Nick O / 19.06.12
If you were planning on introducing a beer into the Australian market, what style would it be? Put that question to a hardcore craft beer drinker and you would perhaps be greeted with a hop bomb, a lambic or an Imperial anything. But put it to the general beer drinking population and most will probably tell you that they would brew a lager.
From a commercial point of view, the latter response would be an eminently sensible one. Lager is, by a considerable margin, the most popular and dominant style available in the Australian market. For many consumers, weaned for generations on the virtues of ice cold beer, drinking a lager is not simply an option – it is effectively the only option. And it is precisely these people upon whom the newest arrival into Australia’s brewing fraternity will be pinning their hopes of success.
Casella is a name wine drinkers may well be familiar with. It is the surname behind Australia’s largest family-owned winery and producer of the internationally successful [yellow tail] brand. In 2010, the Casella family made a decision to diversify into the beer business and commissioned the building of a brewery adjacent to their winery in Yenda, NSW.
In keeping with enormous scale of their existing business, this new brewery is suitably grand and a bold statement of intent. Before their first beer has even officially hit the shelves, production capacity sits at whopping 300,000 hectolitres, with plans already in place to increase it further. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that the capacity of their pilot brewery alone would be greater than the sum of many craft breweries. And it is all absolutely state-of-the-art. For brewers and those with more than a passing interest in stainless steel, this is the stuff of dreams – room after room glistening with a flawless silver sheen. Andy Mitchell, head brewer and veteran of around three decades in the industry, is the veritable kid-in-a-candy store. With a big smile he says: “As a brewer, this place is an absolute pleasure to brew in.”
Such fancy toys don’t come cheap. When questioned as to the cost of such a lavish setup, John Casella, the company’s Managing Director, laughed it off in good spirit as being “twice as much as I originally thought!” But with ambitions to shake up the market and directly compete with the largest brands, both domestic and international, it is a price the Casella family is willing to pay.
So what of the beer that will attempt to claim a place in the minds of consumers? As alluded to, Casella will be firmly targeting the lager-drinking market with their first brew. In a nod to its Australian-ness, the beer is called ‘Arvo’ – a local colloquialism for ‘afternoon’. This name is somewhat linked to research done by the company during their Perfect Lager Project which sought to establish, via a mobile app, the perfect characteristics and conditions Australians seek in a beer. One of the many trends indicated that afternoons – Saturday afternoons to be precise – were the preferable time for a beer. So, Arvo it is.
The company has said that, based on the results of the app, they noticed two distinct trends emerging in terms of flavour profiles drinkers wanted. To cater for both tastes, they have developed two lager recipes known as #34 and #51 – a reference to their trial numbers. The initial release of these beers will feature limited edition six packs containing three of each beer with drinkers encouraged to vote for their favourite. From those results, the most popular will become the official Arvo lager.
While it may be difficult to come up with soaring adjectives to describe these beers, it is equally difficult to find particular fault with them. The general consensus among those we spoke to at the brewery’s official opening was that they are well made, inoffensive beers aimed at the tastes of the majority of the nation’s beer drinkers. And, on taste alone, they should easily compete with any other commercially available lagers.
But, as is the case when competing on such a scale, the main difficulty may lie with market penetration into brands firmly entrenched within the consciousness of the nation’s drinkers. Casella will no doubt be hoping that the thousands upon thousands of bottles now rolling off the production lines will provide the tangible talking point and necessary traction.
The Arvo lager will undoubtedly be met in some quarters as ‘just another lager’. Perhaps what should be considered is that Casella has immediately become one of the largest Australian-owned breweries and represents a genuine attempt at breaking the much-maligned duopoly. In the context of a beer market so often noted for an overall decline in consumption, launching a large-scale operation now is a gutsy decision. But the optimism and enthusiasm of John Casella is easily apparent.
He says simply: “Although the overall beer market is declining, that doesn’t mean there’s no room for newcomers."
It should also be remembered that this is not a speculative investment by raw businessmen. This is a long-term project, planned out by people who have built a beverage empire before. At the very least, Casella can be considered a fillip for those seeking diversity and competition.
With financial backing, a modern brewery, existing distribution lines and experts in every corner of the business, it seems the future is bright for Casella and Arvo. The only lingering question is that of “What if you’re not much of a lager drinker?”. As Andy Mitchell says: “We’ve got very modern facilities here. We can make lagers, ales, stouts, spirits – basically whatever we want."
Well then, we say make them all!
Arvo lager – both versions, that is – should be available nationwide from this month.