Even though Stone & Wood, one of the region’s biggest employers, are operating in difficult circumstances this lockdown, they have been looking after the local community, their employees and most importantly our future beer supplies.
The brewery has a strong ‘support local’ ethos and in the 2020 lockdown they proved that in spades by buying back their kegs from venues. General Manger Nick Boots explains ‘it was an exercise I wouldn’t like to repeat, it was a significant cost to us, but we felt it was the right thing to do because these venues are the lifeblood of the towns, for example in Byron we can sell our packaged beer through bottle shops during lockdown, but the pubs are getting nothing.’
Whilst they may have to repeat that for some venues, so far, in this lockdown their main priority has been their people, their employees: ‘we give them access to helplines, we do ‘online beers’, a virtual catchup on Zoom a couple of times a week, or if we are close we can reach out and help each other,’ says Nick. With a big brewery in Murwillumbah and a smaller one in Byron, Stone & Wood have around 225 staff, and a strong commitment to keeping their staff employed, even when the government assistance for employers is less generous than in the previous lockdown. Ingeniously, they have formed their workforce into different tribes, so that if there is an infection in one ‘tribe’, another can take over while the other tribe isolates. As well, they are still running their Ingrained Foundation, which supports local charities, so beer sales in regional WA are still generating income that supports Northern Rivers community initiatives.
While Stone and Wood have been caring for the community, it’s been a tough time for them. Their drawcard visitor centre and pilot brewery in Byron is usually visited by over 400 people a day; they were one of the most popular activities for Byron’s now non-existent visitors. As well, they had a greater focus than other brewers on sales of kegs to now-closed venues (locally and in Sydney), rather than the less environmentally friendly bottles. Additionally, their head brewer Keilan is based in Byron and can’t visit the main brewery in Murwillumbah!
With the date of reopening an unknown, it’s challenging for them to plan their brewing operations as the whole process takes 3–4 weeks. Nick explains ‘Our tanks are full at the moment, so we are in a holding pattern… we have more beer than we can sell, and we are running out of storage.’ Just prior to this lockdown the brewery was looking to expand their capacity. A couple of years ago they purchased a 34,000 sqm space just down the road from their current site and were considering how to finance building a new, bigger brewery, but the plans are now on hold; a very concrete example of the economic damage that the uncertainty created by the lockdown has caused, by making investment more risky.
‘This would have created a lot of employment, but if pubs are going to remain shut in the medium term we might need to put our plans on hold for a while,’ said Nick, ‘For a small family-owned company this was always a risky undertaking but that risk’s been exaggerated.’
Stone & Wood’s top three beers, which are all made locally, are Pacific Ale and Cloud Catcher now joined by Green Coast Lager.
Stone & Wood’s new 3.5% Green Coast Lager is a light golden lager made with the delicate Saaz hops, which imparts a mild bitterness and creates a clean, deep aroma, and a super crisp finish. The new lager is in the increasingly popular mid-strength range that comes in at 3.5% alcohol (the existing fuller-flavoured Green Coast is 4.7%). It’s a less ‘crafty’ beer, which is more appealing to a wider audience as it’s less fruity – an easy-drinking and refreshing beer. ‘We’ve made unique beers for the local region that have gained a reputation nationally and internationally,’ says Nick, ‘But some people in the local region enjoy a different sort of beer, so this is a beer for those people!’