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Killing beer softly…

February 15, 2011

It is with great sadness that I announce the death of a good beer bar. The Platform Bar at Brisbane’s Grand Central Hotel is no more.

Well, the bar itself is still there but its days as Brisbane’s best beer bar are over, killed by the short-sightedness of Lion Nathan and Fosters.

Over the past five years the Platform Bar has been carving out a niche as the only inner city bar in Brisbane with a constantly changing and interesting range of tap and bottled beers. During this time it has been developing an increasing following amongst Brisbane’s beer community and regularly hosting some of Brisbane’s most interesting beer events, mine included.

Most importantly, at a time when beer sales have been declining nationally, the Platform Bar has been at the forefront of creating renewed interest for beer in Brisbane. Queensland is one of the nation’s slowest-growing craft beer markets and the Platform Bar has played a huge role in forming an active and enthusiastic beer community in the State’s capital.

The strength of the bar’s beery achievements was marked last year when, without any lobbying or active promotion, it was named Best Small Beer Bar in the nation in the Beer & Brewer Magazine poll.

This week the bar has signalled that its days as an independent source of good beer are over. Of the bar’s eight taps, it seems that seven will be denied to anyone other than Lion Nathan and Fosters, with the one and only independent tap going to Stone & Wood’s Pacific Ale…a bright light to be sure, but a light dimmed by the darkness surrounding it.

While it’s a terrible loss to beer diversity in Brisbane, you can’t be unsympathetic to the hotel’s predicament. Virtually every hotel in the city is subject to one of these lucrative and choice-denying tap contracts. It is virtually impossible for an inner city venue to compete when all nearby hotels are getting lucrative cash rebates and ‘business development’ funds. And so, like almost every other bar in Australia, the hotel has tap contracts with Fosters and Kirin-owned Lion Nathan requiring the venue to assign their taps almost exclusively to these two brewers.

Adhering to these contracts for the majority of the venue’s 25 taps, the hotel has apparently been playing a little loose with their contracts in the Platform bar. In doing so the hotel managed to make these eight taps a beer oasis featuring a huge range of Australian craft and international tap beers. Despite this font promiscuity, these eight taps also regularly featured the best of the beers from the big-brewery-owned Matilda Bay and James Squire ranges. They weren’t used exclusively but they were strongly featured because they were deserving of a place in any good beer line up.

Beer consumption continues to fall. (Source: ABS)

But it seems the large multinational brewers don’t want Australians drinking their beers voluntarily, chosen on their own merits. They seem to only want us to drink them when we are compelled to. And so the local sales teams have been directed by senior management of both companies to drive ‘contract compliance’ across all hotels. Instead of letting one small bar within a relatively small hotel in Brisbane continue to work to attract new drinkers to beer, the large brewers are using their massive financial muscle to dictate what beers we can drink.

Instead of getting to sample a wide variety of the best of Australian craft beer, Brisbane’s beer drinkers will be presented with the same lineup they would find in a TAB or airport terminal.

It is astounding that, at a time when beer consumption has dropped to its lowest point since the Second World War, the two biggest brewers believe they can’t risk growing the market through genuine competition for fear that they won’t gain all of the benefit from that growth. Instead they each only look to taking a little more market share from the other while overall consumption falls.

Like two schoolboys, they are so busy fighting over an ice-cream in the playground they have failed to notice that what they fight over is melting.

Lion Nathan and Fosters have enormous competitive advantages in the market place. They have monumental economies of scale that enable them to brew every beer they make cheaply but to high quality standards. They have national sales teams and distribution networks that enable them to efficiently get their beer to every corner of the country. They have enormous marketing and advertising budgets that permit them to spend lavishly on promotional campaigns designed to penetrate a national marketplace and create lasting brand recognition for their products. Finally, when they turn their mind to it, they can also make very good beer.

But they do not choose to compete in the marketplace on any of these strengths and competitive advantages. Instead they each choose to keep a jealous eye on the other and churn out indistinguishable me-too beers and then use their size to bind the national tap market to their anodyne offerings with golden handcuffs. But while making hoteliers offers they can’t refuse, they treat beer drinkers with arrogance and contempt.

It is no wonder that people are bored with beer and are looking elsewhere.

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32 Responses to Killing beer softly…

  1. Ollied on March 14, 2012 at 8:56 pm

    Ouch, I havn’t been to Brisbane in a year. Hughly disappointed to see the platform’s top choice was between fat yak and squires pale ale – excellent if its 3am and your in the middle of nowhere. But not what I wa expecting of the platform.

