One of the biggest changes in beer consumption habits forced by last year’s nationwide shutdown was the rise in the use of growlers, squealers and other similar takeaway vessels.
They provided breweries and venues with a means of putting keg beer into consumers’ hands rather than down the drain, leading to some businesses offering milkman-esque home delivery services and a national shortage of growlers. Even the ATO came to the party, waiving the double charge breweries and venue owners face for selling beer in this manner.
This year’s version of the pandemic is proving no less challenging for the drinks and hospo industries in most of the country, both through the extended lockdown currently in place in Sydney and the yo-yoing in and out of lockdowns and restrictions elsewhere. This comes on top of other issues we’ve reported on, such as a crippling staff and skills shortage, and the withdrawal of financial lifelines such as JobKeeper.
It’s a dire situation that’s led one beer lover to launch a social media campaign encouraging beer lovers to support the local industry via a simple call to arms: #emptythekegs.
In short, if you’ve got a local venue within your travel limit offering to fill growlers or squealers, or a brewery with a venue that’s currently closed, head down with your empty vessels (or buy one there), take a photo of your purchase, share it on socials with the #emptythekegs hashtag. The idea is to encourage others to follow suit so less liquid is left to spoil, venues won’t need to send kegs back, and brewers receive more orders.
The concept was launched a few days ago by Jules Armstrong, AKA @lady_beermalade on Instagram, who has been feeling the strain on the industry both as a supporter of the indie beer community and as someone who is witnessing the impact up close. Her husband Doug Armstrong is the sales and brand manager for Killer Sprocket and has become increasingly worried about his friends and colleagues in the beer world.
“In Melbourne, we’re in lockdown six – that’s four this year,” she says, “and each time I hear the same stories from Doug, becoming more worried and anxious than the last. Just in the past week, he’s come home saying he’s sold kegs here and here, then as soon as the lockdown is announced, venues have either returned kegs or said they’re no longer going to buy them. One said they didn’t even know if their doors would still be open by the end of the year.”
As a passionate advocate for the indie beer industry, she says: “When you hear of venues closing, especially those that support independent brewers, the likelihood is that we end up with [venues locked into tap contracts with major brewing companies]. How are breweries like Two Rupees or Burnley or any of the other smaller ones supposed to survive?”
The fact there are no craft venues or independent breweries within her five-kilometre radius was another factor behind the #emptythekegs concept.
“I can’t go and fill my growlers, but other people can, so this is my way of helping,” Jules says.
The often short and sharp nature of the lockdowns in most states this year presents a different reality to 2020 as well, with Melbourne's current lockdown announced after 4pm and giving businesses until just 8pm to switch to takeaway.
Highlighting the difference this time around, Jules points to the example of Stomping Ground, who last year decided to can the beers they had in tanks destined for kegs once the nationwide lockdown kicked in. In 2021, faced with potentially shorter lockdowns, there’s a risk in making such a switch: if you put everything into cans and have no kegs when venues reopen, you might lose a tap spot.
“It’s such a Catch-22,” Jules says.
"Even larger breweries in Melbourne can't predict how much they need to package, they are literally guessing and they either are packaging too much or too little. How do you win in that situation? There is no winning."
The current uncertainty within the keg market and the benefits growlers can bring to beer businesses were raised when the ATO reverted to pre-COVID rules on repackaging beer at the start of this year. In a moment of serendipity for Jules' campaign, the ATO has just announced it is reverting to the rules which were in place for the majority of 2020, allowing businesses under lockdown to repackage beer without incurring extra charges until October 31.
One of the businesses to get behind #emptythekegs is The Catfish in Fitzroy. Co-owner Kieran Yewdall told The Crafty Pint the impact of going in and out of lockdown has been “draining – mentally and emotionally”, with the standing down of staff when rosters have to change within hours “hurting a bit more each and every time”.
While the fact they don’t have a full pub kitchen (Sparrows Philly Cheesesteaks handle their food offering) means food wastage is low compared to some venues, kegs are proving an issue, especially those that need to move fast: fresh IPAs and hazy, hop forward beers in particular. And, of course, they’re ordering fewer than they would with an open venue.
“The year has been an exercise in caution,” Kieran says. “Trying to keep stock levels – and especially kegs – to a minimum just in case, because over-ordering could leave the business overstocked before a lockdown, which means you can sit on old stock for way too long.
“And when you can’t sell stock, that means you can’t pay for it, which then has the knock-on effect for the independent breweries we champion. We all know the margins in the beer industry are tight, so breweries and all their staff and supply chains also suffer.”
Little surprise then that Kieran describes Jules' campaign as “outstanding”, and has added the weight of The Catfish to her call.
He says: “Not enough people even realise they can get takeaway pours at the moment. We raced and got some biodegradable takeaway cups with lids as soon as we could last year.
“A lot of bars do takeaway cans, as we are, but I always find people love drinking off tap. There’s the freshness, of course, but only a few folk out there have tap beer at home, so when you tell people they can get a takeaway cup of beer or cider, it makes their eyes light up.”
Speak to owners and venue staff in COVID-impacted regions and you’ll hear another common tale: the bounce in take home sales that provided a much-needed boost to shuttered venues and producers in 2020's lockdowns has been replicated less and less – if at all – with each subsequent closure in 2021. What’s more, the longer the pandemic lingers, the greater the insecurity felt by many.
“I think people are scared about their next dollar,” Kieran says. “We may get a little bump in sales the first weekend, but the next few weeks people often just hunker down and see when the storm lifts.”
Jules has issued another plea for the beer community too – well, one particular element of it: the prominent Beerstagrammers who request and get sent free samples by breweries in return for promoting them to their followers.
“I think people should be pressing pause on asking for samples,” she says. “Breweries are open to it, of course, but at the moment the more free beer in your fridge means the less beer you’re going to buy from a brewery or off license, which means less paid stock they’re going to be moving.
“I think sometimes we can become fixated with people sending us beers when we could be giving money to the people making the beers we love.”
She adds: “Venues and breweries have had to throw their business models and forecasting out the window. They cannot predict how much or how little product they will sell. How do you win in that situation?
“I’m not sure how much the average punter understands; they see people still brewing one-off releases so assume they’ve bounced back, but there’s a real struggle.”
And it’s one that’s close to home not just for Jules but many others either running beer or hospo businesses, workers losing shifts and, in many cases, those forced to leave the industry.
“I have watched my husband work his way up from being the beer guy at a bottleshop, then selling beer for commission only,” Jules says, “to finally having his dream job as sales and brand manager for an indie brewery. And now I'm watching his stress at having that threatened by these snap lockdowns. That is hard to see.”
Hence the call to arms in the spirit of #keepinglocalalive.
“If there is a venue or brewery offering in your local area, head down there and fill up your growlers, squealers or corny kegs,” she says. “Post it in your stories and share the hashtag #emptythekegs. Let’s get the word out and help.”
If any breweries or bars are looking for help emptying their kegs – or your local beer business is – feel free to shoot details to us at via email – email@example.com – and we'll add them here.