near you.

Marrickville breweries multiplying as Philter Brewing joins in: S3E9
Champion brewer DJ McCready’s new Blue Mountains brewery: S4E1

Vegan beer: Yulli's Brews founder James Harvey and head brewer Tom Davies
Yulli’s Brews founder James Harvey and head brewer Tom Davies

Is beer vegan? With Sydney brewery Yulli’s (full transcript)

JAMES HARVEY: I started working back at Yulli’s Restaurant in Surry Hills. It started back in 2008, and I started working there in about the end of 2009. I got introduced to Karl, I was very young, I would have been 19 at the time. I started washing dishes with him. I worked there for a number of years, and then eventually was kind of managing the restaurant there. Throughout that time got very well introduced to good beer, because we were putting on quite a lot of good local beer. And throughout that sort of process got to meet a lot of local brewers and was fortunate enough to meet a few that were happy to take me along to their breweries and show me what’s going on; how beer is made, and I developed a pretty keen interest in it quite quickly.

JAMES HARVEY: Around that kind of time I was doing a lot of home brewing and got to a point where I entered myself into a competition about a year or two into it, and funnily enough won, which was a big surprise. It kind of just gave myself and Karl a lot of confidence at that point in time to have a crack and start making something that we’d been talking about for quite a few years.

JAMES HARVEY: So we put all of those ideas into place and put a bit of money down and got towards working on a liquor license and a brand and a few months later ended up getting ready to go and made our first commercial batch of Norman. And it was a very, very small enterprise at that point, we were doing one to two kegs a week sort of sales here and there, mainly through the restaurant in Surry Hills, and if we got on at a pub, that would just be amazing. But soon enough, people started to catch on to a couple of things. And we had a couple more venues and started pushing out a couple of different interesting beers and working with a lot of the other smaller local breweries around Sydney that would allow us to come in and contract a little brew here.

JAMES HARVEY: And that operation kind of existed and grew to a point that was a little bit too big for that operation about three years into it, where we decided to dive in and mortgage everything and build a little brewery over in Alexandria. And a couple of years on, that’s where we are today. It’s pretty epic sized brewery for our standards; it’s still massive and we’re making beer supplying mainly New South Wales. But largely around the whole country. We’ve got beer in WA, in Victoria, in Queensland, some down in South Australia. That’s sort of where we’re at for now.

JAMES ATKINSON: Is the vegan ideology; is that you and Karl or is that just Karl?

JAMES HARVEY: It definitely comes from Karl, it’s definitely where it all started. Yulli’s as a restaurant opened up initially as being a bar with a little bit of vego food on the side. And it turns out that the vego food had a lot more following at the time, and quite quickly a pretty bustling restaurant was in demand. And so the food took the fore there for quite a while. Soon enough, once once the beer operation was underway, we just made the decision that when we open this venue up, let’s go full vegan, and it’s been a great decision. Obviously, with that has come vegan beer, which hasn’t been as difficult a process as one might think. It just means we steer clear from a couple of key ingredients here and there. And our processes just need to be pretty in line with what is and isn’t vegan. But I guess in answer your question it doesn’t moreso come from me, it comes from Karl, where it all kicked off.

JAMES ATKINSON: But when you first set out making beer would the beers that you had been making originally… Would they have classified as vegan beer?

JAMES HARVEY: Most of the time, yeah. About 95% of them were vegan beers with the odd one here and there where we use an ingredient like say, maybe lactose or honey, which funnily enough isn’t vegan. So yeah, with the odd cases, of a speciality batch that includes a product that isn’t vegan, then no, it wouldn’t have been a vegan beer. But we just made the decision to make it a blanket rule that everything is vegan and obviously the food that comes out of the brewery kitchen, it’s all vegan and everything we do across the board now, so even at the restaurant in Surry Hills, that made me switch over to vegan and now our restaurant up in Byron Bay as well.

