Five Sydney brewers, two local MPs and a mayoral candidate this morning launched a new brewers association. In itself, that might not sound like the most exciting of news. But the intentions of the founders of the Inner West Brewery Association (IWBA) contain much to excite beer lovers – and not just those living in the neighbourhood.
In just a few years, the Inner West has become the most densely populated pocket of Australia for craft breweries; where once, you'd have found only the Lion-owned Malt Shovel Brewery, today there are more than a dozen in operation with many more in the planning stage – enough to take that total to 20.
The fledgling association, which was announced this morning in the company of Anthony Albanese MP, Jo Haylen MP and local mayoral candidate Darcy Byrne, aims to capitalise on this remarkable gathering of small brewing companies. Among its aims are the creation of a beer festival early in 2018 – one they want to develop into one of the top three festivals of its kind in Australia, the development of beer tourism to the area, improving regulations for small breweries in the Inner West and beyond, building support for local beer throughout the suburbs' pubs and bars and, perhaps most ambitiously, establishing the Inner West as a global beer destination.
"Originally, five of us got together and said, 'We're pretty locally passionate' but we're also struggling because a microbrewery isn't defined in any way within planning regulations," says IWBA president and Wayward Brewing Company founder Pete Philip (pictured below).
Because of the novelty of such businesses in Australia, craft breweries were slipping through gaps in licensing and regulations and found themselves fighting different battles even within the same councils. Some can sell pints, others can't. Some have had no issues bringing in food trucks, others have faced penalties for doing so.
"We've managed to eke out an existence within the planning regulations but it's not a comfortable one," says Pete. "We've tried to define what a microbrewery is so we can say we're not skating on thin ice, so we're on firm ground knowing what we are allowed to do and not allowed to do. We don't want to feel like we're second class citizens but are really contributing to the community."
The other four founding members are from Young Henrys, Batch Brewing, The Grifter Brewing Co and Willie the Boatman, while others have expressed an interest in joining an association that was conceived, as you might expect, over a beer – well, several.
"We started getting together at each others' breweries to shoot the shit," says Pete. "Then, six months ago, we said we should do something, maybe a beer festival or whatever.
"Albo came along, Darcy had a couple of chats, then Richard Adamson [Young Henrys] and I got together and said, 'Let's just do this.' We needed five people to form an association so called the other guys to ask if they were in, then wrote the articles at 3am one night. A couple of weeks ago, we heard Albo was available on this day and decided that was the time to announce this."
While its beginnings sound almost accidental, the association's intentions are clear. The growth of small scale brewing in the Inner West in recent years has been little short of phenomenal and expanding on that is central to the IWBA's aims.
Pete says the density of breweries dwarfs even that of Oregon (while admitting statistics can be used to prove anything) and, as such, the statement released today includes an aim "to cement Sydney's Inner West as the Craft Beer Capital of Australia."
Over the years, we've heard advocates claim such a title for the likes of Geelong, Canberra and, most recently, Ballarat, while Melbourne has long been recognised as the hotbed of craft beer in the country, with the most developed beer scene and, in the annual May triumvirate of Good Beer Week, GABS and the Australian International Beer Awards, home to an occasion already established on the global beer calendar. Yet, when it comes to breweries per square kilometre, the Inner West is out on its own.
"We're in an area with a lot of supply and we need to grow the demand," says Pete. "I approach this from the standpoint of, 'How do we grow the demand for independent, locally brewed beer by ten times?' The only way we will do this is by working together and growing advocacy.
"Everybody should be walking into their local pub and asking why they don't have four local beers on tap. Pubs have got local breweries within one or two kilometres and aren't stocking them. Locals don't feel a connection with the beers that are brewed locally yet."
It's a template every brewery – and beer lover – should be following across Australia, one that we put at the heart of the two Craft Beer Rising days in 2014 and 2015, on which we encouraged drinkers to visit and support their local brewers. In the long run, while it's important to push for change and recognition on a national and Federal level, it's from the grass roots that change will come.
The association has put together other cold, hard stats that reinforce just what a good story craft brewers have to tell. Once the gang of five started looking at the impact Inner West breweries were already having on their local community, in terms of economic benefits – generating an estimated $20m in federal income tax per annum and employing more than 200 people, for example – as well as bringing people together and running or sponsoring events, it was clear they had to get their message out and get it out loud.
At the same time, they recognised their story was one that could be better. Citing the example of BrewCult, whose founder spoke to us about his struggles earlier this week, Pete says: "All we're asking for is recognition that our business model is a little bit different to the industrial brewers. We're going to be small breweries for our entire existence.
"Running a small microbrewery is really, really fucking hard. We're all living a borderline existence, one bad month away from not being able to make payroll, and yet we are carrying a heavier burden in terms of excise load. We need recognition that, per dollar of revenue, we're probably employing 20 times as many people as the large breweries."
Like all other small brewing companies across Australia, those in the Inner West are handicapped by inequalities in the excise tax system. So, with concentrated numbers and supportive local members – Anthony Albanese is to raise a motion supporting craft breweries in the House of Representatives on Monday – they hope to make greater advances on the issue than the industry has managed to date.
Pete believes that, if small brewers are given the same treatment as their peers in other parts of the alcohol industry, it would bring instant economic benefits both to individual businesses and the wider community. What's more, changing the "crazy" situation in which vessels smaller than 48 litres attract more tax would bring positive outcomes too.
