Artisan Brewing is a Belgian-style brewer born of a love for an often-neglected element in brewing: yeast.
Their journey began in WA’s Great Southern in 2001 when globe-trotting husband and wife, Brian and Julia Fitzgerald, purchased a farm just west of Denmark after falling in love with the stunning beauty and serenity of the region. They had originally planned to settle into semi-retirement, and a wine journey with Julia's twin sister and husband – what became the since-closed Rising Star Wines – but instead, after Brian completed his qualification with the American Brewers Guild Brewing Science Program, a seed was planted to start a brewery.
During numerous study trips to Pajottenland to further understand the influence of yeast on beer flavours, they discovered the sophisticated beer culture distinctly similar to many famous wine regions of the world, and developed a true obsession with Belgian beer.
Upon learning certain Belgian ales can last for years, they began exploring the idea of creating beers that represented the best of the ingredients found each year. The idea was to create vintage ales capable of ageing in the cellar like fine wine, and thus was born the concept of the “Artisan Ethos” – one designed to showcase Belgian-style beers here in Australia.
Within that, the couple devised four pillars for the brewing company: Art, Science, Passion, and Community.
The intention was to build a farmhouse brewery outside Denmark, but they encountered several roadblocks: shire regulations, RGL licensing changes, building foundation issues, the GFC, and likely EPA restrictions. But, driven by a "never give up, never be defeated" attitude, they instead turned to gypsy brewing in 2014, while playing with numerous side hustles as Brian stepped in as president of the Western Australian Brewers Association (WABA) and became Australia’s first Certified Cicerone.
If their story so far hadn’t already made it clear Artisan was a brewing operation like little else in Australia, the identity of the beer with which they launched should do the trick: the 8.2 percent ABV Farmhouse Red Saison was a recipe Brian initially derived for an amateur competition and which, eight years later, made its way back into the lineup as Legacy.
And so their journey began in earnest, with a series of yeast-forward ales that quickly garnered a mighty reputation within the WA beer scene. Over time, a four beer core range took shape guided by customer preferences, accompanied by a never-ending list of seasonals and one-off releases. Since February 2021, they’ve also been using a special enzyme in all of their beers, bar Witbier, to remove gluten to a level under the threshold of the ELISA scale.
Given the way in which the contemporary craft beer world has become so dominated by hops, taking time to work your way through Artisan's array of ales is like taking a holiday, or perhaps a trip through some of the world’s beer history. Their yeast-forward beers are awash with complex aromas and flavours of fruits and spices, displaying the distinctive variation that can be derived from the dozen-plus different strains Artisan manage.
As with the European beers that inspired them, you’ll also find plenty of food-friendly offerings in Artisan’s oeuvre. In an Australian climate that has, to date, proven mostly resistant to the charms of saisons, some of their most popular releases are fruited sour saisons, such as Passion Jam, using passionfruit, and Peps Goyave, brewed with guava and lime.
In such beers, the blending of different saison yeasts and use of unique fermentation techniques allows them to eke out new flavours enhanced by the addition of fruit after fermentation designed to complement or contrast those underlying flavours. Fruit has appeared in non-sour releases too, most notably the wonderful Tripel Treating, a 10.5 percent ABV Tripel infused with mango.
The team began barrel-ageing in 2017 with a traditional Flanders Red Ale. This became the launchpad for their solera program, for which they rack off 70 percent of the liquid in barrels before refilling them with freshly fermented beer. After another two years, the process is repeated. Should you pick up such a beer you can decode which vintage of Flanders Red is in your hand thus: the first two digits are the year in which the process started, the second two the year it was released.
It’s joined in the barrel-aged range by a quasi-wild-fermented, solera-style golden saison refermented in spent cider barrels, which shares a name with the brewery mascot Zenne, the champagne border collie who is the offspring of Rocky Ridge’s celebrated Indy and Ace, as well as the river that runs through the Lambic region of Belgian.
Since they started releasing beers, barely a year has passed without Brian and Julia picking up trophies at WA’s beer awards. Typically, these have been garnered by the stronger Abbey styles – Quadrupels, Tripels and Dubbels – as well as their farmhouse ales, but success for their Great Southern mid-strength – Best Low Alcohol Packaged at the 2022 Perth Royal Beer Show – and a pilsner shows they can turn their talents to an array of beers.
Although you won't find a brewery or cellar door in Denmark, Artisan host plenty of events throughout the year at customers’ venues. They’re renowned for their food-focused events – long table lunches, beer degustation dinners, cheese and chocolate pairings – but the highlight for many is Palate Wrecker, run during WA Beer Week, Belgian Beer Week and at other times throughout the year. Add in tap takeovers at which you might be able to sample 20 Belgian-influenced beers – their record was 26 at Petition during Belgian Beer Week in July 2019 – and you might wonder how they’d have time to run a cellar anyway.
At time of writing, they’d released close to 150 beers and launched The Quadrivium Aristocracy, a subscription service delivering unique and rare vintaged ales and barrel-aged beers and blends to members. A spirit project is on the cards too so, while it might have taken more than a decade from buying their farm to release their first beer, and while an actual farmhouse brewery may never eventuate, it’s fair to say their semi-retirement plans aren’t going that well. Or, if you’re a fan of such delicious beverages, you might say they’re going splendidly.