On a Monday morning, Al Carragher goes to unlock his pub and notices something unusual: the footpath out the front of the Great Northern is far too clean. It’s been a long weekend over which countless pints have been poured but there are no empty kegs to show for it. What's more, the footpath appears to have been freshly swept.
He goes to check the pub’s cameras and sees that, in the early hours, a group had pulled up outside the pub and loaded dozens of kegs into the back of a van.
“They’ve turned up at 3am in high-vis, loaded 60 kegs in eight minutes, swept the footpath and gone,” Al told The Crafty Pint.
As a publican and brewery owner for two decades, he's someone who always keeps a close eye on kegs and knows how much they cost: around $150 to $200 a keg, depending on the order size. While it’s not uncommon for the odd keg to go missing and be transformed into a homebrew setup or share-house set of stools that end up gathering dust, he's never had so many taken by such a well-organised group.
“I keep an eye on them religiously,” Al says. “So I know if someone’s taken two or three, but this has never happened before.”
The kegs taken from the Great Northern are the property of multiple breweries and keg rental companies and represent just the tip of the iceberg of what’s been taking place in recent months in Melbourne. Since October, thousands have vanished from around the city according to multiple businesses The Crafty Pint has spoken to, representing a major drain on an industry that’s already under serious pressure.
Victoria Police are currently investigating a series of keg thefts across the city, with Yarra Crime Investigation Unit detectives aware of hundreds disappearing from different suburbs.
Among those impacted are Melbourne’s craft beer pioneers 2 Brothers: owner Dave Ong told The Crafty Pint they alone are missing a couple of hundred.
He first noticed they were holding a smaller number ahead of Christmas and chalked it up to the busy period of trade, but the reality is that they've lost a significant portion of their stock over a number of months.
“Even accounting for shrinkage, I’d suspect I’ve lost a few hundred,” Dave says. “It’s quite a lot and the cost and lead time attached to replacing these really does impact a small brewery significantly.
“We really notice it.”
2 Brothers is a brewery with a particular focus on tap beer and, given their 17-year history, they have long-established relationships with a lot of venues. As such, they’ve been working with customers to find solutions to better safeguard their kegs given even smaller venues are having theirs swiped.
“We have a pretty good understanding with our venues, many of which we've dealt with for years and years, about safeguarding our assets,” Dave says.
“They might have to be a bit more flexible with our pick-up, delivery days and when they can bring the kegs up; there’s quite a bit behind making all of it happen.”
In a statement, Victoria Police said they were aware of more than 200 kegs stolen from various pubs, which they believed would cost the beer industry more than $30,000. However, the investigators believe more incidents have occurred that haven't been notified to police yet, and urged anyone with information to report them.
They understood the thieves were selling the kegs for scrap, with Sergeant Ryan Forde from the Yarra Crime Investigation Unit explaining that they were working closely with venues to find those responsible.
“These offenders are not attempting to steal beer," he said in the statement.
"It is clear they are targeting empty kegs to make cash. They are oblivious to the detrimental effect stealing kegs has on pubs and breweries."
The current situation in Melbourne isn't the first time local brewers have had to grapple with keg thefts. In WA several years ago, charges were laid against individuals who had stolen kegs from the state's brewers after kegs were found in a scrapyard; Blasta founder Steve Russell was pivotal in providing information to police which led to the arrests.
Nick Becker, sales director at Konvoy, says this spate of missing kegs is largely a Melbourne issue, with other states not appearing to be impacted. While kegs go missing, typically it’s in far smaller numbers that end up in places such as Facebook Marketplace rather than entire hauls loaded into vans.
“They’re certainly not selling them on eBay for barbecues,” Nick says. “There's too many – too many that are going missing and it's becoming a problem.”
Nick says there’s a sophistication to the thefts: those involved are knocking off Konvoy’s beacons so they can’t be tracked, while the size of the problem is quite startling. Nick says that, across several keg owners, to their best estimate the number of kegs to have gone missing in Melbourne over the last four or five months could be in the thousands.
“We’ve had more and more venues calling up who don’t know how many have been picked up and how many have been stolen,” he says.
As for where the stainless is ending up, that remains unclear, although it could be in scrap metal yards where kegs worth close to $200 are sold for a pittance.
“The scrap value of a keg is about 20 bucks,” Nick says. “So it’s not a lot, but if you’re getting thousands of them then it becomes a decent number.”
With businesses like Konvoy having relationships with many scrap dealers, Nick says most scrapyards are wary of handling anything that might have been stolen. In the past, they've had to jump through hoops to scrap unusable kegs.
“They also don't accept equipment that's got people’s branding on it, you’ve got to prove ownership,” he says.
He has heard of another possibility: shipping containers are being filled and exported, which again would suggest a fair level of sophistication.
Mazen Hajjar, from Hawkers, told The Crafty Pint they’ve had someone turn up at the brewery offering to sell them kegs, which made his staff immediately suspicious.
“Our team asked for contact details and he gave a fake name and address,” Mazen says.
“He had the audacity to say ‘I’ve got some that look like yours.’”
Mazen calls the current situation “out of control”, saying they recently had 60 kegs taken by multiple cars over two nights, while Hawkers have resorted to sending their drivers out to pick up any of their kegs that appear online.
Nick says, for the moment, venues across the city need to understand what’s going on and rethink leaving their kegs out overnight. However, for many pubs, they rely on emptying their cellar regularly to keep the beer flowing and don't have the space to hold kegs inside.
In the last week alone, 2 Brothers have lost another 30 to 40 kegs, with the nature of the thefts proving a significant drain on the small business.
“There are always going to be kegs turned into barbecues and that’s just part of life, but it’s this that’s killing us," he says, pointing out that they've already lost some accounts because to keep them could mean they'd just lose more kegs.
“We're all fighting over tap space and offering competitive prices to stay in the game," Dave says. "And then someone comes along and steals your stainless. What else could happen that’s bad?”
And, as Nick points out, ultimately somebody has to wear the cost of the missing kegs.
“If this keeps happening then someone has to pay for it in the end," he says. "It’s a no-win situation for anyone who wants to drink beer or be involved in beer.”
Anyone who witnessed the theft incidents, has dashcam/CCTV footage or information is urged to contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or file a confidential report online at www.crimestoppersvic.com.au.