    However, jumped in a taxi ($12) to the ‘archive beer boutique’. Back bar has some good beers on tap, e.g. Mikkeller single hop, and a solid range of domestic, NZ and international craft. Food pretty average though, you worry when you get it 2mins after ordering.

  2. […] Platform Bar @ Grand Central Hotel 270 Ann Street, Brisbane Central Station Now defunct, thanks to the major brewers stamping out their craft beer taps. […]

  3. […] The Spotted Cow Hotel in Toowoomba is an oasis in a beer desert as wide as our sun shiney state. In June they stamped their authority on that claim further with the ‘Milking the Cow’ Festival. 50 rare, unusual and one off brews over 3 days. It was literally too much beer for Qld to handle and they didn’t get through all the kegs by the time I was swept out the door late on Sunday night. At no point will I claim this was a good way to taste beer. It was a great way top have some fun and enjoy the taste sensations with a great bunch of avid craft beer fans in an establishment that supports them and bows to no contract! […]

  4. leigh sloane on March 15, 2011 at 1:16 pm

    can they still sell craft beer over the bar by pouring into glasses from bottles? the bottle shop has a good variety of beers to choose from which is lot more than any other shop in the city centre.

    • Editor on March 16, 2011 at 10:29 am

      They can, but I gather the bar fridges are contracted too – which further limits choice.

  5. Michael on February 18, 2011 at 1:12 pm

    Hopefully Local Taphouse will open in Brisbane and bring a craft beer oasis into the barren desert wasteland of craft beer here in Brisbane.

  6. David on February 17, 2011 at 8:15 pm

    Well its sayonara to Platform Bar. I visited it in another life when I worked next to it, before I discovered craft beer. It was a manky place then. For a brief bright moment, it was the place to go. Now there is no reason to visit anymore. Craft beer drinkers stand by your guns and stay away, I say! Go to the German Club, drink great beers and commiserate on another bar that has suffered “same-ification”.

  7. Ian on February 17, 2011 at 6:22 pm

    The Spotted Cow is still QLDs original home of craft beer. One of Australia’s pioneering beer pubs (and beer wasn’t all it did).
    Viva la Cow !

  8. Ian on February 17, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    Maybe the Platform dudes should watch this:
    “Stone Brewing CEO Greg Koch explains why switching from mediocre brands — which can sometimes rely on illegal giveaways and unethical incentives — and switching to quality craft beer will improve the bottom line.”

  9. Scott MacLeod Liddle on February 16, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    had noticed the tap rotation became very stale since starting back in the City a few weeks ago.

    this news is pretty darn sad since i catch the train and hit platform with a book before the slog home.

    can’t justify stopping there if this is happening, might start catching the bus with a growler in hand :)

  10. Tim on February 16, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    Nice article but this is sad news.
    I guess I will be doing a bit more drinking at the Archive bar in West End now, nice austrailan selection.

  11. steve J on February 16, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    If anyone knows someone with excellent hospitality experience in Brisbane, we are keen to discuss opening a Local Taphouse there where this local operator could own a stake.

    • Be on March 17, 2011 at 5:07 pm

      Hi Steve i am interested in your suggestion ive beeen in the hospitality industry in brisbane for over ten years and have been looking into this idea for a while now

  12. Fred on February 16, 2011 at 8:43 am

    I recommended this place a while ago, now we can’t go there.

    Judging by this article, and the negative publicity that the bar is receiving from home brew forums, beer lover forums and the like, this contract could very well be counterproductive.

    There are enough good beer drinkers in a city of 2m people, and enough that I personally know of to make a good craft bar work.

    I say put it on the northside, on a major arterial or nearby and watch them come. If they aren’t side by side with LN or CUB volume pumping pubs by the thousands, they might have a fighting chance.

  13. Paul on February 15, 2011 at 10:32 pm

    As a former ops manager for a hotel group, I can tell you It’s a national issue, as the big boys either pay for the tap installation (costing $3k – $5k per tap) or offer straight volume rebates, as their KPI’s are measured on market share.
    It’s also a massive false economy for publicans & bar owners – if they forget the dick measuring over who gets the most cents per litre, they can make up to $7 per litre by actually selling beer. It’s just crazy, but most who set up see the saving in up front costs without thinking about the reduction in target market (appealing to less drinkers) or the potential margin loss.
    It’s also why smart operators don’t sign up, & attract the kind of following the platform used to enjoy…

  14. Kevin Hawley on February 15, 2011 at 7:43 pm

    Never been to Queensland, but this makes me very sad. If there nothing in state or federal legislation that outlaws this kind of anti-competitive practice by the big breweries, then there probably should be! Brisbane beer lovers should be writing to their MPs. In fact, why don’t we all do that. Mention unfair excise for small breweries while you’re on. How many other good beer bars are going to find themselves in the same predicament in future?

