Brewers across Australia are facing very different short-term futures as COVID-19 makes a resurgence.
As some brewers ease out of lockdown restrictions and adapt to the ‘new normal’, others in COVID hotspots are doubling down, armed with the learnings from the first COVID-19 shutdown.
Either way brewers are leaning to readapt and take into consideration the demands of customers both retail and on-premise – a balancing act at the best of times.
Melbourne’s Brewmanity announced last week that it would be shutting down its online store, launched during the first lockdown, to focus on its on-premise customers.
“Not knowing what was going to happen with store openings at that time, we, like lots of brewers, decided to switch that on and do some digital and online sales,” explained Brewmanity co-founder David Neitz.
“We had in the back our mind the bricks and mortar retailers and we wanted to be mindful of that, so we didn’t necessarily offer crazily discounted beers, just free shipping, and hopefully made it an even playing field but we wanted to provide our customers with that option if they wanted to buy online.
“The first time round we had a few orders online but what rang true for us from a commercial and sales perspective is that it was the bricks and mortar that was really strong for us, and we were really well-supported in that period.”
Adapting to second wave
Brewmanity’s owners made the decision this time round based on strong bottle shop sales – they are listed in Coles and Woolworths-owned retail outlets as well as local independents – but also their experiences of the plight of publicans and venue owners, said Neitz.
“We saw a video from Lamaro’s Hotel in South Melbourne and Paul [Dimattina] spoke about the impact on his employees and there was some real emotion and passion from people and real devastation. For our small part we didn’t want to add to the competition, and wanted to push people towards them if we can.
“Lots of people are ‘pivoting’ to delicatessens and takeaway meals and drinks and we’re hearing the stories of some of the pubs who saw the light and then had to go back into restrictions.
“So we felt for us it was better to send a message of support to those guys to ask them to go into the stores if they could safety social distancing, try to support our bottle shops and also the pubs that are changing their offering to try.”
Neitz said it was a call that Brewmanity made rather than being asked by publicans.
“I’m sure brewers have considered their relationships with their retailers and everyone’s in a different situation.
“We’ve got brewers and salespeople and staff that we need to look after as well. Everyone has to make up their own mind, it’s a huge consideration for us and for others as well.”
He also said that bottle shops were part of the experience of buying craft beer and Brewmanity wanted to help support the outlets that make that experience possible.
“It’s fun staring at a wall of beers, reading the labels. It’s a real experience going into the store and a sensory experience with packaging and flavours and taking them home, cracking them open for the right occasion. All those things are a big part of the craft beer,” Neitz said.
However COVID-19 has put a major spanner in the works for the future plans of nomadic brewers Brewmanity, as Neitz and fellow founder Jamie Fox had their eye on their own venue prior to the pandemic.
“We found one, set it up, spent time negotiating it and getting agreements in place, and then COVID struck,” he said.
The team still hopes to find a home for Brewmanity once things settle, but in the meantime they will not be totally giving up on online platforms post-COVID-19.
“It’s interesting and I don’t know we’ve landed on [a decision]. There’s a rise of online options where people can shop and buy online, and I think our general philosophy will be that it can sit there in the background. It won’t be a huge part of sales mix into the future but having the option is a wise move.
“The world is moving to that digital space. But where we can we want to push people towards the physical and local, as well as those online retail stores.”
A brewery-specific decision
Choosing selling platforms is an individual decision for each brewery to make, but another brewery making decisions based on what it learnt during the first COVID-19 lockdown is Black Hops Brewing on Queensland’s Gold Coast.
As an inhabitant of a state moving towards easing of lockdown restrictions, Black Hops is shifting its sales team back to existing roles, and pausing its Supply Drop app, launched in the COVID-19 shutdowns to enable local deliveries.
Black Hops co-founder Dan Norris said that like many brewers, Black Hops had found out a lot about its consumers and how they like to purchase their beer during COVID-19. Now, for example, the app will only open up occasionally for the odd small batch releases which were previously taproom-only.
“We noticed that people were mainly only using it for a limited release as they could still get our core range in bottle shops, so it went way better when we had a limited release,” Norris explained.
“When everything went back to ‘normal’, we decided we’d only open up the app during a limited release where people can’t get in bottle shops and we’ve got enough to sell outside the taproom.”
Luckily, the amount they sold in bottle shops matched that made in Black Hops taprooms the first time round, and Norris said that if Queensland had to return to lockdown, the team would not be resting on its laurels.
“A lot of people went and cut staff back and got rid of people. It’s hard because you don’t know what’s coming but we tried desperately not to do that and we were able to get through.
“But it’s not over yet. We might get shut down again and even if not, we’ve got all this government stimulus [only until it ends]. With our business, we were ok because we had packaged sales but we still had to completely uproot production to not produce any kegs.
“That was tens of thousands gone to zero straight away and having to throw that out hurt. It’s hard to know the long term impact of shutting down.”