JAMES ATKINSON: I think it’s actually something that people are kind of surprised by when they sort of hear that beer isn’t vegan or may not be vegan. For people who don’t know, what are some of the products that have historically been used in the brewing process that are animal derived.

JAMES HARVEY: Tom’s probably better at answering that.

TOM DAVIES: Yeah. So there’s a few different ones that have been used in history. Isinglass is probably the most common one, which is actually a fish-derived product, and that’s been used mainly as a filtration aid; it’s really good at bonding the yeast out of a beer and kind of dropping it out before you then filter. It was used in a lot of big commercial breweries, probably up until the 2000s or so. It seems to have been kind of reduced a lot in terms of its usage. We’re talking as well, you know, even a big brand like Guinness, you know, only about 10 years ago or so, completely stopped their use of isinglass.

JAMES ATKINSON: I think it was actually more recently than that they converted to vegan beer, in the last three or four years.

TOM DAVIES: Yeah. So you’ve got isinglass is a really well known one that I think a lot of people talk about. The other big one is gelatin. Gelatin isn’t used hugely anymore. But you know, when people homebrew, that’s a classic one they’d originally use, which is derived from kind of an animal collagen. Gelatin is quite often used in cider as well, as a bit of a fining agent to pull the yeast out. You still find a lot of the big commercial guys still use that.

TOM DAVIES: And then the big one, I guess more in the craft game and something that’s a bit more relevant to us, where we’ve occasionally had a bit of a challenge, is lactose. So lactose is like a milk-derived sugar derived from milk,. It’s often used in anything from a milk stout, where you’re just wanting to add a little bit of sweetness. But one of the big trends at the moment is kind of your milkshake IPA, and they’re using lots of lactose. But even in sours and stuff like that. I guess, for us, particularly designing recipes, it’s something that’s off the board and we’ve gotta find alternatives to try to generate the same flavours. Yeah, I think it’s probably a bit of a misconception that beers are not vegan.

TOM DAVIES: I think generally, most breweries nowadays, don’t use that. But that’s very different to them saying they’re certified vegan beer, which we know is a lot of steps and processes in terms of the approval process for that. And so we’re not even, you know, on our cans, we don’t put we’re certified vegan beer. It’s maybe something we would look at down the line. But I just don’t think it’s really necessary. It’s also not a requirement from a labelling point of view, you actually in the beverage market don’t need to label that.

JAMES ATKINSON: What do you use now instead, to make vegan beer? If you want a beer to go bright and clear, do you need to use something else to help with fining it?

TOM DAVIES: We only use it now in one of our products. In most of our products, we try to kind of avoid that. But just in our lager when you’re looking for that kind of really clean, you know, crisp, bright beer in a glass, you obviously need some kind of aid. You know a lot of larger breweries would use something like a centrifuge. We obviously don’t have the scale to be quite at that point yet, but um, we use a silica-based agent. So it’s a silica acid basically in solution, and you just kind of combine that with a little bit of beer, and it’ll bond through it and really act very similarly to the isinglass or gelatin of the day, you know, but it’s just a silica-derived compound instead.

JAMES ATKINSON: So you guys seem to think that the use of some of those products has been phased out by most of the brewers around these days? So they are also making vegan beer?

JAMES HARVEY: I would have thought so yeah. I don’t know anyone that still uses those ingredients. I mean, aside from Guinness in more recent years that was using it, I don’t know of one that is still using it.

JAMES ATKINSON: I think it’s still pretty widespread in wine in finings.

TOM DAVIES: Wines are probably a bit of a different one. I’m not a winemaker but my basic understanding is that they use quite a lot of egg whites. And that’s usually generally what classifies a lot of wines as not vegan. And we even, when we opened the brewery’s taproom, when we were opening the restaurant and trying to choose a few wines to put on the list, you know, we’d suddenly run into a lot of trouble pretty quickly. We’d pick out all these wines and then talk to friends that were winemakers and go, ‘they just need to be vegan’. And they’d go, ‘Oh no, we use egg whites in all of our wines.’ Probably on the wine side of things, it’s still a bit more of a topic.

