For the second time in his life, John Stallwood was upended by a blow he didn’t see coming.
Even when his closest friend and brewhouse partner Brendan Varis called a few days after Stallwood arrived home from a promising business trip to China, the Nail Brewing founder had no idea his life was to change again.
Like in 2004, when he was felled by a coward’s punch, it has taken Stallwood 12 months to fully recover from Varis’ bombshell revelation that he would be selling his Feral Brewing business and that Nail would, regrettably, be collateral damage in the transaction.
Indeed, Nail is selling more beer than ever. And because Varis steadfastly insisted during negotiations in the Coca-Cola Amatil buyout that Stallwood would be well looked after, Nail’s future is as bright as one of its Super VPAs.
In 2012, Varis and Stallwood formed Brewcorp to manage a new brewery in the Perth suburb of Bassendean. The premises allowed Feral and Nail to ramp up the production of their increasingly popular beers Hop Hog and Golden Ale.
By 2016, it was clear the joint venture had outgrown the 1,000 square metre shed. And it was decided Brewcorp would move 500 metres down the road to a facility three times the size – at a cost Brews News believes to be in excess of $350,000.
Then six months later came the call Varis wishes he didn’t have to make and Stallwood didn’t ever hope to hear. Feral was to be purchased by CCA and to do so it had to buy-out the 25 per cent of Brewcorp under Nail’s control.
“I came back from China at the end of March last year on a high because we had a good trip with Austrade trying to expand Nail to reach new horizons and get more volume,” Stallwood said.
“Brendan said he really wanted to talk to me but asked if I wanted to have the chat now or wait a week. Obviously I was curious as to what he wanted to say so I said ‘tell me now’. I wish I said a week because it cost a lot to go to China and I haven’t followed it up since because of what has happened.
“He said, ‘I need a break’ and that he couldn’t keep going along the same path, especially if Feral was to take the next step as a brewery. I immediately knew where he was coming from because there is so much stress, from a business and personal sense, running a small brewery as the sole owner.
“For the next week I said to him, how can I help, what can I do. I was telling Brendan he was making the wrong choice, but his wife Gabby said it was what they had to do.
“It was a big surprise. We had only just moved to the new premises. But Brendan is a good partner to be with. We have always been best mates and you always help a best mate. So I was willing to stand by him as a best mate. And he did the same with me, making sure I had a fair exit.”
In effect Stallwood had lost his brewery. To be more precise he had to forego his ownership in it, although the separation package allowed Nail to keep using the brewhouse in a new deal with CCA.
Yet, like 14 years ago when his life was in the balance and his much smaller but still efficient brew kit was sold to pay medical expenses, Nail was back to basics. It was the gypsy life for Stallwood.
But similarly to his lengthy rehabilitation from that serious head injury, a year later Stallwood and Nail are bigger and better.
Sales for VPA, the 6.5 per cent pale ale that won a silver medal at the World Beer Cup in May, continue to soar across the country. Two weeks after that gong, Nail collected Champion Low Alcohol beer at the Australian International Beer Award for MVP (3.4 per cent), a brew that emerged well after the sale.
And now Super VPA (8.5 per cent) has opened more bottleshop doors around the country.
“We used to do a third of our volume on the east coast five years ago. Then we suffered a few setbacks and went down to zero. We then decided to concentrate on beer sales in WA,” Stallwood said.
“But we are relaunching on the east coast this week and have gone back to distributing through Heron Beverages, who sell great beers like Rodenbach and Coedo. And our head sales leader Brendan Grima is a young gun who has done great things to keep VPA booming.
“A lot of people knock Woolworths, but I love them. They support many Australian craft breweries. And they are taking on some Super VPA through Dan Murphy’s.
“It was a limited release but we had to get 50,000 cans to sell it in over 3,000 cartons and the only way we could do it is with the support of Woolies and the great independent bottle shops in WA that have supported us for so long.”
As a result Nail is eyeing a production rise from around 350,000 litres per annum 12 months ago to almost 600,000 this year.
And Stallwood expects another considerable spike on the sales graph in 2019.
“I need another year to fully understand where we’re at as a brewery business and what path to take,” he said.
“The transition so far has been great for Nail in that I still have 100 per cent of the business I created and I don’t have the financial worry of thinking I might go bankrupt. My loan was cleared and I don’t have the big rent; I don’t have all the concerns of owning a brewery.
“I still have a good bond with the Feral Brewing team. My office is next door and I still see everyone every day.
“Nail have been 18 years in the game. We have been low for a long time but now things are falling into place. There is a bright light at the end of the tunnel.
“And Brendan and I are still best mates.”