SPECIAL REPORT: WA brewers are finding that it’s better for the industry if they work together.
WA brewers are finding that it’s better for the industry if they work together.
But instead of having a battle to break into a cutthroat industry, Mr Lutton said Innate was welcomed with open arms.
“The standout thing was how helpful our potential future competitors were,” Mr Lutton, who is also chief executive of technology firm IT Vision, told Business News.
“They opened their breweries, they talked to us about kit, talked to us about ideas, and helped us along the way.
“There was no ‘this is a commercial secret, we want you to fail’; it was quite the opposite.”
Mr Lutton’s experience is typical among Western Australian brewers, who view the sector as more of a tight-knit community than a super-competitive industry.
That community feel has led to widespread collaboration among the main players, whether as brewers banding together to create limited-run beers, or pubs or retailers contracting brewers to make a one-off brew with shared branding.
Mr Lutton said collaboration had been the number one source of sales at Innate Brewing, which operates out of a small industrial unit in Spearwood.
Innate Brewing makes a core range of four beers, but also brews a large amount of special runs, including beers for Dutch Trading Co, Clancy’s Fish Pub, Belgian Beer Café, the Sail & Anchor and the Cellarbrations Superstore Hamilton Hill.
“We were always going to be small, so our view was not about mass production and trying to get it everywhere, it was about getting a relatively small volume and finding those early entry points,” Mr Lutton said.
“Because all four partners lived in Fremantle, and our brewery was just down the road, we targeted Fremantle pubs as our first entry point.
“One of our very first constant tap points was the South Beach Hotel. From there it was the Norfolk, then the Sail & Anchor, then Clancy’s, but our mantra back then was around local and fresh and responsiveness.
“If they wanted something today, tomorrow, next week, or if they wanted some influence over what style it was, we were always going to be relationship-based, local and fresh.”
Another newcomer, Brewhouse Margaret River head brewer Andrew Dykstra, shared a similar story when asked about his experience opening up a new brewpub in the South West, in November last year.
Mr Dykstra said he found the brewing business to be the most supportive industry he’d ever been involved in.
“We all support each other if something goes wrong somewhere, or if someone is missing something we’ll help each other out.
“It’s very different to the wine industry, from what I hear.”
A similar tale also emerged at the Swan Valley’s Mandoon Estate, where shopping centre owner Allan Erceg opened Homestead Brewery in 2014.
While Mandoon Estate general manager Travers O’Rafferty estimated between 4,000 and 5,000 people visited the winery and brewery each week, he said it was challenging to set up a brewery with no history.
“We were lucky enough to have a large enough capital injection to get a brilliant brewhouse from Germany,” Mr O’Rafferty said.
However, Homestead head brewer Steven Wearing said that, because it was still challenging to build a reputation by just having a brewpub in the Swan Valley, working with other craft beer players was an increasingly important focus.
“We’ve got a collaboration coming up with a brewery called Bright Tank Brewing; they’re actually not set up yet, they’re still in the works, but they wanted to start getting their name out there so they approached me to do a collaboration,” Mr Wearing said.
“And we’re doing another one with Dutch Trading Co.
“There are a lot of people that still don’t know about us, so any extra places we can get our beer in is definitely good to have.
“It’s an extra bit of marketing to get a bit more awareness of us and the products that we’re producing.”
The brewing industry’s community feel is not only restricted to new entrants, however.
In perhaps the ultimate collaboration between two of the state’s most awarded brewers, Feral Brewing and Nail Brewing share a brewhouse in Bassendean.
Nail Brewing founder John Stallwood said he and Feral Brewing’s Brendan Varis saw the need to upgrade their facilities in 2012, so they pooled their resources to establish a new entity, called Brewcorp.
“We both couldn’t really afford a brewery, so we decided on the joint venture,” Mr Stallwood said.
“Breweries cost a lot of money, not only do they cost a lot initially but they cost a lot to maintain and run.
“Brendan and I are on the same wavelength, we trust each other, have similar goals and we both respect each other, so it was a good idea to do the JV.
“The aim of Brewcorp is not to make a profit; it’s to provide the capacity for both Feral and Nail to make money.”
