Getting crafty: the independent Sydney brewery thriving despite 'Big-Beer' buy-ups

Over the past few years, Australians have been swapping Coronas out of their stubbies for fuller-flavoured limited-run craft beers brought out by a growing string of small, local breweries.

But it's becoming increasingly difficult for craft brewers to stay competitive in the beer industry, not just because of the influx of local independent labels popping up around the country.

Chris Sidwa and Andrew Fineran, co-Founders of local craft-beer business Batch Brewing Co, have managed to stay strong despite 'Big Beers' increasing market dominance.

Photo: Oscar Colman

Global beverage companies, noticing the rising popularity of craft beer, have spent the last few years having a "bit of a buying spree, buying up smaller brewers," says Chris McNamara, executive officer of the Independent Brewers Association.

For American expats Chris Sidwa and Andrew Fineran, co-founders of Marrickville's Batch Brewing Co, though, the expansion of corporate beer into the craft beer market is an opportunity, rather than a threat, for small businesses.

Chris Sidwa and Andrew Fineran are the co-Founders of Batch Brewing Co, a local craft brewery in Marrickville, Sydney.

Photo: Batch Brewing Co

Running out of an old-panel beater's shop in Marrickville that Sidwa, Fineran, and their mates fixed up, Batch Brewing has thrived in the face of big-beer buy-ups, growing over the last four years into a craft-brewing business with a $2.75 million turnover.

Fighting quantity with quality

Batch Brewing Co's business model operates by delivering their house-brewed craft beer to consumers through multiple channels: they manufacture beer to sell wholesale to pubs and bottle shops, allow customers to buy takeaway from the brewery, and host tastings on site so that "when they are in a restaurant they are most likely to [choose to] enjoy our beer," Sidwa explains. Their on site bar - built out of abandoned pallets - sells the latest brews in 1.89-litre growlers, 640-millilitre bombers, or 440-mililitre cans.

Much like Batch's beer (sold "fresh and cold… without pasteurisation") Sidwa and Fineran aren't letting their business model go stale.

"Variety is what we offer," Fineran says. "We've created about 130 different craft beers for four years running; one new beer every ten days on average. This allows people to explore a lot of different beer styles...people can come in and drink them fresh and in some cases [that beer] is gone within a week."

Chris Sidwa and Andrew Fineran are the co-Founders of Batch Brewing Co, a local craft brewery in Marrickville, Sydney.

Photo: Batch Brewing Co

Sidwa and Fineran's favourite brews include a passionfruit and dragonfruit sour ale they affectionately named "Pash the Magic Dragon", and a coconut IPA called "Island Style".

It's clear through both menu and method that, for Sidwa and Fineran, beer is not simple a product but an experience.

"It was always very important for us to foster a sense of community in our brewery," Sidwa explains.

"There are a lot of beer brands out there that are just a brand, that aren't really touching the production and distribution, that aren't involved in creating a relationship with the consumer."

Fineran jumps in: "When you come into our brewery, you are part of the production and distribution process. In the tasting room, you are effectively sitting in the brewery - you can see us making the beer, loading up the truck. It's a very interactive experience."

'Big Beer' guzzling the industry

This sense of community is creating a very tangible following for Batch Brewing and other craft breweries.

A recent study by Beer Cartel found that 99 percent of beer drinkers are happy to buy craft beer from an independent Australian-owned brewery.

But an increasing number of craft beers are being produced by a large multinational companies.

"Anheuser-Busch InBev, one of the world's largest brewers, produces one in every three beers across the world," McNamara says.

This figure is not surprising given the rate at which Ab InBev are buying into the craft beer market: in the last few months they have purchased Manly's 'Four Pines' and Adelaide's 'Pirate Life', two local-brewers with fast-growing followings. Last year a long anticipated $100 billion merger with SAB Miller saw two of the world's leading beer companies combine.

Over the past year, Coca-Cola purchased popular Perth craft brewery 'Feral Brewing' and Asahi snapped up Melbourne-based brewer 'Mountain Goat', while Japanese-brewing giant Kirin took control of 'Little World'.

A recent decision from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has only solidified Big Beer's ability to dominate wholesale distribution.

The consumer watchdog reviewed contracts and practices at 36 venues across NSW and Victoria following complaints from craft brewers that beer giant's Lion and CUB required some venues to dedicate over 80 per cent of beer taps in exchange for rebates and loans.

But the ACCC found these contracts were not unfair. Deputy Chair Dr Michael Shaper said "although some venues had exclusivity arrangements, most pubs and clubs said they did not feel constrained from allocating taps to craft beer if necessary."

"The investigation focused far too march on the publicans side of things, looking at whether it affects their ability to provide a range of beers, when they should have spent more time speaking with small and independent brewers," McNamara explains.

"The market is becoming more and more competitive, both because of issues getting onto taps but also issues getting shelf space in retailers as more businesses want to play in that wholesale space. The 'brew-pub model' - where you sell [your brew] across your own bar - has more room to grow, but not in that wholesale space."

Leveraging the competition

But for Sidwa and Fineran, recent big beer business buy-ups present an opportunity to grow Batch's already strong following.

"Ab InBev are doing their job to get their new craft beers noticed because they need to. They are increasing awareness and turning their drinkers into craft beer drinkers, and as soon as those customers come into [the craft beer market] it will start to open their world up to different sellers of beer," Sidwa says.

"As long as we keep our focus on quality, we should be able to leverage on the dollar [big beer] are spending to grow craft beer and market themselves. I believe this is a real small business opportunity."

The pair have also recently invested in a new canning line to keep up with competition in the wholesale industry.

"Packaged beers are more popular and now there are more people selling craft beer for tap...we have to adjust our offering," Sidwa says.

Indeed, despite Batch's cult-like following ("we do have a standing booking at the tasting room for a group of people who come almost every night," Fineran admits), the pair recognise "the [craft beer customer] is promiscuous and wants to try new and different things".

"The real challenge is to keep their interest."

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