It is a fair guess that when French novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr penned the oft quoted line “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose” – the more things change, the more they stay the same – he wasn’t thinking about craft beer bottleshops. But as the likes of Wine Republic and Slowbeer expand their domains into new suburbs, it seems an apt comparison.
Alongside the growing demand for craft beer in the last few years, bottleshop chains with their ear to the ground have grown along with it. Since opening their first store in 2006, Blackhearts & Sparrows' owners have expanded across Melbourne, with a total of seven stores spread out from St Kilda to Fitzroy North. Elsewhere in the city, McCoppins now welcomes beer lovers in both Abbotsford and Fitzroy (and has a fine selection at its two delis too). Purvis Cellars has been open in Surrey Hills since 2001, and added a Richmond store in 2010. Wine Republic’s third branch, in Windsor, has just opened its doors, Slowbeer Fitzroy is a matter of weeks away and the Prince branded stores also offer broad selections of great beer.
Elsewhere, there are other examples: Platinum Liquor's two stores in Sydney, where several of the Camperdown Cellars outlets have a strong craft focus; the owners of Ashfield Mall and Cutty Cellars are looking to repeat their craft centric success a third time, while the couple behind Cromer Cellars took their template to North Curl Curl. In Queensland, the Beer + Wine stores are the only bottleshops with a solid craft offering on the Gold Coast, while Craft Red Hill and Hop & Vine are attached to the same hotel license, as are the three Black Sheep bottleshops.
Slowbeer owner Chris Menichelli sums up Melbourne's bottleshop boom as a case of customers expecting two things: quality and convenience. While regulars in the earliest days of the store used to travel from across the city to his Richmond location – and the Hawthorn store before that – there is now more beer selection to be found in any given suburb of Melbourne, doing away with the need to travel.
Instead, bottleshops have learnt to rely on the strength of their name. If a shop’s model works in one location, that success should be able to be replicated elsewhere. That will be the goal for Slowbeer when it opens its second location on Smith Street where Two Row Bar previously held court.
“It’s trying to capture more people and trying to replicate a model that we know works well,” says Chris. “Slowbeer is what we are and what we set out to do from the get go. Two Row was a bit of a side step from that, so by coming back to Slowbeer we know that the model works and that we’re really passionate about it.”
The customers coming through the doors have learnt more about craft beer at the same rate as the stores selling it, Chris says, meaning their range needs to be constantly evolving.
“I’ve always thought that as the market has gotten bigger it would be a bit scary being a young brewery, because there’s so much competition,” he says.
“Whereas for us as a retailer, it’s fine because we’re on the good end of things. As long as we keep up with the market and what people want, then we can stay relevant. That works for breweries too, but we’ve got a bit more scope to be flexible in what we offer.”
But even while moving with the times, consistency remains key. McCoppins group buyer Van Ziras oversees purchasing for both their stores in Fitzroy and Abbotsford (pictured above). While they have evolved their range in the six years Van has been with the group, ensuring customers feel comfortable has always remained a crucial part of the role, even as their tastes grow and change.
“People have far more awareness around craft beer and are more willing to try new things. But more than that, people are willing to take our advice on board and try new brands or styles, and just be willing to talk about it,” says Van.
“I get constantly surprised by people. A couple might walk in and pick up half a dozen new things to take home and try, and they’ll come back because they know we’ll have something different the next week.”
Being able take some of that store loyalty to a new part of town is the name of the game for Wine Republic owner Fiona Lim, especially in opening their first store south of the river.
“A lot of craft beer bottleshops are in the northern areas rather than southside, and we were getting a lot of customers coming from that side of town,” she says.
“Windsor is almost like the Fitzroy of the south, so we saw that people were really getting into craft beer and really starting to appreciate it in that part of town, so it seemed like the best spot for our next location.”
Walking into a Wine Republic store, customers know what to expect, which gives them an edge in a new part of Melbourne, Fiona says.
“There’s a bit of brand loyalty in shopping with us and knowing our offering. In Northcote and Fitzroy we’ve got these busy stores and people can see what we’re about and trust that they’ll get quality products at our stores, whichever one they walk into.
“People know they can expect a wide range and quality service. We had a little bit of trouble in being called Wine Republic, because people don’t initially expect so much craft beer. But now that we’ve established ourselves, they know to expect craft beer in our stores.”
It's only seven years since the original Slowbeer opened as Australia's first 100 percent beer bottleshop, which puts the growth of specialist beer retailers into perspective – and that's without considering the explosion in online retailers and beer clubs. And maintaining a balance between keeping regulars happy and embracing new trends or beer styles is key to continued success, says Chris, particularly with larger retailers expanding their interest in craft beer.
“When we first started, our imports focused more on classic German and Belgian beers, then as new, more modern stuff started coming in we switched to that. It’s constantly evolving with the scene.
“We don’t want to neglect the classics, because they’re good stepping stones into the more extreme ends of craft, and not everyone has to sit at the extreme end. It’s about finding that balance between the two. You don’t want to alienate people, but you also want to show people just how exciting beer can be.”
About the author: Kerry McBride is a reformed journalist who has taken the well-trodden path from Wellington to Melbourne. Her love for bad puns is matched only by her love of hoppy beers and Hallertau Funkonnay.