Mr Stallwood said another advantage of establishing Brewcorp was that the brewers could share a packaging line.
Feral is upgrading its packaging facilities with a view to rolling out cans later this year, while it will also offer Nail the opportunity to use the infrastructure for a fee.
Mr Stallwood said it made sense to partner with like-minded individuals in the industry.
“A lot of the brewers have been long-term friends and we’ve had the same problems over the years,” he said.
“It’s a tough market and there have been many problems that have been hard on the industry, but we always help each other.”
Even WA’s largest capacity brewer, Gage Roads Brewing Company, recognises the need to collaborate, especially with new players.
Chief operating officer Aaron Heary said Gage Roads was always keen to help new entrants, whether with advice on brewing techniques, or little things such as cleaning kegs or other equipment.
“The last thing we want is new starts out there putting sub-quality beer on to the market,” Mr Heary told Business News.
“Because people who are moving from mainstream lager beers and into craft, we want them to have a really positive experience when they first try it, and hopefully they’ll come back.”
But Mr Heary said it was important for a craft brewery to supplement a core range of beers with specialty brews, with boutique beer drinkers displaying little of the brand loyalty that’s been a constant in the mainstream beer industry.
“What we find with craft beer drinkers now is they have a repertoire,” he said.
“They come in, they like a beer, but then they say ‘well what’s next’?
“They have a repertoire of brands that they come back to, so the quality is really crucial to make sure that when they come into the craft game, they stay there.
“We want to be one of those three or four beers that they buy – while they might buy one or two of something new, they might grab a six pack of Single Fin as well.”
To tap into that rotating market, Gage Roads releases a series of seasonal beers to complement its core range, one of them tapping into the grassroots brewing movement by providing home brewers a pathway to market.
Mr Heary said Gage Roads’ Backyard to Bottleshop competition was an exciting initiative.
“It’s a pretty unique opportunity for a home brewer, and it’s really engaging with the community and that’s what we’re about,” he said.
“The guy who won our competition this year just won a whole bunch of trophies at the Perth Royal Beer Show, and he won a silver medal at the Australian International Beer Awards.
“That was really successful, but there is always a need for new products to come out.
“I think we’re starting to reach the limit of what we’re doing in our permanent range, but seasonals are something for everyone to play around with.”
Mr Brookes said Bootleg had just finished brewing a XPA beer with Mane Liquor, while he has also brewed special batches for many of the South West’s wineries in the past two decades, with those relationships benefiting both parties.
“The custom tank of beer for big sellers … it helps everybody,” he said.
“We’ve been doing it for a long time; we did it for Wise Wines for a long time, and way back in the day we did a brew for Dewalt Tools.
“We are forever getting barrels from winemakers, putting beer in it, labelling it and sending it off.
“Those beers sell very quickly, people cellar them or they drink them straight away.”
Bootleg is also collaborating closely with many of the Margaret River region’s big events promoters, ensuring local beer is available at the Augusta Adventure Fest, the Margaret River Tour and the Leeuwin concert series.
However, it was Bootleg Brewery’s collaboration with San Diego’s Stone Brewing Company, a leader of the US craft beer revolution for 20 years, which could be considered a crowning achievement.
Last year, Stone Brewing announced it was hitting the road with one of its most heralded beers, the famous Arrogant Bastard Ale, partnering with local breweries around the world to brew special batches for new markets.
In Australia, it was Bootleg that got the nod.
Mr Brookes said Stone Brewing founder Greg Koch chose breweries he felt matched his personal philosophy.
“We keep it simple and we do it well, that’s what we’re all about,” Mr Brookes told Business News.
“Greg said ‘you guys will do it well, brew it small and showcase our beer very well to your market’.
“If he was to send kegs from San Diego, it takes six to eight weeks to get kegs here, and by the time it does, it’s no good.
“It comes back to people expecting to get fresh, good beer now, when there are 50-odd breweries in WA.
“There are five breweries in WA with a really good IPA, fresh today.
“You can go and hunt it this afternoon, and wherever you go, you can get super fresh beer tonight – four years ago, you probably couldn’t have done that.”