If you were going to grow a brewer in a lab, you could do a lot worse than using Luigi Mensi as a template. A lifetime of obtaining seemingly unrelated skills, lucky coincidences and unceasing hard work aside, it was a chance decision to try to make some mead while in the midst of studying chemistry in his native Italy that started Luigi on the path to becoming head brewer at Batch Brewing Co in Sydney’s inner west.
Even with his little batch of homemade mead taking second place at a local competition, it was the beer he brewed using a can of malt extract goo that sparked that, “Oh my God, I’ve made beer!” feeling that all first-time homebrewers share.
So, despite having easy access to some of the best beers in the world and a burgeoning craft beer scene in his hometown of Varese in the northeast of Italy, Luigi began brewing in every spare moment he had. Unfortunately, with few reliable employment options available in which he could make full use of his now-completed chemistry degree, there were more spare moments than he would have liked.
And thus, after two nights spent studying airfares, capital cities and Australia’s punishing visa system, Luigi decided he would take the plunge to see if he could fulfil his dream of being a professional brewer 16,000km from home. However, after landing in Brisbane in 2012, his plan to land an entry job at a local brewery was somewhat off the mark. Coming from Italy, where there were already more than 1,000 craft breweries, to a city that housed less than a handful was shocking.
With Green Beacon and Newstead Brewing still months away from opening and Brisbane Brewing Co not hiring, Luigi was left to fight for hospitality jobs alongside hordes of English-speaking backpackers before he finally landed a job towing advertising boards around the city on a scooter. Determined not to give up on his dream, Luigi happily opted to take up the Australian government’s offer to pick produce in regional Australia in exchange for an extra year on his visa.
Moving to Bundaberg just after the 2013 Queensland floods, he spent a month of 12 to 14 hour days digging sweet potatoes out of knee-deep mud for a wage that barely covered the rent of living with six other men in a small house owned by the farm. The only upside to this exploitation was that at least he had a marker against which to measure all other hardships.
As he explains: “That was probably the lowest point of my life, but now when hard things come along, I can think to myself, ‘at least it’s not sweet potatoes’.”
Escaping Bundaberg for the big city lights of Nyngan (home of the Big Bogan) in Central NSW, Luigi took on a much more pleasant job as a caretaker at farm where he would cook for 20, keep the house in order and utilise his skills as a mechanic to keep the trucks and machinery working. His regional work commitment fulfilled, Luigi spent a month spending all his money in Sydney before moving to Melbourne to follow his brewing dream without much more success.
Finally, it was Brewpack (which has since become Tribe) in their old Smeaton Grange facility who offered Luigi a job in their lab which, in testament to his work ethic and potential, morphed into a brewing job and full visa sponsorship. So it was back to Sydney where, over the course of the next five years, Luigi would witness the craft beer scene explode while steadily moving through the ranks to become 2IC – in charge of looking after and training 15 brewers of his own. These days, you can’t throw a stone in Sydney without hitting a brewer trained by Luigi.
Following Tribe’s move to their new Goulburn facility, Luigi looked to move somewhere closer to home. Mona Vale wasn’t as close as he would have liked but he couldn’t turn down the opportunity to work at Modus Operandi. With Luigi on board, MO doubled their output within three years and put plans for their Newcastle venue into action.
Subsequently, when the opportunity to head up the brewing team at Batch came along, it was an offer too good to pass up. Working at a smaller, community-minded brewery was more in line with what Luigi had envisaged – and was similar to many of the craft brewers in Italy. Funnily enough, in Luigi’s early days at Brewpack, he would walk past Batch's Marrickville home every day on the way to and from the train station and gaze wistfully inside.
During his time there, he's mainly focused on improving processes as opposed to changing recipes. After all, Batch is something of a wonderland for brewers with the ability to both hone in established core range beers and go absolutely wild with experimental batches and lesser brewed traditional styles at Small Batch in nearby Petersham.
Having initially caught up with Luigi to find out more about his collaborative work on a new souring bacteria with Fermentis – read more about that here – it was an absolute pleasure to sit down and have another chat with brewer, chemist, mechanic, motorcyclist, metalhead and lifelong hater of sweet potatoes, Luigi Mensi, for this entry in our long-running Brew & A series.
Why are you a brewer?
I ask myself this question every day, but it is the only job I want to do.
What would you be if you weren’t a brewer?
What was your epiphany beer?
Guinness! It was the first and only different beer style other than industrial lagers. This was well before the craft beer “revolution” in Italy.
How did you first get involved in the beer world?
Long story short, I bought the first extract kit only to get free shipping on an online order because I was gearing up to make mead. Thirteen years later, I've made 40 litres of mead and a few million litres of beer...
What's the best beer you’ve ever brewed?
The next one! But Neu Bruin got me excited.
What's your single favourite ingredient to use in beer?
Water? The most exciting thing about beer is the interaction of different elements. They all need to work like an orchestra to make a great beer and the brewer is the director!
Are there any beers you’ve brewed that might have been better left on the drawing board?
Nah, some recipes gave me more issues than others or I had to change plans on the fly, but in the end they always worked out.
If you could do a guest stint at any brewery(s) in the world, which would it be and why?
Wow, this is a tricky one after three years of lockdown… I travelled a lot around the world hunting for beer and I love to discover the stories behind them. If I have to pick one, Sierra Nevada. I’ll ask Grossman the number of his hop pusher, he gets the good stuff!
Which local (Aussie or Kiwi) breweries inspire you?
Stone & Wood Pacific Ale. I came to Australia a year after Galaxy landed in Europe as a new hop. I wasn’t a fan of it, but then I tried the Pacific Ale with all that awesome ripe passionfruit aroma, and I realised that in Europe we were using it wrong.
What inspires you outside the world of brewing beer?
What's your desert island beer – the one to keep you going if you were stranded for the rest of your days?
La Sfida! An Italian pilsner is a beer to drink 365 days a year.
And what would be the soundtrack to those days?
Born to Raise Hell by Motörhead.
If you couldn’t have beer, what would be your tipple of choice?
In my dry months, water is the go. Otherwise, I really like a good whiskey, a tequila or a mezcal.
What's the one thing you wish you’d known before becoming a brewer?
How hard it is.
And the one piece of advice you’d give to anyone considering a career in craft beer?
It is hard! Unless you really love it, stay away from it!
You can read other entries in our Brew & A series here.