Strip clubs. Sex shops. Boxing gyms. Dive bars. It’s what you find deep in the guts of the Valley, in and around the short stretch of Brunswick Street, west of the mall.
But also, a mushroom farm. True story.
Take a left onto Alfred Street, and left again onto Esther Street, wander down the hill, and Joel Schiller hits the switch on an enormous automatic door. It rolls open to reveal a broad, grungy warehouse with high ceilings.
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“Welcome to Urban Valley,” Schiller says, smiling.
Urban Valley mushroom farm is a rambling space. Co-owner Schiller’s unfussy desk is to the left. There’s a wrinkly leather couch and a coffee table on the right. A set of fridges line a far wall. Filling much of the floor is the “main event” – an enormous fruiting room (an enclosed space that growers use to mimic mushroom-friendly environmental conditions), its immaculate white walls standing in contrast to the rest of the scene.
“We’ll save it for last,” Schiller says, and leads the way to a back corner of the premises where lines of shelves are stacked high with sterilised, sealed bags of what looks like a white-spotted mulch. These, it turns out, are mushrooms deep in the incubation process. In each bag is a substrate of wood and soy hull (both agricultural by-products). The white Schiller points to is mycelium, a root-like structure of fungus from which mushrooms grow – a few weeks ago the mycelia started life on simple agar plates cloned from other mushroom samples.
From here, the bags will be transferred to the fruiting room and have holes cut in the side to allow the mushrooms to grow out and into air that’s been carefully controlled for temperature and humidity. This is when the process accelerates, the mushrooms – otherworldly monster blues, fluffy coral tooths, button-like chestnuts – roughly doubling in size every 24 hours. After that, it’s time to harvest.
“I get a lot of gratification out of the instant results you see,” Schiller says. “It’s three weeks before the fruiting stage and then, suddenly, they evolve really fast.”
Schiller became interested in mushrooms when working at Danielle Gjestland’s celebrated Wasabi restaurant in Noosa. He remembers the colourful oyster mushrooms that used to be delivered to the kitchen by Noosa Earth, a mushroom farm run out of a Noosaville industrial estate.
“I thought it was such a cool idea,” Schiller says. “It’s a really modular way of growing but also something that’s quite approachable to get into. You don’t need 50 acres or anything. So that was ticking away in the back of my mind.”
And then the pandemic arrived. Schiller’s partner and now also business partner in Urban Valley, Rachel Hughes, was working at commercial fruit and vegetable supplier Suncoast Fresh and noticed a major shortage in gourmet mushrooms – her clients kept asking for product she simply couldn’t supply. Schiller was working at Baja Modern Mexican in the Valley but starting to think of a life outside of hospitality.
“So I had a bit of a chat to Rachel and Graeme [Twine, Suncoast Fresh owner] and then worked to fill a hole in the market, essentially. So we’ve spent the past year trying to grab that bull by the horns.”
Urban Valley started in an old taxi depot at the northern end of Fortitude Valley before, in October, moving to its current warehouse digs. It’s only a year into the business but you can already find Schiller and Hughes’s product in restaurants such as Stanley, SK Steak & Oyster, Bacchus, Restaurant Dan Arnold, Goma Restaurant and Honto.
Urban Valley isn’t the first urban mushroom farm in Brisbane – perhaps best known is Little Acre, which was established in West End in 2018 and is now based in Geebung – and Schiller says the market has become something of a virtuous circle, with the greater reliability of supply meaning chefs are more comfortable putting mushrooms on their regular menus, fuelling further demand.
“I reckon demand has probably doubled to tripled in the past year,” Schiller says. “Chefs don’t want to put something on the menu if they can’t get it consistently for the next few weeks. It’s not viable. That’s one thing I’ve worked on with Suncoast – to create a stable, consistent product that can be relied upon. If a chef puts it on the menu, they’re gonna get it, week in and week out.”
Looking ahead, Schiller is planning on rearranging the warehouse to double his fruiting capacity, and he and Hughes are beginning to engage directly with diners by organising regular events in the warehouse with partner restaurants such as Naim and Baja.
“They’re long-table dinners that are fun and intimate, for about 18 people,” Schiller says. “The next is a vegan dinner in July. Diners can come in, enjoy a set or shared menu with wine. We just wanted to utilise this space a little bit more, where we’re able to showcase to people what farming can be like in urban environments.
“But it’s also about showing that disused places in the city or CBD areas can be utilised to grow produce … It’s very much the future, using small spaces like this to create vertical, hydroponic-style farms in CBD areas. And it keeps it relevant to our chefs as well – it’s easy for them to come through and check out what we do. That’s really important.”
Urban Valley’s Fungi Times vegan dinner will take over the farm on the night of July 21. Follow the links via Urban Valley’s Instagram for tickets.