Postcards from the Edge No.49: Wombating COVID

It didn't take long after they first met in New York back in 2017 for conversation to turn to brewing a beer together. After all, there can't be too many occasions when brewers from different parts of the world hit it off and spend a couple of days together drinking beer that talk of collaborating doesn't come up.

However, when COVID-19 hit and borders were closed you'd have thought the chances of KAIJU! and Thin Man brewing together were slimmer than ever. What's more, in the intervening years, Thin Man founder Mike Shatzel and his team had already gone ahead and brewed a beer with the name originally proposed for their collab: Trial By Wombat.

Yet, rather than seeing the idea consigned to the garbage bin, the pandemic ended up accelerating plans for what would instead become Mortal Wombat.

"I certainly hoped that it would led to me traveling to Australia for the first time," Mike says of their initial conversations, "but COVID changed all that."

He'd first been introduced to KAIJU! founders Nat and Callum Reeves by Dan Johnston of Collective Arts, who many Melburnians will know from his time running venues in the city before he returned to Canada. The brothers were in New York to meet their graphic designer, Mikey Burton, while en route to Drinktec in Munich and suggested the next time they were in the US they'd head to Thin Man to create Trial By Wombat.

"Mike ended up making Trial By Wombat anyway," Nat says of the Game of Thrones inspired beer – a NEIPA featuring Aussie hops that's gone on to become a hit for the US brewery. "But we'd stayed in touch; Mike has mates all over the world so whenever we were going anywhere he'd tell us who to go and see – he just knows everybody.

"When the pandemic hit, he wanted to do a collaboration with a brewery in Georgia [Good Word Brewery] and was keen to do one with us. He'd come up with the name, Mortal Wombat [gifted to him by New York distributor Jason Ellsworth], and we couldn't not be involved in it."

Nat started chatting to Thin Man head brewer Rudy Watkins about the recipe for another NEIPA featuring Aussie hops, this time Galaxy and Enigma, with Rudy suggesting KAIJU! use "Wombat Water" – the sulphate-heavy water profile they use for Trial By Wombat – and also up the percentage of oats in the grain bill to 35 percent.

"I was like, 'Jesus! That's a lot of oats'," Nat recalls, although fears of a tricky, sticky brew day proved unfounded with the beer well received on both sides of the Pacific.

 

Hanging at Other Half in 2017. Nat Reeves is third from left, Mike Shatzel next to him, and Callum Reeves second from right.

 

While the majority of stories in our Postcards from the Edge series have focused on the Australian beer and hospo community, the impact of COVID-19 has been savage for brewers, bar owners and their staff the world over, with the US among the worst hit. Head back a few months and the state of New York was a global hotspot; on occasions, New York City alone was recording more than 6,000 new daily cases and more deaths per day than Australia has registered to date.

"Going into the COVID pandemic here in the US was pretty terrifying because we had no idea what the future was," Mike says of those early weeks in which they quickly switched to canning 100 percent of their beer.

"This made work days much longer and certainly put a strain on the brew staff. We were lucky that the demand for our cans actually increased and we went full steam ahead."

Initially, they'd considered putting some beer into barrels but demand from distributors meant there was no need. And, just as KAIJU! count themselves fortunate they were already a brewery that sold a greater volume in cans than through pubs and bars (and didn't have a taproom to close), Thin Man's decision to start canning in 2017 after launching as a 100 percent draught business the previous year – and later to expand distribution outside their home state into Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, Virginia, Washington DC and Florida – softened the blow.

"It’s an unfortunate time for many breweries here in the US with reports estimating a lot of closures in the near future," Mike says. "We haven’t seen any yet in our local market and hope not to. We’re seeing a lot of breweries dipping their toes into the alcoholic seltzer market with the intention of increasing sales. We currently have no plans to but you never know.

"Draught sales are somewhat stagnant with the questionable future of bars and restaurants. Distributors are also currently gun shy to buy a lot of draught because of the threat of another shutdown of bars."

He says their three taprooms in the Buffalo area are only doing a fraction of pre-COVID numbers too, with kerbside pickups and delivery only making up some of the lost income.

"I think another long shutdown will be catastrophic for the hospitality industry here," he says. "The government loans have certainly helped but I see many breweries/brewpubs/bars/restaurants not being able to survive another long shutdown."

As for the altogether happier topic of Mortal Wombat, he says: "We hope that the beer is success in Australia and maybe we can find a brewery in Australia to brew our Trial By Wombat for the market there."

And who knows, maybe once this shitstorm is over, the Thin Man and KAIJU! crews will finally get to collaborate on each other's kits too.


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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