For many years now, Yulli’s restaurant in Surry Hills has flown under the beer radar in Sydney.
The Crown Street establishment is first and foremost a vegetarian establishment that just happens to serve great beer to a quiet legion of loyal patrons. It’s only fitting that when Yulli’s started producing their own beer, the brand was also launched without grand fanfare.
Yulli’s Brews is led by brewer James Harvey, who splits his time between staffing the restaurant and travelling nomad-style around Sydney breweries producing beer. Harvey says that the idea of their own brand of beer was bubbling away for a while between himself and Yulli’s owner Karl Cooney, but says that when he first started working at the restaurant five years ago, beer was not a focus for him.
“I was just here for a job,” Harvey says. “As I went along with it Karl started to introduce me to good beer, and I obviously learned quite a lot from him.”
“Karl and I along the way always sort of fantasised about ‘we’ll have our own brewery one day’ – just talking shit – we didn’t think it was actually going to be a thing.”
The opportunity to learn about brewing first came when Harvey was invited by the crew of the Grifter Brewing Company to attend a brewday of their dark wheat beer at the Young Henry’s brewery in Newtown. His first taste of any kind of brewing was in a commercial capacity, quite contrary to the way brewers usually get started.
“I went down and spent a whole day there… and I loved it. I started homebrewing the next day, just got straight into it,” Harvey explains.
“They said we’re brewing again in two weeks, come along. I literally went to almost every one of their brewdays for almost a year. I was brewing almost twice a week at home and churning them out.”
Harvey entered one of his brews into a homebrew comp at the Vic on the Park hotel, and when his beer emerged victorious, Karl told him “Let’s do it. Your beers are good enough. Let’s go.”
Harvey brewed his first brews at the Happy Goblin brewery at Mt Ku-ring-gai. At first the setup was less than ideal: he would brew the beers at home, and transfer hot wort to the brewery via 25-Litre drums.
Since that time – hand-in-hand with acquiring a production licence – Harvey has been lining up time and rare fermenter space at a variety of breweries around the greater Sydney
area, including St Peter’s Brewery, the Australian brewery in Rouse Hill, HopDog BeerWorks in Nowra and more recently at Blackrock Brasserie in Sylvania.
Yulli’s Brews core range consists of three (or four) beers that the boys talk about as ‘characters’: Norman the Australian Ale, Bruce Malone the English IPA, the Fat Nerd vanilla porter and Slick Rick’s Rampaging Red Ale.
The next beer to be added to their core range is a lager, which will be released during Sydney Craft Beer Week in October, with plans for a week-long event to promote it at the restaurant.
The beers are not exclusively restricted to their own venue. Harvey has spent a lot of his free time outside his brewing and restaurant work travelling to venues around Sydney, doing the legwork and sales to get Yulli’s brews on tap wherever possible.
He estimates around 30 venues in Sydney and Newcastle have had their beers on tap, including a reliable supply to nearby craft beer pubs the Dove & Olive and Keg & Brew, as well as the more unlikely suspect of Darling Harbour’s Pontoon bar.
With co-founder Karl Cooney having moved with his family to Byron Bay at the end of 2014, the plans for expanding their distribution revolve around the market in the north coast, and across the Queensland border.
“I’m really excited about that. There’s the Brisbane market, which I’d love to have a crack at, and then a little bit here and around Byron,” Cooney says.
“The real challenge here is to make sure we’re not letting down anyone in Sydney… but there’s a massive, massive opportunity up here. It would be lovely to get into a couple of the local venues.”
To help with distribution, Yulli’s brews are about to start releasing non-keg versions of their core range. This will include longnecks of the Fat Nerd, Slick Rick and Bruce Malone using the bottling line at Willie the Boatman in Tempe, while their Norman Australian Ale is soon to be released in cans packaged out of Icon Brewing in western Sydney.
Cooney and Harvey say their ultimate plan is to open a brewpub in the Byron Bay area.
“We were looking at… Maybe two years into it we’ll start looking into doing this,” Harvey says.
“And in that two years we’ll spend all our time and money and efforts into building our brand… before we set up shop and take the plunge.”
Cooney agrees: “It’s definitely not a next year thing, we’re trying to get the beer right, we’re trying to get a lot of the operations all good, which is getting there.”
You can follow the progress of Yulli’s Brews on Facebook, and keep an eye out for their SCBW event when the programme is launched in the coming weeks.