Behind Bars: Copper & Oak

Brothers Jose and Nelio Pestana have a long-standing liquor retailing background, both here and in South Africa. Locally, their Copper & Oak bottleshop in Perth’s northern corridor was one of the early independent retailers north of the CBD to drive craftier beer options, a place from where they’ve watched the evolution of the beer industry from behind an increasingly worn till.

They've been operating from their Tuart Hill location for more than 15 years, building their beer offering to more than 1,000 lines and adding more and more fridges over time to keep them cold.

Here, Guy Southern delves into what the brothers have seen and what they think is coming next as part of our ongoing Behind Bars series.


 

What’s the beer that was a game changer for you?

Jose Pestana: Most of these beers are about how they came about and creating a product that was against the norm. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Little Creatures Pale Ale, Knappstein Reserve Lager, St Arnou Pilsner and Cascade Stout come to mind.

Nelio Pestana: My first real “Wow!” moment with beer was Weihenstephaner Vitus and, to this day, every time I drink it, it just makes me do that “slow head nod, lip licking with an mmmm moan”! Rich, round yet balanced. I’m still surprised by how many customers haven’t tried it.

In terms of craft, and particularly Australian, it would have to have been Knappstein Reserve Lager for me. Sadly, it’s a beer which I have not had in quite a few years as its sales just dropped over time and I believe that it is now discontinued.


What’s the Copper & Oak team drinking after work?

NP: It’s a combination of newer styles, as well as visiting older products that seem to have been forgotten. It really surprises me when I try a product that seems to have stopped selling at how good it is but due to the influx of choices it seems to have slowed. Also, trying newer products against established products gives myself and staff a gauge to relay to customers.

Garage Project’s Garagista IPA, which is sadly no longer in cans, and Cheeky Monkey West Coast IPA are go-tos.

NP: Barleywine and barrel-aged stouts have been my go-to for the last couple of weeks but that very much has been influenced by the sudden turn in weather. Before that it was lager, a style in my opinion which should be taken a lot more seriously by craft beer punters in Australia.


What are your customers asking for at the moment?

JP: Always what is new, which is usually followed by beers that have been memorable from previous purchases or suggestions. Feral’s Biggie Juice is a good beer and extremely hyped. We sold 40 cubes in ten hours on launch day!

NP: What is new is our most common question, every day! But in terms of style it has to be NEIPAs and hazy styles as they are still all the rage at the moment, although we did see a solid uplift in sour beers over the summer months.

Funnily enough, that was coming from our wine customers wanting something easy to drink out and about but this might change next summer with the rise of wine in a can. But nothing is touching those low bitter and fruit forward styles at the moment. Low ABV session ales is where I still see solid growth happening next summer.

 


How has this changed over the past year and five years?

JP: Five years ago, customers were probably less likely to try newer releases with the same amount of enthusiasm and knowledge. Currently, customers are informed prior to releases, although this is not necessarily information about how the beer is made, and eagerly source the latest and especially the limited releases. 

Definitely more people are delving into craft beer, however the volume is not the same. I might see the same customer for every new release purchasing one or two beers and yet they will go elsewhere, presumably local, for their usual everyday beer. Staying at the forefront is all about product ranging; this has also led to handling beer in a strict manner, clearing products out before they reach expiry is what challenges us on a weekly basis.

NP: The wine category for us really dropped off when the “National Big Box retailers” and online wine category came along. We were really well known for our spirit range at the time but that category isn’t a fast-moving department like wine or beer; with this in mind, we decided to address the beer category quite heavily early on and pushed the limits in terms of ranging of brands and styles. 

Customer education has definitely increased but, saying this, we find our clients still want us to help recommend more and more which is great as I think it means we are doing a reasonable job.  With this, though, comes an added pressure, as we find we always have to stay one step ahead in terms of knowledge and products.


The beer landscape has exploded in the past few years, have you seen a change to everyday buying habits?

JP: Mainstream volume has dropped off, not only from consumers drinking less but also due to heavy discounting by the majors and lack of support from the large beer producers. We are constantly asked for growlers and squealers, however I’m not convinced about this format as it presents more challenges than it’s worth. I haven’t disregarded it altogether but I just don’t think the formula and timing is right.

NP: In the beer segment there has almost been two major shifts in my opinion. The first came from buying straight cartons of beer like Little Creatures, Colonial or 4 Pines to grabbing a couple of different craft four- or six-packs. We found this really lifted our mixed case deals, which we offer on an ongoing basis. People wanted the variety but they were still drinking the volume.

The second shift came from buying straight four- or six-packs to grabbing a mixed four- or six-pack of singles, usually to the same dollar value of the straight six-packs but with an obvious downward shift in the volume.


What advice would you give to a customer who is new to craft beer?

JP: I always try and gauge my customers’ experience before suggesting any beer, building their palate up to an IPA instead of jumping straight into it. Personally, I listen to a lot of podcasts, local and international, which are an easy source of information – The Good Beer Project, Beer Sucks, Good Beer Hunting, Brews News, Beer Smith and others.


What have been the Australian and international standout beers you've tried this year?

JP: I actually struggle to try most of the new releases due to the sheer amount released every week! Three locals that have stood out are Innate’s Watch This Space DIPA, Otherside’s DDH Super Dry IPA and Imperial Harvest Red.

NP: Innate Brewers. Every single release thus far in the packaged format has been spot on. The Brutal Truth West Coast is seriously great and the thing I like is that they have stayed true to each style and delivered great beers without the need for adjuncts.

