It started as a chance meeting at a homebrew store. Joshua Murnane visited Grain and Grape in Yarraville and asked for advice on brewing sour beer. He was introduced to staff member Michael Leslie and three hours later (according to Josh but much less according to Michael), he was still getting a lesson.
The duo became good friends and, in 2014, decided they should stop talking and start planning. Five years later, in 2019, they opened Black Arts Brewers and Blenders in Williamstown.
The beers are brewed offsite then aged at the Williamstown location in a mixture of 225 litre barrels, 300 litre hogsheads, and 500 litre puncheons; in the years before launch, Josh spent untold hours searching online for barrel dealers and now they have a steady supply of formats from which to choose.
And, while they may not have unveiled them to the public until 2019, the duo had been brewing and ageing their beers since 2016, giving them three years of stock to blend at launch. Displaying admirable restraint, they wanted to wait to ensure the beer was ready before blending and bottle conditioning, and this patience is something the pair will wear with pride. All bottles show the average age of beer that’s inside to make it clear to consumers that what they have in their hands isn't the result of a quick souring process, but an extended period of ageing.
Launching with a Golden Wild Ale and a Red Wild Ale, the plan was to keep three core beers (with a darker version to come) while showcasing smaller runs of single barrel, dry-hopped versions, and fruited versions. As is often the way, plans have evolved over the years, with the third core – if you can call anything at Black Arts core – beer is their Bière de Coupage, which has appeared, like the Golden and Red, in various iterations.
As for the overarching style, while there have been blended IPAs, fruit beers and the like over the years, flavour profiles lean to the less sour and acidic side of wild ales, instead focusing on more refined drinkability. To achieve this, Black Arts use a large number of different yeast and bacteria cultures, gathered from their own homebrew experiments, commercial cultures, and lambic dregs. Over time they continue to refine and mix the favourites down, adding wild and koelschip cultures to their toolbag – not to mention a burgeoning sideline in spirits.
These days, it's a family affair too. With Michael having moved on to new adventures, Joshua's partner Chelsie is now even more of a key player in the operation than she was at the start, ensuring Black Arts beers are presented to the world in just as refined a manner as they present themselves to your palate.
As for their tasting room, it's not the easiest place to find – tucked into an industrial pocket in Melbourne’s west. If you look out from its roller door you'll find the Mobil Altona Refinery looming in the near distance – so near, in fact, the taproom is restricted to only 15 patrons at a time. Why? To make things easy in case of evacuation, of course.
Instead of a hindrance, they see that as a positive. It’s only open once a month, with the owners on hand to pour beer and geek out with those interested. Given Black Arts started out with two people geeking out together about wild and sour beer way back in 2014, it’s only fair they let everyone else join the conversation.