WA brewers are hopeful the sentencing of individuals for stealing kegs from a number of breweries and venues late last year will serve as a warning to others.
Blasta Brewing owner Steve Russell (pictured above), who played a pivotal role in bringing the thefts into the public eye, was informed by police earlier this month that one of the men charged in relation to last year's thefts, a 45-year-old Bayswater man, had received a prison sentence for a number of offences – three charges of stealing, two for gains benefit for fraud. He received sentences of four, five and six months imprisonment for the stealing offences, to be served concurrently, and two three month sentences, also to be served concurrently, for the other offences.
WA Police also confirmed a 27-year-old man charged with stealing has received a six month community based order and ordered to pay $225.90 costs and $4,342.50 in compensation. A third man charged with stealing has pleaded not guilty and is due to appear in Perth Magistrates Court in October.
It's a significant outcome in a case that unfolded at times like a comedic thriller, and which highlights the implications such actions have for the local beer industry. According to a study carried out by the WA Brewers Association (WABA), the economic impact of keg theft on the state's beer industry is around $2m per year.
Concern over keg thefts from Perth businesses had been growing for some time when thieves targeted Blasta, in the Perth suburb of Burswood, several times in a matter of days in October 2019; they made off with dozens of kegs at a cost to the brewery in the region of $15,000 to $20,000.
The last time they pulled into the yard, Steve says security footage showed they had "a massive trailer already full" with kegs they'd picked up from a number of pubs.
"When I saw them on the camera after security called me at 2.45am I couldn't believe what I was seeing," he told The Crafty Pint.
He jumped into his car and set off to find the trailer.
While his nighttime search was in vain, he was able to provide police with camera footage and later contacted a music journalist he knew at The West Australian to see if he could get the story into the paper. Once in print, it was picked up by other media.
"Joey Catanzaro, who's a bit of a celebrity and one of the main news reporters, came around," Steve says. "Then, miraculously, they were doing an interview with the minister for small business later that day and questioned him about it – what were they doing about this – and it got a primetime slot on the news."
From there, things continued to gather momentum, with Steve receiving a tip off email from someone who'd spotted a stack of Blasta kegs at a scrapyard in Bayswater. He sent a brewer and his venue manager to take a look and were taken aback at what they found: not just kegs but other valuable equipment such as couplers.
"I phoned Joey and said we'd found the kegs," Steve says. "He said, 'You beauty! We're going up there now.' Then the police went around and it all unravelled."
The theft of kegs was an ongoing issue in the state, with property from other small breweries including Nail and Feral discovered alongside items belonging to the country's biggest beer companies.
At the same time, WABA had launched an awareness campaign about keg theft and, since then, Steve says he's been contacted three times by people who had seen his kegs for sale in online marketplaces. A new keg costs around $200.
WABA vice-president and Cheeky Monkey national sales and NPD manager Brendan Day, who played a role in launching the awareness campaign last year, says: "People just don't see it as a tool of our trade or a commodity. There's guys that are cutting them up into barbecues.
"Can you imagine if I walked into someone's worksite and took their drill and said, 'It's not locked up so you obviously don't care about it'? People need to understand that kegs are a tool of our trade."
He says educating the wider public about the value of kegs is key in reducing the number of thefts, and points out the cost can go well beyond the price of the stainless steel.
"You have to factor in things like admin costs and lost revenue," Brendan says. "We've not been able to ship orders because we can't find our kegs and when you're in the South West [Cheeky Monkey's main production brewery is in Vasse] you sometimes have to wait [for keg rental companies to get to you] so you can't get beer out.
"No publican is going to leave a tap dry over the weekend so that tap spot you've worked six months on has gone unless you've got a good relationship with the venue."
What's more, as Steve says while reflecting on his successful spot of sleuthing: "Don't mess with the beer supply in Australia. It infuriates everybody!"