    Incidentally, I like the ice-cream analogy.

    • steve J on February 16, 2011 at 12:40 pm

      No publican is forced to sign any contract. You just need some passion and the courage of your convictions to go down the better beer route.

      • Editor on February 16, 2011 at 12:48 pm

        Undoubtedly Steve, and the Local Taphouse and a handful of others are an example of how that can be done and hopefully act as a lesson to others that it can be done. Roll on Taphouse Brisbane!

        • Ian on February 16, 2011 at 6:46 pm

          Taphouse Brisbane! Hear hear!

  15. David Murphy on February 15, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    You know it’s initially bewildering to think how this could happen, especially in Australia’s 3rd largest city. However, Chicago, coincidently America’s 3rd largest city, was up until very recently notorious for the same thing. Craft beer was dying as it couldn’t get a foothold in any bars due to the big boys fighting over the entire pie…thankfully bit by bit real beer enthusiasts said ‘F**k you’ to the bland behemoths and slowly awesome beer bars starting opening or taking over existing establishments…I guess what I’m trying to say is, there’s still hope Brisbane, you just need to do something about it!

  16. joecast73 on February 15, 2011 at 6:36 pm

    Huge bummer for Brisbane. Would be devastated if this happened locally. Not saying where that is in case “They” are watching.

  17. Ian on February 15, 2011 at 5:44 pm

    Like Crafty said, this spells opportunity with a capital O for some enterprising bar owner in Brisbane.

    That said, we used to have an expression in the service whenever someone started griping: You signed the f*****g contract. With its loyal following there must have been some way for the Platform to break free of the evil grip of Fosters/Lion Nathan. What do these contracts involve that make them so difficult to escape? If it’s only the incentive of cheaper beer and some beer mats, then it sounds like the pub owner just took the easy way out.

    • Editor on February 15, 2011 at 5:57 pm

      I know nothing the specifics of the Grand Central contract but from what I have been advised elsewhere, we are not talking a few dollars and beer mats Ian. Often quoted figures include rebates of 50 cents a litre for draught beer and potentially tens of thousands in ‘business development’ rebates equate to more return for bar owners than excise rebates would return to craft brewers so it’s not insignificant. If the pub on either side of you is getting them, good luck ‘competing’ if you don’t too.

      • Ian on February 15, 2011 at 9:09 pm

        I’d argue that you’d have a better competitive advantage in serving different (and better) beers, rather than being yet another bar serving the same (price reduced) beers as the others. If every pub on the street is getting the same deal, what’s to make people come to yours?

        • Editor on February 15, 2011 at 9:21 pm

          Exactly, and that’s my point. The short term lure of dollars is, I believe, creating a sameness that is contributing to beer’s steady decline. There is little of interest and people are going not to other bars, but to other drinks.

          It was a coincidence that Foster’s today announced their results and CEO Ian Johnston crowed “CUB outperformed the Australian beer market and extended its leadership position, increasing market share by 50 basis points, in a market where volume fell approximately 7 percent in the first half.” All he’s saying is “we have a larger slice of a smaller pie”, or to use my earlier simile, “we have a tighter grip on the melting cone” as if that’s an achievement. In looking only to steal market share from each other, they contribute to the decline.

  18. Jason Sauer on February 15, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    Looks like the big boy’s can’t produce what people want, so lets stifle the competition & tell the people what they can drink. Not a good look. Wake up start competing!!!

  19. Greig McGill on February 15, 2011 at 4:59 pm

    I’m just speechless. This place was a wonderful Oasis when I visited Brisbane last year. I can’t believe it’ll never be worth going to again.

  20. Crafty Pint on February 15, 2011 at 4:29 pm

    Time for someone to step into the breach – come on Brissie bar owners, there’s a ready made audience waiting for you to see the light!

  21. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Fiona Donnelly, Keira McIntosh, Stuart Robinson, Peter Luetjens, Aaron and others. Aaron said: RT @ozbrewsnews: Latest on Brews News:: Killing beer softly… http://bit.ly/gzyoJz […]

  22. Pete on February 15, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    Words literally cannot describe how this makes me feel. I am gravitating between sadness and rage. RIP Platform Bar. We will miss you.

  23. David on February 15, 2011 at 3:41 pm

    Very sad. How backwood Qld is. You get heaps of choice in interesting bars down south. How do they do it I wonder.

    • Phil on February 15, 2011 at 9:03 pm

      Nice article Matt – see you at the Spotted Cow for a ‘real’ beer soon mate

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