Two of the best-loved names in Australian craft beer have agreed to join forces, with the team behind the fast-growing Fox Friday Craft Brewery buying pioneering retailer and venue Carwyn Cellars.
The deal signed this week will see the Thornbury bar and bottleshop continue to operate as Carwyn Cellars, with the owners and staff remaining in position too, in what is the latest high profile change in ownership in this roller-coaster of a year for the local beer and hospitality industries.
It also represents something of a challenge for media publications that prefer to refer to interviewees by their first names, with Ben and Nicole Carwyn and sidekick Ben Duval (AKA Big Ben and Little Ben), who have taken the business to national prominence over the past decade-and-a-half, now working with Fox Friday co-founder Benny Hooper, his wife Sarah, and their business partner David Anderson.
The spark that led to this week’s sale initially came from the Carwyn Bens, who’d been chatting earlier in the year about their future hopes and plans for the business.
“There were a few things we wanted to do that we hadn’t been able to achieve,” Ben Duval told The Crafty Pint. “We wanted to unlock more fun.
“Something that’s exciting for us is to work on other projects as time goes on, whether it’s festivals or small-scale importing.”
Ben Carwyn, who just last week was awarded the True Indie Supporter trophy at the Indies for his longstanding support of the country's independent beer scene, adds: “We did three-quarters of a festival [the Carwyn Collaborational] then had to go virtual, then talked about doing it again but it was too hard.
“After 16 years, it’s hard to find the next thing. We’re done pretty much everything we set out to do: most of the major beer launches in the country; the only one left I want to get is Russian River.”
There’s no denying they’ve helped raised the bar for craft beer venues and events in Australia, not least following the move from the original Carwyn Cellars bottlo a short walk from the current location in High Street and the subsequent opening of a bar at the rear. Over time, the number of taps has steadily grown, with the offering now augmented by a beer garden (with more taps) and the Carwyn Tuck Shop.
While their vision for the Carwyn Collaborational was impacted by COVID, both before and after the pandemic they proved the only limit to the scope of their events was their ambition, whether it was the steady stream of Australian launches for much-hyped internationals, showcases of rare vintages, events that kicked off in the middle of the night, or their always-impressive showing as USA host for Pint of Origin.
Little surprise then that Benny says the new owners have “massive respect” for what the Carwyn team has achieved.
“When you think about craft beer in Australia, a lot that comes to mind is Carwyn Cellars,” he says. “What they have achieved is huge. I think we can continue the brand and continue to have some fun.”
Benny says he and David are confident they can take one of the country’s best known names in craft beer to another level. They plan to do so while leaving the Thornbury operation as it is; not only is the current team remaining in place but you won’t see more Fox Friday in the fridges or on tap than you do now.
“We don’t want it to become the Fox Friday show, not by a long shot,” David says.
Instead, having learned from COVID just how quickly carefully conceived business plans can be undermined almost overnight, they see it as further diversifying their portfolio of booze-related businesses. In time, they may look to take the Carwyn Cellars concept and name elsewhere too.
You wouldn’t bet against them either. The acquisition continues a rapid rise for Benny and Sarah since they acquired Fox Friday – then a small brewery based in Hobart’s northern suburbs – in early 2019, while David is involved in a number of other hospo venues outside of the partnership with the Hoopers, including Kekou and Klae.
Since taking over Fox Friday, the Hoopers have added a brewery taproom in Hobart’s CBD as well as acquiring the Moonah Hotel & Cellars in the city’s northern suburbs and turning that into one of the state’s leading craft beer venues. And, after building a new production brewery for Fox Friday in Tassie, they’ve been working on another in Richmond, which is set to start brewing in the next couple of weeks.
They will also open a Fox Friday taproom in Melbourne – they’re hoping to welcome customers by the end of the year – and are currently in the process of turning Blasta Brewing’s original home in Perth into another Fox Friday brewpub, which will enable them to supply WA customers without needing to send beer across the Nullarbor.
“We’ve been extremely lucky to have attracted some very, very good personnel we already have on board,” Benny says. “This [acquisition] highlights that we want to work with the best people in the industry.”
While the country’s beer and hospo industries have been facing multiple challenges – as evidenced by the closures and voluntary administrations that have occurred over the past 12 months – Carwyn Cellars’ new owners are bullish about what lies ahead.
“I always think there’s growth, whether it’s good times or bad times,” David says. “A lot of redundancies and lay-offs in the corporate world have all gone through. The axe has stopped falling so people feel safe.
“There wasn’t a single end of financial year function at any of my venues, but people are already getting on top of their Christmas bookings now.”
“We’ve had a pretty tough 12 / 18 months,” Ben Carwyn adds, “but the last two to three weeks it seems to be turning. People have got used to the new interest rates on their mortgages. People are coming out a bit more.
“Some of the less successful and less professional operations are starting to fall by the wayside, which happens in this sort of time anyway. But I don’t think that will hurt the industry. There’s too many good operators, so if you’re not on top of what you need to do you’re going to get left behind.
“It’s been a long, hard run, so people have learned how to deal with it. People have had to make some pretty hard calls, but it’s worked.”
And, one imagines, so will this coming together of some of the best-loved brands in beer today.
Photo at top of article (left to right): Nicole and Ben Carwyn, David Anderson, Ben Duval and Benny Hooper.