The Independent Brewers Association has slammed the Victorian government over the ineligibility of some state brewers to benefit from COVID-19 hospitality support packages.
The $251 million Licensed Hospitality Venue Fund distributed by Business Victoria is open to businesses in both regional and metropolitan Victoria which hold a general or late night, club, restaurant and cafe liquor licences.
It excludes businesses which solely hold a producers licence, and there are at least 35 breweries that are ineligible for government grants due to their licence, the IBA said. The majority of these have on-premise hospitality functions and the list includes breweries that were already facing difficulties due to the bushfires in regional Victoria early in the year, as well as COVID-19 restrictions.
The issue with eligibility for funding emerged last week when the Crafty Pint wrote about Boatrocker’s attempts to apply for a grant under the scheme.
In a letter to Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, the IBA’s general manager Kylie Lethbridge called the Business Victoria organisation’s response to eligibility enquiries “appalling”.
The organisation has aligned with the wine industry and Victorian tourism bodies as well as the Victorian Tourism Industry Council with the aim of putting pressure on the government to change these rules.
Lethbridge said in the letter that it was “unclear as to whether breweries are eligible for these (or any other) funding programs offered by the Victorian Government to assist businesses recover from this disaster.”
“We do not ask for more than any other similarly affected business, we simply ask for clarification and access to at least one funding program,” she said.
“I have noted your support in the past for Aussie owned breweries and would call on that commitment now so we do not end up with one part of the hospitality industry left outside of any grant funding offered by your government simply due to bureaucratic incompetence and lack of care.”
Brews News has contacted Victoria’s Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, as well as Business Victoria for comment. An agent at Business Victoria suggested that brewers who are not covered under the hospitality grant may be eligible for other grants, saying it was not means-tested.
“There are loads of other grants depending on how the business is set up, Business Grants 1, 2 and 3 and they may have been eligible for one of those. People are being covered in different areas, and with Jobkeeper. It comes down to individual business and how they are structured.”
There are a number of other grants that brewers may fall under, including the $58 million Outdoor Eating and Entertainment Grants, the CBD Small Hospitality Grant, and the Hospitality Business Grant Program.
However, Dereck Hales, co-founder of Bad Shepherd Brewing in Cheltenham and IBA board director, said the grants all had restrictions on usage and eligibility requirements.
“There is no grant and there is no support you can receive from the state government right now if you only have a producer licence.
“There are three grants you might have been able to apply for, [the Hospitality Venue grant], the Outdoor Dining which requires a certain type of liquor licence, and the third round of the Business Support Fund. This requires an ANZIC code which the government decides for you. We receive an ANZIC code as a manufacturer, and are not eligible for this either.”
Killer Sprocket, the Bayswater production brewery and taproom, is another operating solely under a producers licence.
Co-founder Sean Ryan said that the brewery has been unable to get any grants, not only as a producer licence-only venue but also due to their relative youth as a full business with premises and staff. They launched their production brewery in February after seven years of nomad brewing.
He said that this latest grant issue was part of a “death by a thousand cuts” situation to Victorian breweries and those in Melbourne in particular who have already been hurt by the 5km and other restrictive lockdown rules.
“We’re small so we were running as a partnership before moving into bigger company stuff, we weren’t employing people previously, so none of the grants applies to us,” Ryan explained.
“We haven’t been able to get anything really, we did get Jobkeeper for a little while, but with new rules that ran out for us as well.
“If you try and dig yourself out of anything you get penalised. If we threw up our hands and didn’t do anything we could have lived off that. We tried to keep going, and grant-wise that’s put us in a worse position.”
In certain ways, brewers have become victims of their own success in their ability to pivot to packaged sales – as evidenced by the Business Victoria response to brewers enquiring about the grants.
“We know that breweries have experienced a reduction in revenue due to coronavirus restrictions but unlike pubs, many have been able to continue to wholesale and retail their products,” it said.
Ryan said this was perhaps the reason producers had been excluded, but did not allow for the diversity of experience amongst those who have the licence.
“It’s difficult because for us, and people in a similar situation where we’ve got a producers licence and you’re making beer and able to sell directly to the public, you’ve been able to limp along,” he said.
“We’ve had amazing support from locals, Friday and Saturday were the best days all year, locals are pushing and trying to do what they can so it’s been good in that aspect.”
Liquor licensing in Victoria in normal times is usually fit for purpose, unlike that in Queensland, allowing takeaway sales of alcohol made on-premise, as well as satellite bars and optional festival extensions as well as allowing food and restaurant functions.
“The producers’ license gives you a heck of a lot,” Ryan said.
“It’s amazing in normal times. If you pay an extra 100 bucks, you can do festivals and any event. It’s a fantastic option, it’s inexpensive, and you can make beer wine and spirits all on-premise.”
In response, the IBA called on brewers to contact their local MPs about the issue, saying all they wanted was fairness with other hospitality businesses. They also said that time was of the essence with only 42 days left to submit applications for the grant.
“There are businesses [with a general licence] that could have pivoted on the spot quickly and are now doing packaged products and they are doing ok, and they’re getting a grant,” said Bad Shepherd’s Hales.
“Others can’t afford to pivot, they only sell draught and are fully closed, and they potentially can get nothing.”
The first step was their collaboration with the wine and tourism industries currently being spearheaded by Lethbridge.
“We want to have a combined front to say this isn’t fair,” Hales explained.
“Then we need to keep reaching out to government representatives and ask for support and why they’re doing this.
“What I believe we should be asking for is for the government to apply an open approach to anyone with a hospitality venue, anyone that has an on-premise. Open it up to them too, and then problem solved.
“So many businesses are being punished and intentionally excluded and that’s not right. We all need it, we need that support.”