Next Thursday, brewers and beer lovers across the country will gather to watch The Indies awards. And it’s safe to say things will look rather different to all previous Indies nights.
In 2019, the night capped off the Independent Brewers Association’s (IBA) BrewCon, packing a Melbourne venue with beer industry people cheering on their peers as trophies were handed out and bragging rights were secured. Heck, there was even a pair of marriage proposals on stage.
This time around, while trophy winners will still be declared, instead of a packed room, thanks to the unique challenges of COVID-19, it's going to be more like Eurovision. The event hosts will be in a production studio in Richmond, joined throughout the evening by parties being held across Australia, while others tune in online from their homes.
Yet the fact there even is an Indies awards in 2020 is mightily impressive given how many events have been cancelled this year – and another reminder of just how innovative and resilient the beer community has been in the face of back-to-back disasters.
“This has kept us in business and kept us in jobs,” says IBA head of events Siobhan Kerin.
Siobhan, or Shev as she's better known, says when she tells people she works in events, she’s commonly met with a reaction of concern; little surprise, perhaps, given the devastation wrought upon anyone working in a similar field in 2020. The impact of the pandemic has been particularly pronounced at the IBA, where March’s Indie Beer Showcase was cancelled just days out and, after much time, energy and money had gone into preparing for the tenth Good Beer Week, the country's biggest celebration of beer was cancelled too.
“We literally took the delivery of programs the morning that we cancelled,” Shev says, adding how, at the time, nobody knew how long COVID would last.
“That’s alright," was the vibe. "Our conference and The Indies are in September.”
BrewCon Brisbane was ultimately postponed until November and moved to the Sunshine Coast but, as the reality of COVID unfolded, that too fell by the wayside.
“Then the borders shut and it was just like ‘fuck’,” Shev recalls.
For The Indies, however, the IBA board, staff and the advisory group that assists with judging all wanted to find away for it to go ahead; they even considered sending beer to judge’s homes and running everything remotely over Zoom. The problem there lay not just with what would presumably be a heavy reliance on local postal services but with the fact that it would be a challenge to ensure the judging could still take place blind.
“Then we pulled together the idea of having smaller hubs and not having people have cross borders,” Shev says.
Typically Indies judging takes place ahead of BrewCon: brewers, brewery employees and others from the industry both here and overseas descend on one location to take part.
This year, 32 judges from the wider beer industry met up in Brisbane, Perth and Newcastle to assess the entries – and they’ve been busy too, with the 700 or so entries far exceeding the IBA’s COVID-reduced expectations.
“We didn’t even really know if people were going to enter," Shev says. "I kind of penned it and thought it would be around 300 beers."
Unlike previous Indies and the Australian International Beer Awards, this year they’ve only judged beers in package, as including kegs would have created too much of a logistical nightmare, not least as some beers need to be judged more than once, such as when awarding the top gong for Champion Australian Indie Beer.
“I think people were excited that it continued; I think people really appreciate The Indies and I think they appreciate the feedback they get on their product,” Shev says.
The IBA has received plenty of support from sponsors too, with trophy winners this year not just receiving something shiny and bragging rights, but something tangible too. In the case of the hop growers at Ellerslie and yeast wranglers at Lallemand, they're not just sponsoring trophies but also providing the winner of one of those trophies with a literal tonne of Coopers malt, plus hops and yeast.
“A lot of them said, ‘We want to do as much as we can for our breweries at the moment.’,” Shev says.
Initially, the team had hoped Melbourne would be able to take part in the judging too, which would have made things easier considering it’s where the IBA is based. But, as Victoria’s second wave of coronavirus kept coming, they knew that couldn’t be the case, but even there they found a silver lining.
For example, Western Australian judges can be underrepresented at major awards on the country's east coast but this year made up a third of the pool.
One experienced Melbourne judge who could be involved was Two Birds co-founder Jayne Lewis, who’s been on The Indies’ judging committee for three years and judging beer for more than a decade. This year she took on a particularly active role, organising how the flights of beers would be presented to different judges.