JAMES ATKINSON: Do you think that it’s been beneficial for you guys that vegan people don’t even have to think about it? They kind of know that your whole brand is 100% vegan beer, and so they know that, you know, Yulli’s is a place they can go and they know that everything’s gonna be hunky dory.

JAMES HARVEY: Yeah, I do think that would work in our favour. I mean, quite incidentally, to be honest. It wasn’t a conscious decision to say, ‘hey, let’s, let’s capture this growing audience of vegans to bring in an audience to our brewery. It more just happened to be that obviously Karl’s vegan and we just made that blanket rule from the get go. It was more of a focus on quality product that just happens to be vegan beer, as opposed to let’s make vegan food or beer. But I do think you’re right, that it has probably captured an audience that does feel, a lot safer around our vegan environment and our vegan beer. Where they can come and look at literally everything and not have to make a tough decision. The vegan audience, they’re pretty happy to make an effort to find good vegan food. I think they’re pretty used to having a scarce amount of products and venues out there that will dedicate a whole venue or a whole list to their dietary requirements. So yeah, it does tend to work in our favour for that. We get a lot of local repeat customers big time.

JAMES ATKINSON: How has the product range evolved since you launched. Norman was kind of like your flagship, from what I can tell for quite a while there?

JAMES HARVEY: It’s developed in a big way. As you said, Norman was the main man for quite a number of years, but Seabass has grown quite exponentially since his release and he is by far our number one guy at the moment. It turns out there’s a pretty large market for a quality craft lager. Besides that, we’ve kind of always prided ourselves on having a very dynamic range that can covers quite a lot of bases that has a pretty big focus on drinkability; beers that aren’t ultra challenging, but still very interesting, whilst also having a crack at the pointy end of some weird barrel-aged sours and massive stouts. More crafty, I guess, kind of beers.

JAMES ATKINSON: And Tom, what are your favourite beer styles to make? Or do you consider yourself a bit of a generalist?

TOM DAVIES: Yeah, I think the more you kind of spend time in beer, you find yourself going back to the original styles. Everyone’s always got kind of a learning curve with that kind of thing, and you suddenly find yourself almost back at the start. Lagers, particularly recently, we make a lager that we did in collaboration with a restaurant up in the Northern Rivers called Astrid and it was basically working with this guy called Josh from Fleet. Fleet was the original restaurant he started, which has got a hat, maybe two. He just worked with us to try and design a beer that was going to work with their restaurant, which is just a simple lager to go with their Mexican food up there. It’s a collaboration with La Casita Restaurant, where we basically used a bit of pineapple, a little bit of coriander seed and a thing called a ancho chilli, which I’ve never even heard of before, but they’re not not a spicy chilli, just kind of a lot more chilli flavour. He introduced me to all these ingredients and we made a pretty easy drinking lager, which is all about subtlety. And, you know, if you talk to any of our brewers, including myself, all of us go to that beer more than anything at the moment.

TOM DAVIES: Particularly when you’re still working in the brewery at the end of the day, what you’re really looking for is something easier drinking. But in terms of the brewing side of stuff, we’ve been having a lot of fun across the spectrum, working with lots of fruit. I think that’s something that we’ve kind of definitely started to get really good at is using fruit in beers. For us as well, from the sales side of things, it’s really obvious that people are kind of getting more and more keen… we make a pale ale called Mum’s Mango and it’s just… every time we kind of make a batch of that it flies off. Working with fruit is really interesting, both from how you deal with it from a sanitation side of things as well particularly. A lot of people really struggle to work out how to get fruit into beer in a way that it’s going to be kind of stable on the shelf. So yeah, I kind of find the technical side of that kind of thing more interesting, rather than just trying to make the biggest, haziest hoppiest beer or anything like that.

