Small-time brewers face a multifaceted problem: caught off guard by both lockdowns, some of them had to dump thousands of litres of perishable keg beer that must be tapped within six months.
Then, as pubs and clubs lay dormant during the winter months, some Victorian breweries with expensive equipment and overheads took on production contracts from interstate brewers to make ends meet. But this left less capacity to cater for Victorian brewers such as Mr Caneva post-lockdown.
“We predominantly contract-brew at other breweries, but what’s happened is the contract breweries, they all took contracts in winter for NSW and Queensland when they [the states] reopened but we didn’t,” said Mr Caneva.
And having already poured 180 kegs of beer down the drain during lockdown, Mr Caneva said he, like many others, had been cautious about organising new batches until there was absolute certainty on a reopening date for pubs.
“The end result, when Victoria was given two days’ notice with a green light, was no beer,” he said.
It takes two to three weeks to brew a batch of beer, but Mr Caneva has only recently been able to secure space with three different breweries to make Coburg Lager. He will finally have fresh beer to sell from next Monday – just four days from Christmas.
During the months when there was no Coburg Lager available, Mr Caneva lost business from the 40 to 50 pubs and bars that usually sell the brew on tap.
“For us, it means we lose those taps, they’ve replaced us with someone else,” Mr Caneva said. “Now we’ve gotta go back out and try get all those back.”
Dereck Hales, managing director of Bad Shepherd Brewing Co in Cheltenham, said a surge in demand for kegs was leading to other knock-on effects.
“Because of the prioritising of draught [beer], it’s now leading to stock shortages of cans,” said Mr Hales, who is on the board of the Independent Brewers Association.
Bad Shepherd pivoted to filling cans during lockdown, to sell to Victorians stuck at home, but since pubs opened it has had to flip the business model again.
“We stopped making cans to fill kegs again, so it’s a leaky boat,” said Mr Hales, adding the limited number of physical kegs in circulation was another challenge.
“Keg rental places are now being compressed. We had 600 empty kegs ready to go [before lockdown ended] and then within a month we had none.
“I tried to buy kegs and we couldn’t find any. These issues are impacting the majority of independent brewers across the state.”
Mazen Hajjar, CEO and founder of Hawkers Beer, weathered the shutdowns due to having capacity to contract-brew for interstate labels, plus a national distribution network.
But Hawkers was not spared pain altogether: during the first lockdown, the label poured more than 1000 kegs down the drain. In the second lockdown, hundreds more were lost.
Although extra Hawkers stock in Victoria could be sent interstate, Mr Hajjar said Queensland and NSW drinkers tended to prefer local brews.
“Other states tend to be way more parochial for their tastes in brands,” he said.
The flip side to taking interstate contracts was a delayed capacity for Hawkers to brew its own beers and provide tanks to other Melbourne labels such as Coburg Brewing Co once the government announced a reopening of pubs.
Mr Hajjar’s company is still able to supply only 50 per cent of the demand for its kegs, but he said the boom in thirst for tap beer was a good problem to have, albeit unexpected.
“To be fair to the government, there was a lot of scepticism that we would achieve zero [cases of COVID-19] and zeros for so long,” he said.
“What we’re seeing is demand is back to a healthy level. It’s not 100 per cent but it’s getting there.”
Mr Hales, whose organisation represents 150 independent brewers in Victoria, urged people who could not get their favourite labels this festive season to try another local brew.
“Don’t stop supporting independent over this,” he said. “The one thing we’ve asked in a period in which we were all struggling together is to support local.”
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Rachael Dexter is a breaking news reporter at The Age.