"If you give brewers some excise relief, they are going to hire more people," says Pete, setting out the simple economic reasons for change. "Every dollar we get goes into paying people. With more profit we hire more people so we can grow.
"If the government is serious about 'Jobs. Jobs. Jobs.' then they should be serious about excise relief – it's a quick and easy way of more jobs being generated."
As for a tax system that encourages brewers to put beer into 50 litre kegs, he says: "I've hurt myself and have had guys hurt themselves at the brewery. It's just a disaster. Look at every publican over the age of 50 and their backs are stuffed from carrying kegs around. It's the stupidest way of getting fresh beer around."
Ultimately, while the IWBA recognises it can't "fight every battle" and has to train its focus locally, the hope is that any successes achieved within the Inner West can then be embedded into state laws.
The association has plenty of "fun" goals too. Once the next four or five breweries come online, there will be as many as ten you can visit within a five kilometre stretch from Willie the Boatman to Wayward, thus there's been talk of having beer glasses set into pavements to guide people from brewery to brewery. Then there are plans for an Inner West festival early in 2018.
"We want to build a top tier festival that's highlighting Inner West breweries," says Pete. "Our point of difference will be that it's a celebration of all things Inner West: food and artists – we could have a market aspect to it as well."
As well as giving people a good time, the aim would be to further highlight the breweries' place at the heart of this evolving part of Sydney.
"Breweries are really compatible with urban living," he says. "They're not terribly noisy. They're smelly in a good way. We don't have huge numbers of trucks going in and out.
"They are a low impact business and the locals, by and large, love having them around. [Having a brewery] enhances the area and becomes a hub for the local community."
UPDATE: EXCERPTS FROM ANTHONY ALBANESE'S VISIT TO BATCH BREWING
"This is an industry that is growing massively. It's an industry where we now have more than 400 craft brewers around Australia and that growth means that local jobs have been created. We're seeing small businesses; we're seeing communities gathering on weekends and after work to have a chat in their local communities, supporting a product and jobs in those local communities.
"Craft brewing though has thrived in spite of the fact that governments, in my view, aren't doing enough to provide assistance. At the moment there's discrimination in favour of the big brewers versus these local small business craft brewers.
"Because of the way that the tax excise system works there's favour given to big kegs rather than smaller kegs, which is the way that craft brewing tends to have production.
"People come to these local communities because they want to support their local economy. They also want to support a quality product and one of the things that we're also seeing as a by-product of this is growth in craft brewery tourism. Here in the inner west there's a great little tour, but right around Australia that's growing. Tours in the Hunter, tours in regional areas. And we believe that there's a prospect for much further growth in the future.
"That's why today, the coming together to form the Inner West Brewers Association is a great initiative by these fantastic local small businesses. And as the local Federal Member and the Federal Shadow Minister for Tourism I'll provide them with every bit of support.
"On the local level, Local Labor is supporting a craft brewery festival here in the inner west. We believe it would attract people, not just locals, to the inner west again to celebrate this fantastic growth industry.
"Today is a forerunner of Monday in Canberra where I will be moving a Private Members' Motion, seconded by Joel Fitzgibbon, the Shadow Minister for Agriculture on the floor of the House of Representatives, calling for support from our national government for this growth industry in the interests of jobs, in the interests of the agricultural sector, in the interest of the tourism sector and I'm hoping to get bipartisan support for that.
"I argued before the Budget that there needed to be action taken there but unfortunately we weren't successful so what we're doing is using this motion on the floor of the House of Representatives to put pressure on the Federal Government to address the discriminatory tax arrangements which are now in place and, also, to draw attention to the need for us to support the tourism sector in how it relates to craft brewing.
"One of the things that we're going to have towards the end of this year and I've been discussing it with the brewers represented here is have a day in Canberra where we have an event. Next Wednesday night there's a wine event in Canberra.
"Beer has been a little bit left behind because this has been very much a new phenomenon. So we'll be taking that up. Right around the country, this is a phenomenon. The Inner West is a bit ahead of the game but this is a national phenomenon. I was in Scottsdale in regional Tasmania just a few weeks ago with Ross Hart, the local member, visiting a local brewery there.
"This is growing in regional Australia as well. In New South Wales, places like Wagga Wagga, Orange, and the Hunter, and the Illawarra are seeing growth in the craft brewing sector. So we think that the inner west can play a bit of a leadership role here and I congratulate Pete and all the brewers who are represented here.
"There are five original members of the Association but more will join because there's more than five craft brewers now in the inner west and it's a great thing and I think what we'll see coming from this, which is similar to other movements that we're seeing in our economy, where the localised economy is so important in terms of where our future growth will be. People want to be engaged in their local community.
"People want, as society becomes more complex, they want to meet whether it be in coffee shops or in their local breweries. We've got a growth in another industry of honey that you wouldn't believe. Twenty years ago if you had have said that to me, I would have thought that you'd had too much beer. But the truth is that people want things that are grown in their local community, that are supporting the local economy.
"These guys here don't make a lot of money. That's the truth. Local small businesses are in it in part due to their commitment to their local community. They want to create those local jobs. Governments should respond to that and should provide support for that."
You can read Anthony Albanese MP's statement on the IWBA launch here.
And check out our Crafty Crawl guide to the Inner West breweries – one that will soon need to be split into two parts...