Nine years on from announcing themselves to the world with the first of what would be many saisons bearing their name, Exit Brewing have decided to exit the beer industry.
The Melbourne-based operation was founded by mates Craig "Grum" Knight and Fraser Rettie, who first met in Melbourne and were later inspired to start brewing while working in IT in Europe – hence the name ex-IT.
They launched Exit with beers brewed at Cavalier's brewery in Derrimut before moving production to KAIJU! in Dandenong, where Grum was part of the brewing team until the start of the COVID pandemic.
Over the years, the pair amassed friends aplenty throughout the beer community, while their beers claimed notable awards success, including two major trophies at the Australian International Beer Awards for their Amber and Milk Stout.
However, the harsh economic conditions currently facing the beer industry, which come on the back of the challenges of the COVID pandemic, led to the decision to wind up the business. In a statement, Exit said that "having navigated the ups and downs of the last two and a half years, we have come to the realisation that our little brewery is no longer in a position to be competitive or viable in this challenging market."
"We kept looking at it thinking it would get better soon," Grum told The Crafty Pint, "but with the look of the economy going forward, I don't think it's going to get better this year, or probably into next.
"Then you look at the number of new breweries that have opened up and the competition [in the market] – it's not going to get easier."
Exit's decision to call last drinks follows the closure of connected hospo venue, Uitgang Bar in Richmond, last winter, and comes amid a turbulent time for the country's beer industry. A number of breweries and beer venues have been sold or put on the market over the past 12 months – and there are other owners looking for buyers or new investors both publicly and privately.
Several brewing companies have also entered voluntary administration since September last year: Easy Times, Ballistic Beer Co and – just last week – Parched Brewery in Brisbane, plus Tribe Breweries in New South Wales. Ballistic were acquired last month by a consortium led by Catchment Brewing, which also bought Fortitude Brewing and offshoot brand Noisy Minor last June, while the next steps for Tribe are set to be confirmed this week.
Add in recent changes at Newstead Brewing, who moved out of their original Doggett Street brewpub to focus on their Milton brewery venue, Future Mountain's sale of their Reservoir brewpub as they head in a new direction, and the decision by Good Drinks and Stomping Ground to call off the former's proposed acquisition of the latter and it's been an eventful start to 2023. The uncertain situation is reflected in other craft beer industries overseas too, not least the US and UK.
Grum suspects more Australian breweries will decide to cease operating as the industry goes through a period of consolidation on the back of years of rapid growth; as well as fierce competition in the marketplace, he cites factors such as the impact of rising rates on those who've taken on debt to fund expansion, a drop-off in beer sales generally as consumers adjust to tighter budgets, and the time and resources required if brewers want to meet consumers' and retailers' ongoing demand for new releases.
At the same time, he says he knows many owners who are looking forward to a time when the economic situation takes a turn for the better.
"People are struggling, but are hoping," he says. "Things are hard, sales are down, summer has been slow, but they're trying to get through."
And while Grum plans to take a break from beer, he's not discounting a return in the future either.
"I don't think I'd try to set up a commercial brewery again, but at some point I could look at a brewpub if I found the right place and idea for it," he says.
"I've ended up running a business and not brewing. The option to get back and just be a brewer again could be something that comes up and is something I'd consider."
Looking back over the nine years of Exit, something he says hasn't been easy with the decision to wrap up the business so fresh, he says: "It was a good experience and I enjoyed the time. I got to drink a lot of good beer and met a lot of good people along the way."