In the last few weeks, the experience of going to a bottleshop has changed drastically. There’s the obvious differences, like the taped crosses on the floor and limits on customers inside. One of the more subtle changes is no longer being able to stop for a while and ponder the shelves, creating a mixed six of old favourites and new releases.
Instead, there’s a strange dance that’s done with other customers, trying not to get too close to each other. Beers are chosen hastily, so that you spend less time there too. And that’s even if you’re able to make it to the shop at all.
With beer sales now mostly virtual, brewers and retailers alike have come up with a new way to help punters try a range of beers. They’ve been compiling a special kind of beer box, something we first covered a few weeks ago with Carwyn Cellars' Quarantinnies then Hop Nation's Communitinnies and the SA Heaps Good Beer packs. Since then, the trend has shown no signs of slowing down, with the country's major retailers among those now stocking offerings such as the Local Indie Craft Knock-Offs released by the Founders First group late last week.
“Putting these packs together, it’s an easy option for punters, especially when they’re curated in a certain way and run to a theme. It’s easier than having to go to a shop to look at a fridge to decide,” says Craig "Grum" Knight of Exit Brewing (pictured above left with Nat Reeves of KAIJU!).
For winter, Exit have compiled a South East Dark Beer Pack along with six other brewers in Melbourne’s south east, complete with a carton label illustrated by Slowbeer’s Isobel Monie.
“COVID-19 has meant people can’t browse as much. Having a collection like this is a good way for people to get a great range of beers that’s easy, simple and well-priced,” he says.
That’s a sentiment definitely experienced by the intended audience.
“It’s given me an easy way to support local. I can support different breweries but only have to shop one item,” says Emma Grace, a punter considering the purchase of her third beer box.
“Having someone who knows the industry and breweries well, they can procure the pack and take the decision making off me.”
It’s not just the convenience for punters that’s an advantage but the fact the packs have, in some cases, been saving what would otherwise be dumped keg beer. For example, Bucket Boys’ Mystery Box (pictured below) contains 16 generic-labelled beers from Sydney-based breweries.
“We just called every brewery near us and said, ‘Give us a beer, whatever you have in stock – something you want to push kegs of, something new, something that would otherwise be wasted’,” founder Johnathan Hepner says.
“We collected all the kegs and canned everything at One Drop in Botany. The whole idea was to help out our neighbouring brewers. Can packs are great, but kegs are things people currently have no idea what to do with.”
The beers are meant to be guessed by punters, who are only given the ABV and a list of potential breweries. Posting a correct guess on social media allows them to go in to the running to win more beer.
“People are really enjoying the guessing part,” Johnathan says. “Every single one of our ideas has been based on how we can create a social atmosphere with the situation we’re in, whether that’s with virtual tastings, mixed packs and so on.”
Emma agrees with the sentiment.
“What appeals to me the most is that you’re specifically meant to drink one beer at a time, with the community,” she says. “I like to peruse the hashtag, see what people think of the beer.
"It kind of reminds me of GABS or Sydney Beer Week, where you can listen to everyone’s opinions of a certain beer. There’s an extra level of socialness, an experience we’re going through together.”
The social aspect extends to brewers and bottle shop owners, too.
“This time last year, we were at Southeast Micro Brew Fest as part of Good Beer Week,” Grum says. “This, year, we were thinking about how different things have become. Those festivals are where we catch up with our brewery mates, have a chat and share a beer. We really missed that, and them.
“The initiative is really great, it’s a nice unifying factor. It’s an opportunity to reach out and keep in touch with each other and feel that we’re all a part of something.”
As for whether these boxes are here to stay post-COVID, opinions are divided.
“If there’s a good selection, I can’t see them fading away,” Grum says.
“I think it’s a flash in a pan,” counters Johnathan. “Once we’re allowed back in the pub, it’ll be back to the same. We’ve already seen a 50 percent drop in bottleshop sales this week now that restrictions in NSW have eased.”
Emma, however, is keen to see them stay.
“It’s an easy way to get something different all the time. I like the opportunity to have beers that I usually wouldn’t drink. Quarantinnies, for instance, was quite heavy on the IPAs. That’s a style I thought I wouldn’t usually drink, but I enjoyed almost all of the beers in that box.
“Although I have no delusion that me spending money on a box will keep a brewery afloat, you try and do what you can.”
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.