Postcards from the Edge No.14: The Chain Gang

Watching businesses throughout the beer world and beyond change the way they operate over the past few weeks has been a welcome distraction from the gathering gloom as reality sets in. Yet, for all the examples of businesses banding together, repurposing staff, or moving into direct-to-customer sales, there have been many eager to remind people of the importance of maintaining the pre-pandemic system for when it's all over.

While sales from pop-up drive-thrus or home deliveries are keeping cash flowing, albeit at reduced levels, the brewer-retailer-consumer model is one that's served us well far longer than COVID-19 will be wreaking its singular brand of destruction on society and the economy. So, when making the decision to push direct sales as a new means of getting money in the bank, Scott and Renae McKinnon at Wolf of the Willows were keen to do it in a way that looked after the venues and bottleshops also doing it tough.

Inspired by a mate's brewery on the West Coast of the USA, they launched the online store with a twist: anyone placing an order of $100 or more can nominate their favourite venue and the couple will allocate the business $5 in credit for when they reopen.

"We're in negative cash flow and profit / loss because of all the returned kegs," Scott (pictured above setting off on another round of deliveries) says, "so we've had to make the decision [to sell direct] but it wasn't off the cuff.

"[The donation system] was our way to go, 'Cool, we're doing this, but we can still remind people there are all these venues out there and they won't all disappear.'."

Describing the past few weeks as a roller coaster ride but one that, in some ways, has "steeled the resolve", he adds: "This way we can remind people of the awesome pub culture Melbourne has got so they don't disassociate from that. 

"I'd been looking at what people in the UK and the US were doing and when I saw what my mate was doing on the West Coast, I thought it was a great idea."

He says some classic Melbourne boozers – the Rainbow, Napier and Standard in Fitzroy among them – have figured prominently in early donations.

 

The Standard in Fitzroy is one of the classic Melbourne boozers being shown some love by Wolf of the Willows' supporters.

 

"It shows community pubs are the ones people want to support," he says. "Pubs are the places that provide sustenance and support."

Fans of Wolf of the Willows will be aware they were set to open their brewery and venue in Mordialloc last month; aside from using it as a base for home deliveries and customers to pick up beer, however, the building and brewery remain unused for now.

For many people, it was from mid-March onwards that the scale of the pandemic became apparent. But before that Scott says he was shown some microbiology data coming out of China by a mate, Derek Lacey of Bluestone Yeast, and was shocked by what he saw.

"We literally pulled our kids out of school the next day," he says, with plans for the brewery and taproom opening immediately reconsidered.

"When we go back to level two or one, we will open, and we've got one of our guys working on proactive policy documents that we'll have to submit to council and environmental health as well as stuff for the staff ahead of that, even though we don't know what we're required to do. We're just treading water right now."

The importance of supporting the existing supply chain is a message that's also been pushed by fellow Melbourne brewery KAIJU! The evening after the shutdown started, they issued a statement saying they wouldn't be switching to cellar door or online sales, saying: "The usual sales channels that have supported us over the last seven years are hurting as much as the rest of us at the moment and we want to do everything we can to help them fight another day."

Given they've always focused on production and haven't yet moved to open a taproom, co-founder Callum Reeves says: "It wasn't a change of business model for us. It's a continuation of what we already do."

He says the key sales team members got together and all felt supporting existing sales channels made sense for them.

"We all agreed it didn't feel right for us and people who've supported us over the past six or seven years. We wanted to make sure that they were still there for us when it's all over."

 

KAIJU! co-founder Callum Reeves (minus half his head) at their Dandenong brewery.

 

Callum admits that, like everyone else, he doesn't know if their approach is the best one – "I'm second guessing myself the whole time," he says – but it's the one that feels right for KAIJU! What's more, he says trying to make any predictions is pretty much futile right now too.

"Where are we headed in the future? What does it look like in a few weeks or a few months? And then beyond that. When everything goes back to normal, this industry is going to be very different." 

That uncertainty, the lack of precedent, and the impact upon people is, for Scott, as great if not a greater consideration than the virus and the faltering economy.

"There's a mental health challenge that we've all got to take care of," he says. "That has got to be the focus.

"My grandmother was in London during the Blitz and she would speak about that quite a bit. I recall some of the things she'd speak about, like people needing each other and helping each other. [Now] we want to hug each other and show physical affection and we can't. And that's what's fucked about it."


If you'd like to donate to your favourite boozer while picking up some Wolf of the Willows beer and merch, head here.

As part of the #keepinglocalalive campaign we're running Postcards from the Edge stories, highlighting the ways in which people are adapting to survive. If you've got a story you think is suitable – or have something to add to the campaign resources online – get in touch.

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