Older WA brewers would be Nail and Rocky Ridge*. Rocky Ridge, particularly with their limited releases, and Nail with VPA still hitting the mark every time and, of course, Feral with Biggie Juice.

Australia wide, Dainton always create a little hype with their releases and, although they might not always get it right, they do always get consumers talking about their beers. Whether or not this is good for their long-term objective will have to be seen.

Internationally, four brewers automatically came to mind: Toppling Goliath, Omnipollo, Amundsen and To Øl. Besides Omnipollo, the other three have certainly added to the “Haze Craze”. Coming into the cooler months, stouts from Omnipollo become beers which some people turn to.

*While they’ve released more different beers than many brewers who’ve been around far longer, Rocky Ridge have only been around two-and-a-half years at time of writing!

 

Copper & Oak's local tip for the top – Innate Brewers.

In your opinion, who is the brewery to watch this year and why? Or is there a hidden gem many may not know?

JP: Innate. Five from five, straight out the gates! Definitely one to watch, and Rocky Ridge who seem to be winning with most of their releases.

NP: As mentioned before, I think Innate will keep going from strength to strength. If they keep producing the beers to the quality they have been it will be hard not to have them consistently ranged in store, which isn’t a bad thing of course.

I think Cheeky Monkey is another to keep an eye out for but more so because of the expansion and ability to address value craft beer, as well as the ability to do some weird and wonderful different side projects. It would be great to see them do more barrel-aged beers!


Tying all of this together, what do you think is the next big thing in beer?

JP: NEIPAs seems to be the favourite currently, though personally I don’t think it has the stamina for a long-distance race – it won’t go away but it won’t be a big volume beer. DIPAs are always eagerly sourced and customers still purchase them weekly when available. 

Definitely, sessionablity will be summer’s focus again – hop forward pales and sessionable sours are definitely the main attraction. I do see room for lagers, in particular pilsner styles; there’s nothing more refreshing than a couple on a hot stinker of a day.

I feel saturation point is inevitable but you don’t know until it’s there, and this applies to all industries, breweries, bars and retailers. Focus is on everything: new current trends, old, new-old, it all counts and it’s about finding the waves and going with them and always keeping in check.

Quality is paramount to staying ahead. This has been even more of a challenge with the fluctuation in sales between brands and styles. Packaged dates / best before dates on beers from wholesalers is a current issue as the time retailers have to sell may only be four to eight weeks instead of four to eight months. This is a major issue for hop forward beers. 

The government never seems to be proactive towards smaller businesses, though saying that the WET rebate in wine did create a whole mess of things so I’m not sure what incentives would help towards brewery startups that would attract true brewers versus opportunistic entrepreneurs or capitalists who are only interested in making a quick buck.

Online is always going to be a challenge, we’re in that space and it’s painful – costs are high to maintain and operate. 

NP: I think lower ABV beers which still pack a full flavour punch will keep on their upward cycle; people are becoming more health conscious and with this comes a movement towards healthier options.

I think brewers are going to have to brew more consistent good beers in order to not be “lost in the crowd” as well as building good relationships with consumers but, more importantly, retailers, as consumers will keep looking to us to recommend new as well as old and reliable beers.

Liquor retailing will definitely change over the next coming years. I feel general liquor will just become part of a supermarket arm whilst those who are not, like us, will have to keep changing, adapting and trying to be ahead of trends as well as promoting our position in the market to consumers so they can see the difference in shopping with a liquor specialist as oppose to just a liquor store.

Regarding online, it is difficult as beer is very much a “want it now” product type; however, there will be a place for it and it is something we are keeping a very close eye on at the moment.

I also think retailers will have to be careful on what they bring into their stores, especially new stores opening up. It can be tempting to just fill up those fridges and go to 800-plus beers in one go but with the shelf life on hop forward craft beer a lot shorter it can become very negative very quickly if you are seen to have old stock sitting on the shelves. Again, this comes down to consumers becoming more and more aware and educated.

 


Can you sum up how you see the WA beer scene, retail and hospitality, at the moment and what do you think it driving this?

JP: Inconsistent. Public spend is tight and customers don’t have as much disposable income, so they may go out to a venue but the retail sector will miss out and they don’t have enough disposable income for both and vice-versa. We notice a considerable drop when beer events are on during the warmer months. 

NP: I think those doing it properly on premise are definitely helping drive the trend towards drinking good craft. Drinking local has always been a strong focal point, however with breweries selling out to larger corporations – and at the money they are being offered one cannot blame them – we will see how this shifts the attitude towards drinking fresh versus drinking local.

Feral Brewing for us was a very strong brand in store – at one stage we were ordering mixed pallets direct – but it was like someone just switched off the light once they had sold. With the launch of Biggie Juice, a beer which I think is extremely well priced as well as still in demand, that’s certainly helped Feral claw back sales volume in a craft store such as ours. So, this could be the start of drinking well-made beer as opposed supporting local only.


Finally, what’s next for your venue?

JP: More cool room doors, hopefully, as well as an internal facelift, finances permitting. The trouble is where do you put your resources: stock or aesthetics?

NP: I have no clue! One moment we are looking for another venue, next minute Jose is talking about adding another six doors then we’re talking about taps and growler fills. One thing I know is we are always on the lookout for taking Copper & Oak to the next level and constantly trying to stay ahead.


You can read other entries in our Behind Bars series here.

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