Alex Levi is store manager at the Hop + Grain Brew Store. An experienced home and professional brewer, he uses his knowledge to run classes, select ingredients and offer advice to customers. We sat down with a stout (that he brewed!) at the Marrickville store on a rainy afternoon.
On getting in to the industry.
It all started through homebrewing as a hobby in Newcastle, where I was at Uni doing environmental science. I started brewing out of sheer economic advantage. Around that time, beers like Vale Ale and Hop Hog had started coming in, Stone & Wood had just started distribution outside of Byron. Newcastle was taking a right step into some more artisan approaches in a lot of ways, like cafes and bars. All this craft beer started coming to Newcastle and I thought, I’d like to have a crack at making that. With those beers, I learnt that homebrewing could be a bit more than just mixing together extracts and sugars, but instead you could do it the way a brewery does. Once I was on to that, it was a slippery slope into an obsession, which led me in to working in a couple of breweries – Six String, a little stint at Murray’s. Then, I came into the Hop + Grain about four years ago when it first opened, met Sam, became mates and he offered me a job and I’ve been here on and off ever since.
On the strangest beer he’s been asked to help brew.
Someone wanted to brew a beer that smelled like Chanel No. 5. That, of course, resulted in the pun that it was Chan-ALE. It had dried roses, hibiscus, saffron, chamomile tea in the form of a Saison, due to the base qualities and the aromatics of the yeast and the typical esters you get from a Belgian style, as well as a light malt base. We didn’t get to try it, unfortunately, because it was for said homebrewer’s Mum’s 50th. I wonder how it turned out actually…
On the most common problem(s) in homebrewing.
Most of the time, impatience! We’ve all been there. A lot of the time, it’s also the typical anxiety of your first ever batch. If it’s not bubbling, especially if it’s this time of year (winter), then you’re going to have little action through the airlock. Batch to batch, your bubbling is going to vary. Obviously, it’s a sign people like to see, because there’s activity, but we’re here to reinforce that it’s going to be okay!
In particular, each time I’ve stuffed up it’s been through cleaning, I’ve learnt the importance of that the hard way. I’m happy to admit that in the public sphere! I once had a guy I worked with at a brewery say, “we’re glorified janitors in many ways, the rest is babysitting yeast.” At a talk I went to from Chuck Hahn, he said, “if you’re a happy brewer and a confident brewer, you’re going to produce happy and confident beer.” That always stuck with me. If you don’t think something’s clean, clean it again!
On the stout we’re drinking.
Stouts can be a bit foolproof, in terms of robust ingredients, even if you just leave them to better for another week. When you brew them, when you’re mashing grains or even dissolving extract, it’s such a sensory experience. I’d never be unhappy when I’m mashing in a stout, porter or even a brown ale. It makes the room you’re in smell like a bakery or a chocolate factory.
With stouts, the sky’s the limit. We’ve done cinnamon stouts, chilli stouts, stouts with vanilla beans, coconut, oyster stouts – it’s a great, versatile style. You’ve got everything from dry Irish stouts to big, hoppy American oatmeal stouts. There’s this misconception that they’re heavy beers. I actually find stouts to be one of the more sessionable styles. Put a pint of Guinness in front of me and I’ll be a happy boy, and it’ll be gone just as quick as a pilsner.
On his favourite style of beer.
I’ve become obsessed with the romance of Farmhouse ales. A great author called Phil Markowski from the States wrote a book called “Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftsmanship in the Belgian Tradition,” which basically romanticised how farm to farm, each beer would have been different. The farmer could have traded spelt for his barley, or wheat for his spelt, or grown beetroot for some hops if he didn’t have any, and he’s making two to three different batches a year.
That idea gave birth to my favourite, go-to beer, Saison Dupont. It exemplifies Farmhouse brewing, in a way, but it’s an undefinable style. That slight renegade homebrewer aspect that’s in me wants to make use of how versatile Farmhouse ales can be. There were no rules. There was only one thing that they had in common, and that was that they were as dry as a bone. They’re there to refresh and slate the thirst of the workers.
On the importance of a brick-and-mortar store.
The face-time that we have with customers is invaluable to them. That’s the way they like to learn. By all means, you can be as resourceful as you like in homebrewing due to YouTube and blogs, which is fantastic – it’s also where we got a lot of our info from originally – but it’s also that face-to-face personal aspect that we’re really proud of.
Education is a big part of what we’re doing. The growth of home brewing in Sydney means that I have a lot more face-time with a lot of customers who are new to it and want to take it to an advanced level right away. That’s awesome, because it means we can develop a relationship with our customer and every time they come in, it’s a little education session for both of us. We’re constantly learning new things as well.
On the social aspect of beer.
I’d hate to see the decline of the pub. As much as apps like Untappd or RateBeer are good for the industry, because they bolster reputations, I’m not overly fond of going in to a pub and someone is rating a beer, just wanting to talk about what’s in front of them. I might be there to watch the football, or for a birthday party, while the highest Untappd rater is at home alone. It’s something that’s great about our drinking culture, we like to debate, we like to watch sports together, it’s just how we [as Aussies] are.