Non-alcoholic beverages business Sobah is opening an investment round as it looks to launch plans for its own venue this year.
The non-alcoholic brand, launched in 2017 by Clinton and Lozen Schultz, is planning to launch its own brewery and taproom on the Gold Coast. It will fund the move with a planned investment round this year and is looking for $5 million in funding.
The brand has benefited from changing drinking habits during COVID-19, and felt the time was right to put down roots.
“COVID was actually really kind to us,” explained Clinton, a Gamilaroi man as well as Assistant Professor of Aboriginal Health at Bond University.
“We experienced exponential growth through COVID. The first few months when everyone was in panic mode were a bit sketchy, but after that, we had month-on-month growth and that’s continued into this year.”
Clinton explained that the pandemic had prompted people to revisit their approach to health and wellbeing.
“COVID has helped in terms of it’s made people more aware of health in general. People are taking more time to consider what they put in their body and that’s a bonus for us in the non-alcoholic space.”
COVID also had an interesting effect on drinkers who may not have dried a non-alcoholic version of their favourite drinks.
“We’ve seen a rise in both alcoholic and non-alcoholic consumption at-home. That’s helped us in the retail market and people are less drinking to get pissed and more for enjoyment. At home, they have more freedom to experiment.
“So people who may have shied away from being seen with a non-alcoholic beer at a bar, no one will see them with it and they’re not worried about judgement.”
Non-alcoholic beer market saturation
With no-alcohol beverage sales continuing to grow, major players are vying for a piece of the market, from Heineken 0.0 to independent craft offerings like Modus Operandi’s Nort, but Sobah isn’t worried about the competition.
“We started Sobah years before people thought about [non-alcoholic beer]. We thought it would catch on eventually, we saw what happened in the UK and the US and knew Australia would follow suit.
“We’re a couple of years ahead of it and we’re starting to see a real emergence of it now, but it’s not anywhere near the full snowball effect of it.
“To be honest I don’t even view them as competitors, we know we need to grow the entire category if we want it to be strong – what we hope for is that what comes into the market is quality, because it only takes a few bad experiences to ruin it for everyone.”
He said the difference is that these brewers are largely brewing brand extension beers, aping their core ranges, whereas Sobah has always been non-alcoholic.
“There’s no other Aboriginal-owned non-alcoholic beer company infusing their beer with bush tucker. It will only be when they are heavily competing with each other that it may become problematic, we might run out of lane.”
Future brewpub plans
The major project for Sobah in the coming year will be to start work on its own brewpub venue on the Gold Coast.
Sobah currently does smaller batches at the Pickled Pig Brewery at Tweed Heads, with larger batches of core-range beers brewed out of Tribe Breweries in Goulburn.
“The intention is this year to raise the money to build our own brewery and bring in-house the small range, that’s our intent at this moment,” explained Clinton.
To support the expansion plans, Sobah is looking for investors, a tricky strategy for any brewery, but especially one with a social agenda. Sobah aims to support Aboriginal communities through Clinton’s role as a researcher and academic working on projects for the Preston Campbell Foundation and the Wayne Weaver Foundation, and growing Sobah to the point where it can contribute further to its aims within Aboriginal communities.
“We’ve probably got a good list of 20 individuals and investment firms that have shown significant interest in the business,” said Clinton, “but it’s about getting that fit for purpose for our business right – we have a particular ethos, and typically capitalist-based businesses are only concerned with profit rather than social responsibility.
“We’ve got to go through this list, and it’s difficult to find investors who are ok with that, so we’re doing our due diligence and the same with them.”
The business is already minority-owned by investors who backed the business in 2019 in a smaller funding round, but Lozen and Clinton want to remain majority shareholders with 51 per cent of the business, leaving around 41 per cent available for investors.
“At its heart, Sobah is an Aboriginal business, Aboriginal majority-owned and led. And we run this business with our philosophy in mind.
“At present, we’re raising $5 million to build the brewery, and cafe which will be a spiritual home for Sobah, we’re going big.
“But we’ll continue to do our large scale stuff with Tribe, I don’t think we can produce it at the same price as they can do for us, easier for them to do one 200 hectolitre run than me doing it ten times on a smaller brewkit.”
Schultz is aiming for a 15-20hL kit for the proposed Gold Coast brewpub, with a pilot batch kit as well.
“I will be heavily involved [in the brewing] but we will get a head brewer in. I will manage the product beer development but day-to-day management we’ll hire someone.”
Sobah has even bought its own small-scale tunnel pasteuriser. It is currently housed at the Pickled Pig but will be moved to the new brewery upon completion.
“It was pretty expensive but we wouldn’t have been able to do [what we do at Sobah] without pasteurising. Without it, there’s nothing to protect it from refermenting, and pasteurisation is the safest way for us to ensure that the end-user is getting the best product.”
Clinton said that while there are other methods to attempt to ensure shelf stability, they had tried these early on.
“The biggest problem then becomes the transport and storage. I’ve still got beers from our original batch. They are in the fridge and have been in the refrigerator the whole time and they still taste great. But put that in an unrefrigerated truck going to Far North Queensland in 30-degree heat….if you pasteurise you eliminate the risk. It’s the safest way for our business.”
If investment plans are successful, Sobah has plans for a brewery between Miami and Currumbin, which has not proved the easiest location to find a suitable venue.
“We’re trying to find an industrial property of the appropriate size at an affordable price – it’s a nightmare,” admitted Clinton.
“We want our spiritual home on the Gold Coast by the end of the year – but we don’t do things the easy way.”