The road to becoming a brewer doesn't often follow a straightforward career trajectory. Sure, there are more TAFE courses helping budding brewers along the way there ever before but, in many case, it’s a job into which people fall – and, often, it’s only with the beauty of hindsight they realise how it all came to be.
For Carla Naismith, senior brewer at Shapeshifter Brewing, you can't draw a direct link between her time working as a flight attendant for land dwellers* and her current role making the modern beers the Adelaide brewery has built its reputation upon. But, looking back, it was the start of something.
Before brewing, Carla worked for the rail company Great Southern (which is now known as Journey Beyond Rail and hopefully make the asterisked phrase above make sense). The company's iconic train routes include The Ghan and The Overland and they're not just a great way to see the country but experience its beer scene too. And it was while working on the trains that Carla spent much of her downtime in city's like Melbourne and Perth visiting breweries.
“If I look back,” she says, “I can see the seeds get planted back then, but I was more like, ‘Craft beer, how good?’ and carried on with my 20s.”
After returning to Adelaide's hospo scene, her time at a craft beer-focused haunt in Port Adelaide only saw that love for beer grow further – soon her and a mate were homebrewing together.
“I went back went back to hospitality because you're very close with your colleagues in hospitality and it feels like you feel like family – and brewing’s much the same.
“But I got into homebrewing and fell in love with the process and our results that made me think, ‘Hang on, maybe I could do this’.”
From there, she started looking for a way into the beer industry or, to put it differently, made a pest of herself to find the right role. The first opportunity came while working at Sweet Amber in Semaphore; although she was hired to work front-of-house, she lent a hand whenever she could on the brewery floor. Six months later, Carla joined the team at Sparkke at the Whitmore (now a Mismatch brewpub) where she started brewing with head brewer Agi Gajic.
“I was two days in the brewery and three days front-of-house,” Carla says. “Then that quickly changed because Agi needed help and production and was ramping up, and I made it was clear that I was pretty passionate.
“So, I went from homebrewing with a friend to within two weeks Agi going, ‘Here’s the kit, off you go’ and I was like, ‘Holy smokes!’
“But Agi always had such faith in my ability."
After finishing at Sparkke, Carla moved to Loophole Brewing on the Limestone Coast, where she worked alongside brewer and mead maker Tom O’Reilly. A former Stone & Wood brewer, he brought with him a lot of experience in production and had set up the brewery with a quality-first mindset.
“We had everything we needed and I had this really good mentor in Tom too,” she says.
“Tom is one of the best brewers, but just doesn’t toot his own horn in any way, shape or form.”
Although she loved the work, the long drive from Adelaide to the brewery and the many nights away from home came with downsides, making the role akin to a fly-in-fly-out life, just without the air travel (which feels like something of a running theme at this point). In the meantime, James McCall – with whom Carla had worked at Sparkke – and Kevin Mulcahy were busy building Shapeshifter in Adelaide's western suburb of Findon.
“We stayed in touch throughout the build, just because James was my friend,” Carla says, “and when the venue opened, I was there that weekend, pouring beers because they were my mates.
“Then he rang me one day and he was like, 'Are you ready to come home?'.”
You can probably guess the answer to that question and now, as well as enjoying the role of senior brewer at Shapeshifter, Carla's a much-loved member of Adelaide's craft beer community and plays and active role the industry, even sharing co-hosting duties at the SA state party for this year's Indies with Brightstar Brewing's Steve Brockman.
“I kind of bounced around for ages and I was never really that happy in anything I was doing,” she says. “So, to finally find the thing that kind of makes you want to get out of bed in the morning feels like a privilege.”
As her answers below show, she's also incredibly honest and reflective when it comes to the industry about which she's so passionate. So over to Carla for a chat about all things beer and Trinidad sours as part of our Brew & A series.
Why are you a brewer?
It’s really pretty simple, I fell in love with beer. It was like a puzzle, a mystery I wanted to solve: “How do they do this?”
It was the catalyst of a journey of drinking, exploring, learning and working hard to find out. Now I’m here, it’s a job where I will never stop being challenged, I will never stop learning, I will always continue to grow, be better and make better beer to share with friends, family and punters alike. I found brewing later in life than some, but I know I’ve found my calling.
What would you be if you weren’t a brewer?
A baker or pastry chef. Similar to brewing, really: a creative outlet, process is key, tasty treats at the end that I can share with others.
That or something completely obvious, like beer sales, or beer-affiliated sales, where I can still be a part of this beautiful beer community. Beer journalism?
What was your epiphany beer?
I remember this vividly: one of my best friends was working behind the bar at The Wheaty – arguably the best pub in Australia and key player in the development of Adelaide’s craft beer scene – and I went for a knock-off one afternoon. Knowing little about beer at the time, I asked her for recommendations. She insisted I have a Rodenbach Grand Cru, pulled a brown bottle out of the fridge and poured it into a tulip for me. The deep reddish-brown colour had my attention before I even lifted the glass to my mouth.
After one mouthful I was captivated. This wasn’t the kind of beverage that came to mind when I thought about beer; it was tart and complex and I was enthralled.
“How do you make a beer like this?” I thought to myself. It really was the beginning of a journey.