Yulli's Brews makes vegan beer and sake
Nama-Sake Junmai by Yulli’s Brews

JAMES ATKINSON: Now we love sake here at Drinks Adventures and I was excited some time ago to see that you guys were having a crack at making sake. How did that evolve?

JAMES HARVEY: This was never part of the plan, to be honest. It definitely crept up on us in a way that got us very excited quite quickly and was something we couldn’t turn down the idea of having a crack at making our own. A little while back, we were hosting monthly markets to showcase local products; sauces and pickles and cosmetics… anything from a local supplier. A local Japanese lady named Chiho Uei came and introduced herself one day just to show us her homemade sake that she was making. She’d been having a crack at it for a little while at home, just on a very experimental basis. And Karl and I were fascinated from the get go and thought it was delicious; something that we’d never really even tasted before, her style of sake.

JAMES HARVEY: Everyone has maybe had a slight experience of what sake might be, but hers was super unique and something we just couldn’t pass up. So yeah, quite quickly, we got her on board with hosting her own little stall at the markets and showcasing what she was up to and it proved to be quite popular quite quickly and particularly with us. We were just so interested in it, and so we brought her on board and she was working with us part-time where we were developing these sake products and quite quickly got to a point where we needed her on full-time. So it was about nine months into her working with us that we had fully developed these two sake products that we wanted to release to the market. One being our seishu, which is a clear sake, a junmai, which is aimed at being a very approachable, light, easy drinking, somewhat user-friendly style sake.. And then the other being a lot more of an experimental-style nigori sake.

JAMES HARVEY: It’s been a hell of an experience and something we’re continually evolving and sort of learning as we go. We don’t claim to be sake aficionados or experts or anything, we’re just having a crack at our style of sake. We do get a few classic Japanese sake enthusiasts and people that are quite knowledgeable on the style of sake and everything that is done over in Japan, kind of challenging our product and our techniques of how it’s made, which is fair enough, because over there it’s quite strict and stringent, there’s a lot of rules as to what you can and can’t do to call it ‘sake’. But other here we’re obviously not really governed by any sake bodies or anything like that. It still is sake, it’s made from water, yeast, koji and rice, there’s no two ways about that. Ours is just obviously a bit of a local Australian take on such an ancient Japanese beverage.

JAMES ATKINSON: Tell me about the milling process and the type of rice that you’re using and all those kinds of details.

JAMES HARVEY: So we actually don’t mill any of our rice, mainly because we don’t have access to a mill. But we use just organic New South Wales grown table rice as our base rice. Our koji is made in 10 kilo batches up on the Gold Coast and shipped down to us every time we make a batch. We’re doing it on a very small scale at the moment, we’re doing 60 to 100 litre batches at a time. Just enough for what we need at the moment.

JAMES ATKINSON: And when you’re using unmilled rice, does that sort of mean you get a richer, more full-bodied kind of sake?

JAMES HARVEY: Yeah, that’s exactly right. You get quite a lot of flavour from our sake. It’s not an ultra light and super delicate kind of flavour profile from both of them. It’s definitely a little bit more in that kind of umami flavour profile.

JAMES ATKINSON: Now you guys just mentioned on your way in, that you’re on your way out to Mudgee to work on a beer/wine hybrid. Maybe you could tell me a little bit about that.

JAMES HARVEY: So yeah, Will from Gilbert Family Wines out in Mudgee is a very good friend of mine, I went to school with him. We talk quite a lot and we’ve done a lot of work with him in the past, made a beer or two using his grapes or his barrels. And then we stuck a lot of his wines and at what they are very and vice versa, really stevedore we’ve been talking about this idea for quite a while of basically making a product that is halfway between what we do. To cut a long story short, we’re going out to Mudgee tomorrow to pick a whole bunch of grapes that have been tainted from some of the most recent bushfire smoke, and we’re going to bring those grapes back to the brewery. I’ll let Tom talk you through the more technical brewing process behind it, but it’s going to be quite an interesting project.

