The collapse of the Australian video game industry in the late 2000s left developer Robbie Mather in a pickle. Now, he makes them.
The gaming industry’s downturn left a lot of developers wondering what their next move would be. Ryan Davidson and Fil Kemp pursued their love of craft beer and founded Little Bang brewery. For Mather, who worked alongside them at Ratbag Games and Krome Studios, followed a slightly different path.
After working as a website developer, he joined the State Theatre Company as their graphic designer. But seeing his former colleagues building their own brand made him wonder if he could do the same thing. “After years behind a computer designing other people’s work I wanted to use my creativity to build something tangible of my own,” he says. “Something I could design and build from scratch and grow.” One way to channel that creativity was to bring the two worlds together for the Dark Arts collaboration, a chocolate stout that was released to accompany last year’s Creditors.
But craft beer was not what Mather wanted to spend his days making. Instead, he had his sights set on starting a food brand. To that end, he spent some time in Japan with his friend Ichiro Inoue (who runs Little Tokyo in the Central Market Arcade) and tried his hand at making miso. “We had a successful batch and it tasted incredible,” he recalls, “but the dangers of fermented rice were a little off-putting… if you fuck it up, you could kill someone.”
It was while he was on a video chat with his wife Lucy Guster that he finally found the right product. She was in New York at the time and called him from a store called Pickle Boys, which was full of “barrels of really interesting products like pickled pineapple and celery and Lucy was describing it all to me as she sampled the pickles. I spoke to the guys doing the pickling and asked them about their process, fortunately they were really open and encouraging… So I thought ‘I want to do that, it’s cool, I’ll give that a crack’.” And like that, Nice Pickles was born.
Say the word “pickle”, and most people picture a smallish cucumber, but it’s a process that has been around for thousands of years and can be applied to any vegetable (or plant) by immersing it in vinegar or brine. The acidity of vinegar helps kill most bacteria, while a saline solution encourages fermentation and produces bacteria that are good for the gut. Though initially a method of preserving food that would otherwise go bad, it can also be used to add all kinds of delicious flavours and Mather was happy to prioritise flavour when he opted for the vinegar method.
The next decision was what vegetable to work with. Traditional pickling cucumbers are not widely grown in Australia, and he discovered that “Lebanese cucumbers just go soggy.” Beans, on the other hand, are widely available, preserve their crunch and can easily work as a snack, garnish or sandwich filling.
Flavour-wise, he “thought about the Australian pickle market and the type of food that pickle fans gravitate towards which tends to be BBQ and food with a lot of heat.” With a little Caribbean inspiration, he found his first product: Jerk Beans. Since launching in 2017, he’s sent stock to a range of suppliers, from butchers and smallgoods stores to restaurants like Africola and bars including Melbourne’s Bar Tini.
Each jar contains a solution of apple cider vinegar, white vinegar, habanero, allspice, pepper and bay leaf. The result is a tangy, slightly spicy bean that has a very satisfying crunch when eaten alone or propped up in a bloody mary. Once they’re gone, the pickle brine is an excellent hangover tonic – an application that may well prove useful when he moves his production into Little Bang’s Stepney home at the end of March.
Because they’re designed to keep for a long time – Mather recommends a year to be on the safe side but adds that “they would keep longer” – it’s essential to prepare the jars carefully. To that end, he cleans each jar and heats it to kill bacteria before adding the spices, beans and hot liquid then quickly sealing it. The brine can be heated to over 100 degrees before it boils, so it flash cooks the beans as well as killing bacteria. Then he completes the process by using the “inversion method”, which is a fancy term for turning the jar upside down to kill any bacteria that might be on the lid. After that, it’s simply a matter of waiting. Mather rotates the jars once a week, and it takes about a month before they achieve the right flavour and consistency.
The patience required in pickling is one of the key appeals for Mather. “It’s kind of beautiful, you get this product and you can’t touch it for a while… I’ve worked with a lot of tech start-ups and I became tired of the need for fast money and an exit strategy. I was really looking for the opportunity to take things slowly and be in control of what I’m releasing.”