Good Beer Week and the Independent Brewers Association (IBA) today announced they are to merge. It means the country's leading beer week and the peak national body representing Australia's independent brewing companies will share resources and work together to build upon what they have achieved to date.
The announcement by the not-for-profit associations follows months of discussions and sees two of the leading players within the Melbourne-based festival team become employees of the IBA. Former Good Beer Week general manager Kate Paterson will return from New Zealand, where she has been running Beervana, to become head of industry development while current program manager Siobhan Kerin joins the IBA as head of events. The festival committee, which this week began curating the program for the 2019 festival next May, remains in place.
In a statement, the IBA said the merger "will extend the reach of the IBA into trade and consumer markets, support the growth of GBW into its ninth year and bring complementary teams together." Beyond Good Beer Week 2019, the association intends to hold discussions with beer weeks around the country and explore opportunities to create others.
Outgoing IBA chair Ben Kooyman, of Endeavour Beer, says the road to today's announcement began with a "chance conversation" between Siobhan and new IBA CEO Alexis Roitman at an event in Melbourne. And, coming at a time when the IBA is looking to increase its work in the consumer arena and the festival team was exploring ways to continue growing, he adds: "It was all meant to be."
As to what the move means, he says: "It's the best beer event in Australia with the support of a body and its members. Two not-for-profit bodies joining is fabulous. No one is trying to take over the other; it's about the sum of two parts.
"There are going to be challenging aspects and we're not here to change things overnight, but we can add more wheels. It won't be smooth as a baby's bum over the first six months, there will be some good creative tensions, [but] it's a case of learning and evolving."
Since its inception in early 2011, Good Beer Week has focused on supporting and celebrating the wider beer community and, since year two, has evaluated venues, beers and events for inclusion in the program based upon its Charter – which you can view here – rather than focusing solely on independently owned brewing companies. Ben says the IBA respects this and is keen that Good Beer Week and any future events run under the new team would be opportunities "for the whole beer community".
Kate, who will return to Australia a year-and-a-half after stepping down from running Good Beer Week, says: "It's an opportunity to help Good Beer Week fully realise its vision with the support it needs to grow.
"There's huge crossover between the IBA and Good Beer Week's goals. We are all part of the same industry and can achieve more working together."
The merger gives the IBA a presence in the two largest Australian markets, Victoria and New South Wales, where almost 60 percent of its members are based along with 75 percent of its associate members, as well as a platform from which to reach more beer drinkers. For Good Beer Week, one of the major benefits will be greater access to government funding.
"Alexis Roitman has come from 15 years working with industry peak bodies, dealing with the highest levels of government," Ben says.
The IBA's annual conference and trade expo, BrewCon, and The Indies awards will also come to Melbourne in August next year before moving on again in 2020. By that stage, there may be other beer weeks run by the newly created team.
"There's a hot bed [of craft beer] in Victoria," Ben says, "but we would like to take that platform into other states."
Full disclosure: the writer of this article, James Smith, is a co-founder, former festival director and current board member of Good Beer Week and has been involved in the discussions that led to this merger.
AN INSIDER'S VIEW
The forerunner to the Independent Brewers Association, the Craft Beer Industry Association (CBIA), was launched during the second Good Beer Week in 2012. The following year, the CBIA held its first major event, the Australian Craft Brewers Conference, in Melbourne during Good Beer Week. The conference was then held within Good Beer Week for two more years before going on the road.
There's a good chance that many will, at the very least, raise an eyebrow at today's announcement but the two associations – or at least one association and the two forms of the brewers association – have a long, shared history. What's more, they are driven by many of the same goals, including promoting and encouraging the appreciation of good beer to a wider audience while educating drinkers and people working in the industry along the way.
Between the second and third Good Beer Weeks – with the backing of the rest of the festival team and driven by a concern that other beer weeks that had sprung up in its wake risked harming the reputation of such events in Australia – I approached the CBIA with an idea. Would it work with us to draw up standards for beer festivals, then give its support to those that met such standards?
At the time, the association's policy was that it wouldn't support or align itself with any festival or event as it wanted to be seen as neutral. Again, the point of relaying this tiny piece of ephemera is to highlight that today's announcement isn't a bolt from the blue; obvious synergies were there from the start.
There's another side to it too. Good Beer Week is the largest festival of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. After visiting in year two, Brendan Moylan of Moylan's returned to the USA and, on the world's biggest beer podcast, The Brewing Network, declared it the best beer week he'd been to in his decades in the beer world. After attending in 2013, Brooklyn Brewery CEO Eric Ottaway told a gathering of the company's partners from around the world in New York that it was the best and most professional he'd attended. Youichi Kiuchi, the man behind Hitachino Nest, returned from Melbourne and set about creating Tokyo Beer Week in its image.
Over the past few years, the festival has incorporated more than 250 events each year embracing all walks of Melbourne life, welcomed stellar brewers and other beer industry people from across the planet, held events in venues ranging from the finest of the city's restaurants to farmyard barns, taken in boats, Puffing Billy, the restaurant tram and all manner of sports and games – although never beer pong or any other events that encourage wanton consumption (not that we'd ever claim people don't drink more than they should over the course of the week).
It has garnered tens of millions of dollars worth of coverage for the local beer community in PR, splattered the city with poster campaigns, created fun videos in conjunction with Bridge Road Brewers, run nationwide competitions and put hundreds of thousands of programs into people's hands in such a professional manner (well, at least since the first year's foldout ones) that I've lost count of the conversations I've had in which people are shocked that it's a not-for-profit run by a tiny team and not some well-funded and supported major event business.
But that's the reality. City and state support over the eight years to date has been negligible (admittedly, the team has had neither the time nor the specific skills to push this further). For the first three years, no one running the festival was paid a cent. If I were to calculate the hourly rate I'd been paid up to the moment I stepped down as festival director after year five to focus on The Crafty Pint there would be workers in sweatshops shaking their head in dismay at how I'd allowed myself to be used (by myself).
Neither I nor any of the team that built the festival would want any sympathy – no one was forcing us at gunpoint and there's no other way the festival could have become what it is. But there are a couple of points here: creating one of the best beer festivals in the world from scratch in a country that barely had a beer scene to speak of takes a particular sort of dedicated idiot; and that the only thing that has ever been sacrificed along the way is the staff running it – every dollar and ounce of energy has been targeted at delivering the best festival possible every year.
There's never been more than the equivalent of two full-time people running it and their wages have never been what they should be. With today's merger offering greater stability for two of the main figures responsible for the festival over its lifetime, as well as more support and the potential to unlock government funding a festival of this global reach surely warrants, Good Beer Week can look forward to a more sustainable future.
Stepping back in time again, a few years ago Kate and I worked on a plan to form a central body that could help run all the structural aspects of beer weeks around the country. I'd spent time with the founders of other beer weeks in different states and been approached by others asking if we could help run theirs. It seemed daft there were separate organisations around the country trying to do the same things squeezed around other jobs, with their staff poorly paid if at all, when surely there were people with the right skills who could come together to do the backend stuff – sponsorship, building websites, securing print deals and so on – while teams on the ground in each city or state designed and delivered unique programs.
For various reasons, this never came to fruition but, again, today's merger has the potential for such a structure to be built. It would alleviate many of the stresses that go into running such beer weeks, help bring all festivals to the same standard and free up individual festival organisers to focus on curating the best programs possible.
Who knows where this might lead but, as Kate says above, we're all in the same industry. It's an industry that faces challenges like never before and if today's merger is a means of making two of its major players stronger then that can only be a good thing.
Photo at top by Simon Shiff, supplied by Good Beer Week.