How did you first get involved in the beer world?
I worked really hard, made a bit of a pest of myself and wormed my way in.
I was part of the management team in a craft beer-focused venue in Port Adelaide and started drinking a lot of tasty beers. I started all-grain homebrewing with a friend, moved to running a small craft brewery taproom and then volunteered my time in the brewery, squeegeeing floors, weighing out hops and generally following the brewers around in awe. It all went from there.
What's the best beer you’ve ever brewed?
I’m not sure I know a brewer who could give you a straight answer on this one. We might pull things out of tank that we think are pretty good but it’s rare that we wouldn’t want to change, tweak or improve something given the chance. The first hazy IPA I ever brewed was a collaboration with the company that I worked for at the time and Shapeshifter Brewing Co, the company I work for now. I remember pulling tank samples and I was so excited by what I was seeing, smelling and tasting.
I was very excited by the first barrel-aged beer I got to blend with Tom down at Loophole: Salt Water Stout Porter in bourbon barrels. I learnt a lot through that process and was really happy with what we sent to pack. We brewed a dark fruited sour for International Women's Day this year with a couple of my favourite female colleagues at Shapeshifter; it was complex and jammy and something completely different to our normal wheelhouse.
I think those would be my top three, but I couldn’t give you an absolute favourite.
What's your single favourite ingredient to use in beer?
Are barrels considered an ingredient? Barrels!
Although there are a lot of unknowns when using barrels and it can be somewhat risky, some of my favourite days in the brewery have been tasting and blending barrels. The results are sometimes surprising and almost always delicious. Given it takes a little more time than your standard ale, it’s not something we get to use often just from a business standpoint, so it always seems like a special treat.
Are there any beers you’ve brewed that might have been better left on the drawing board?
I brewed a Christmas cake red ale, 20 kilogram of Lions Christmas Cake in the mash, along with a spice mix and orange peel in the boil. It wasn’t terrible, but wasn’t that popular so I probably could have left that one on the drawing board.
If you could do a guest stint at any brewery(s) in the world, which would it be and why?
Cantillon, 3 Fonteinen or Rodenbach. Something spontaneous, barrel or foeder-aged and steeped in tradition.
I went to a masterclass with the barrel master from Firestone Walker at Carwyn Cellars a few years back, that was pretty inspiring.
If I could travel the world for the rest of my days, doing six-month stints in different breweries, learning from the masters, I would.
Which local breweries inspire you?
Deeds. The team there are skilled: hazies, lagers, mixed culture, they really can do it all.
Fox Friday. Relatively fresh faces but, my goodness, they are producing undoubtedly some of the best beer in Australia.
Wildflower have long been a favorite and need no introduction.
Range. Australia’s hazy pioneers, still pioneering with new techniques, processes and now spearheading festivals too!
Loophole. I’m hanging for this year's Astral release, mixed-culture ferment utilising grapes from the neighbouring vineyards.
What inspires you outside the world of brewing beer?
Art, food, design and nature.
What's your desert island beer – the one to keep you going if you were stranded for the rest of your days?
Wildflower Amber blend – a little bit of malt complexity and depth, plenty of acid, rounded, well-balanced. I never get tired of this beer.
And what would be the soundtrack to those days?
LCD Soundsystem, Bonobo and emo pop rock from the early 2000s.
If you couldn’t have beer, what would be your tipple of choice?
Trinidad sour. The base spirit for this cocktail is Angostura Bitters, so it's not for the faint-hearted, but it's bitter and herbaceous in the best possible way, which is then balanced out by solid acid drive.
I love this drink. It tastes like an adult's sour cola bottle lolly.
What's the one thing you wish you’d known before becoming a brewer?
That it's more than just a job, in both good ways and bad. The beer industry and the community of humans within it are so special. I have made lifelong friends. We collaborate, support and celebrate each others wins, it really is a beautiful thing.
I do wish I had known just how invested I would become, often putting the job before my own needs and those of my loved ones. It doesn’t just take up 38 hours a week, it takes up that, plus unpaid overtime, plus often holidays and weekends end up being spent visiting breweries, going to festivals, researching and networking. Brewers work so damn hard.
Our days are filled with manual labour and mentally draining decision-making, it can be exhausting. That plus the award wage for brewers is terrible, so we don’t see financial compensation that lines up with the level of skill and commitment.
A bad review on a beer you’ve made on the dreaded Untappd or similar can feel like a dagger to the heart. I think sometimes the punters don’t understand how much of ourselves goes into what we create. It’s a blessing and a curse.
I feel so lucky to have found a job I feel so passionately about, but sometimes I wish it wasn’t so all-consuming. Somebody said to me recently: “Eighty percent of your personality is beer.” I don’t think they meant it as a compliment and I think it’s a fair and accurate observation.
And the one piece of advice you’d give to anyone considering a career in craft beer?
Maybe don’t? Or be prepared to work really hard, not get paid very much, lose loved ones, and pour everything of yourself into the beers you create – but also make friends, be welcomed into a community of the coolest humans, feel like you’ve found your place in the world. It’s a weird place – buckle up!
You can find other entries in the Brew & A series here.