Will COVID kill independent brewers?

Stone & Wood are serving takeaways – but half our independent brewers could end up having to shut.

By S Haslam

The larger the brewer, the greater the capital and resources.  I asked Nick Boots, General Manager of Stone & Wood, whether the crisis has strengthened the hand of the biggest corporate brewers? Are a proportion of Australia’s 600-odd independent brewers in trouble at the moment?

‘Most people would probably be surprised to hear that over 85 per cent of Australia’s beer market is owned by multinational corporations overseas, including brands like Carlton, Byron Bay Brewery and Great Northern’, said Nick. ‘These corporations have enormous global scale, efficiency and access to lots of cash that will likely assist them in riding out these tough times – and recovering afterwards. 

‘This is particularly important to note when independent breweries in Australia and abroad are really bearing the brunt of this uncertainty. The brewers’ association in the US has suggested that as many as half of family-owned breweries could collapse as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic; if replicated here in Australia, that would result in over 300 family-owned, community-focussed breweries closing for good – and that would be a disaster.

‘For Stone & Wood, as a local independent brewer, our focus remains on carefully managing our way through this crisis while assisting our people, local community, drinkers, trade customers and supplier partners wherever we can, while continuing to operate in a way that minimises our impact on the environment.’

How have independent breweries been impacted by the COVID-19 restrictions?

‘As for most breweries, the biggest impact for us has been the closure of pubs, bars, restaurants and venues, customers of ours who’ve been operating non-stop for decades – that’s obviously had a huge effect on our community, our local nightlife, and has been distressing for venue owners.

‘In particular, the prime minister’s announcement of the closures, back in March, meant hundreds of venues around the country were effectively stuck with kegs full of beer they could no longer sell. To support our longstanding customers, we accepted the return of all full, unopened kegs of our entire range of beers and provided customers with a credit, saving venues essential cash during the beginning of the crisis.

‘Stone & Wood have converted both locations into takeaway stalls, where Byron and Brissy locals can grab a six-pack, carton or 1L sharer bottle of our entire range of beer from the tap. Plus, our Brissy brewery now offers delivery of beer via the Bopple app – fresh beer direct to your door! We’re very grateful for the community support we’ve enjoyed so far.

‘While we can’t sell kegs, our entire range of beer is being brewed, bottled and packaged up in Murwillumbah as always.’

What will brewing look like in six months time? What changes are you tipping for the market?

‘The health of the beer market for brewers will be closely aligned to the timing of the re-opening of pubs, clubs, restaurants and venues like our Tasting Room and brewery in the Byron Arts and Industry Estate.

‘In the case of Stone & Wood, we have lost over 50% of our revenue, and have had to intensely review our expenses to keep the brewery sustainable for our 150 permanent employees (over 70% of our employees are co-owners). Once normality returns, it would be reasonable to suggest that both our brewery and our awesome customer businesses are likely to remain lean and conservative for a lengthy period.’

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