As Australian craft breweries continue to grow, their beer is likely to make its way further and further from where it’s brewed. Already plenty of smaller breweries have started exporting, while a growing interest from Chinese beer drinkers in craft beer has led to a concerted push by Australian brewers to break into the world’s largest beer market.
One business hoping craft breweries will continue to spread their wings is Oxebar, a Melbourne-based manufacturer of one-way kegs. While one-way (or single use) kegs have been around for some time, Oxebar’s co-founder Kee Doery (pictured above) says new technology has improved the quality of kegs now available to brewers.
“[The idea] is fairly mature now: one-way kegs have been around since 2002 but we’ve been able to find a number of ways to improve them,” he says.
Among those improvements is Oxebar’s development of the world’s first 50 litre single use kegs, designed with Australia’s excise tax restrictions in mind – in one of the many quirks of the system, excise is lower for kegs over 48 litres. Known as the Kegasaurus – and also coming in a 30 litre model – Kee says the unique processes they've developed at their Springvale factory leads to a better product overall.
Traditional plastic kegs start out as “preforms”, small plastic cylinders which are made in one factory and then shipped off to be remoulded into a full-sized keg. By comparison, Oxebar produces its own preforms, which are then remoulded immediately.
“We knew that single stage was better for a number of reasons,” says Kee. “The mechanical strength of the finished product is better and you also get better oxygen transmission results than in two-stage manufacturing.
“Every time you heat and cool plastic it gets damaged to some degree; the molecular chains start to break down and you get a worse quality product.”
Kee hopes Australian craft breweries will embrace the Kegasaurus, not least because he sees this country as trailing others when it comes to exporting beer.
“I know we are isolated, but we are still in the middle of Asia,” says Kee. “The number one thing I would love to see is these local microbreweries here getting as much penetration overseas as [foreign breweries] get into Australia.”
One factor that has the potential to slow some breweries' adoption of Oxebar’s kegs is concern over the environmental impact of using plastic kegs.
“Some people don’t like the idea of thinking that plastic can be an environmentally-friendly option, but the reality is sometimes it is,” he argues.
“You can’t consume beer and not consume resources – that’s just the nature of the matter. But what we can do is be as responsible as possible by choosing the route which uses the least amount of resources.
“If we’ve got kegs transferred over a certain distance you eventually get to a point where you’ve got more fossil fuels burnt in the return trip than you do putting the beer into a single-use keg.”
Another major problem with stainless kegs is they have a tendency to go missing, whether lost in the system, stolen for sale or turned into beer garden furniture and backyard fireplaces rather then returned to sender. When stainless steel kegs are sent overseas, the chance of them never returning increases significantly.
In the first few months since launch, a number of local breweries have taken an interest. Among them is Exit Brewing, who are already using the 30 litre model for some low volume beers. Brewery co-founder Fraser Rettie says he’s been impressed so far and is looking at using the larger kegs for the export market.
“They look pretty good, they’re stable, I like the design of them from a space perspective,” he says. “[One-ways kegs] have evolved from when we first started using them three years ago [and] the Kegasaurus ones look like they have the potential to be used long-term.
Fraser adds that it’s still early days for the 50 litre kegs and believes the real test will be how well the plastic holds up to pressure while full for a long period of time.
“If they can hold the pressure and the plastic doesn’t deteriorate after six months then that’s a really good sign,” he says.
“We’ve seen with previous one-way kegs we’ve used and have gotten back from interstate – you could literally see the plastic stretched under pressure as though it was about to blow. Obviously, we want to try to avoid that.”
Provided the Kegasaurus kegs do hold up over time, other countries may start to see the occasional beer from Exit’s core range appear. While Exit’s initial plan was to focus on exporting their more unusual core beers, such as the Saison and Milk Stout, last month’s Australian International Beer Awards, at which they collected a trophy for their Amber, has made them reconsider what they should be looking to export.
Similarly, Oxebar hopes to make an impression overseas. This includes an ambitious plan to build a factory in Shanghai next year, hoping to tap in to the rising number of craft breweries now appearing in China
“In Shanghai, there’s a lot of microbreweries just starting to pop up and the rest of the world hasn’t really seen many of their beers because it’s hard to ship them out,” says Kee. “Having one-way kegs should really help those microbreweries get out there.”
And, if Chinese craft breweries do start exporting their beer throughout Asia, we may well start to witness a cross-border trade in luxury fare to rival the great trepang trade of a past era*.
You can read other articles in our Collaborators series, which shines a spotlight on businesses existing around the craft beer industry, by heading here.
About the author: Will Ziebell is a history graduate who finds the greatest use for his degree is telling anecdotes to anyone who will listen. Often they involve beer, especially when hosting Melbourne Brewery Tours. He can be found on Instagram and Twitter.
* It's long been a dream of Will's to include a mention of sea cucumber trade routes in an article. And there's nothing we like more than making people's dreams come true.