TOM DAVIES: Yeah, look it’s going to be a long time before it kind of comes out as a product. It’s definitely going to be on the mixed fermentation side of stuff, so we’ll probably have to spend quite a lot of time in oak and things like that. But we’re basically taking smoke affected fruit about 600 or 700 kilos. Gilbert was saying that any of the current fruit that they can’t use will just end up as cattle feed. So we’ll take that and kind of mix some fresh wort basically out of the brewery with that and hopefully kind of get a really nice blend of some kind of wildish cultures that come off the grapes and really the most important thing, when it’s very uncharted territory for us, is hopefully just to go with our guts. I think we’re more gonna kind of let whatever yeast and wild bacteria that’s on the grapes just do its thing, which I guess is something that’s becoming more popular in the natural wine side of stuff as well. And then hopefully, at the end of it, we’ll kind of end up with something that’s that’s going to be a really good hybrid. We’re using red grapes, so we should definitely get a lot of colour from that as well. So I guess there’s probably a little bit more information to come as we find out as well. But it probably won’t be out for nine months I’d say.

JAMES ATKINSON: Do you think that you’re still going to get those smoky flavours in whatever beer that you make? Whenever you do a beer/wine hybrid, one of the biggest advantages you have is, when you’re making a wine for example, that’s kind of 13 or 14%, it’s purely from grape juice and so you know, whatever flavour you were going to get from those grapes is going to be you know, as concentrated as it is in the grapes. When you make a beer generally, if you think about, you only use say 2000 litres of beer, you’re only going to use 300 or 400 kilos of barley. So it’s quite a diluted solution, beer, generally, whereas wine is usually just whole fruit pressed. And so any kind of faults that you pick up from that side of stuff you usually find are firstly going to be diluted. So if it is there, it’s not going to be kind of nearly as strong in character. And that’s, I guess, just the advantage of that side of stuff. Then separately, beer yeast specifically seems to be quite good as well as cleaning up some of those faults that often come in from the kind of wine generally. And so from lace a couple of other guys I’ve talked to who’ve worked with smoke affected fruit before, once you go through that fermentation stage, you generally don’t don’t see a lot of those characteristics showing through.

JAMES ATKINSON: What else is coming up for Yulli’s, Harvs?

JAMES HARVEY: So I was saying to you earlier on, we’ve had a very, very hectic summer and in the last couple of years, we’ve just grown into our space quite a lot. So we’re very much at capacity at the moment, which is awesome in a lot of ways. But it’s getting to the point where it’s been stressful and now we need to sort of move forward a little bit. So we’ve got at least a tank on the way, and we’re starting to look at plans to work out how we can put as much capacity as possible into our little facility over there, which is proving challenging.

JAMES ATKINSON: Do you think that that facility will be able to accommodate you for the foreseeable future or you’re already starting to think about another location?

JAMES HARVEY: No, we haven’t gone beyond our current location just yet.

TOM DAVIES: I’d say it’s probably more of a logistics side of things more than anything. The brew house is actually capable of putting out a lot more beer than it currently produces. But it’s more that issue of fitting in the tanks. I guess when we moved into the space, it just seemed like heaps and heaps of room and suddenly you put in a canning line, a nice big coolroom, the brew house and the tanks and a restaurant and the venue space on top of that, and suddenly there’s no room left. And so what we’re kind of struggling at the moment with is just that there’s no room for fermentation space really, the brew house could easily produce twice as much beer as we make now so it’s just probably going to be moving some stuff off-site maybe in terms of storage and things like that. And hopefully we can squeeze it in.

JAMES ATKINSON: Cool. Well sounds like I’m due for a return visit them because it’s obviously filled out a lot since I was last there. Guys, we might leave it there, thanks so much for the chat.

JAMES HARVEY: No worries, thanks for having us.

TOM DAVIES: Easy, thanks James.

Hi there,

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