“I’d just come off organising the Perth Royal Beer Show,” Jayne says. “I had done all the behind-the-scenes organising so Will Irving [Feral’s former head brewer] could be the head judge there without actually knowing any of the beers that had been entered.”
It’s a role that’s seen Jayne play “Tetris with all of the pieces to make them fit together” and ensure the right number of beers were at the right hub so as not to stretch anybody’s palate.
“My job was to work out how to get the right beers into the right places,” Jayne says. “So, I had to work out how many categories we could judge in each location and what kind of styles were suited to the judges in each location.”
One element many missed out on this year was the social aspect of judging. Jayne says judging is about the best thing any brewer can do for their palate and brewery, and it means for many in the beer world – herself included – this year is a missed opportunity to tap into the minds of those around you.
“I would usually do two or three comps a year and I haven’t done one in 2020,” Jayne says. “It’s pretty disappointing; I’ve organised two competitions and haven’t got to drink a single damn beer in any of them.”
The feeling of missing the action is shared by Shev who, as anyone who has ever met her can attest, is very hands on when it comes to running events.
“For me, one of the most enjoyable things about doing events is actually doing it and being there at the end and feeling like you’ve accomplished something," she says.
“It’s been a very surreal feeling. I’ve been sitting at a dining room table while all these other people have been doing all this work for me. It’s helped me learn as well; I’ve had to delegate and brief people a lot and I’d normally be exhausted right now – physically exhausted."
This year has been marked by the inability to make plans. Events, festivals, weddings and birthdays have all been moved, moved again, then cancelled, and planning for the future has at times seemed impossible, particularly in Victoria where Melburnians spent so long unable to leave their own locale, or even go outside for very long.
Shev says dealing with those unknowns has been the biggest challenge, one that's changed the way she’s approached running the judging this year.
"A lot of the what ifs were talked through a lot,” she says, laughing.
“It’s just the unknowns; in events you need to lay plans and we weren’t able to do that because the goalposts are shifting constantly.
“For me, it was just not being able to cement plans in until the last minute and make decisions on the fly in terms of what’s happening. Normally, I’m very organised so it’s very frustrating thing.”
That said, judges have stepped up to ensure the three hubs ran as smoothly as possible.
“The problem is we had to keep changing the date and we had to keep changing the location,” she says. “Every week something came up that we had to change and had to fix so, in the end, we had to keep it quite flexible and make calls short term.”
The effort that's gone into getting the Indies to this point, let alone to this scale and with a unique multi-venue virtual event to come, hasn't gone unnoticed.
“Shev is the absolute powerhouse behind this whole thing," Jayne says. "Absolutely nothing would have been done without her, so she deserves all the applause and accolades.”
The Indies kicks off at 8pm AEDT on November 19 and is hosted by The Crafty Pint's founder James Smith and Moon Dog co-founder Karl Van Buuren. To stream it on the night and find out who's hosting an Indies party, head here.
As part of the #keepinglocalalive campaign we've been running Postcards from the Edge stories, highlighting the ways in which people are adapting to survive. Given the country is now back on track for a COVID normal life, we're hopeful this might be the last...
UPDATE FROM THE IBA
The IBA held their AGM this week, appointing new members to the board and confirming Pete Philip as chair for anther year. They released the following statement to the media:
The IBA held its annual general meeting on 10th November which saw two new full board member appointments with Corinna Steeb from Prancing Pony Brewery and Clare Clouting from Gage Roads Brewing Co elected by the membership for a 3-year term.
The board also nominated two casual directors to the board which are one-year appointments. The board has asked Peter Philip from Wayward Brewing Co to serve a final one-year term as Chairman and Johnny Latta from Nomad Brewing Co to continue to head up the Trade Marketing Group.
"The IBA has greatly benefited from having Peter serve as our chair through what has been an incredibly challenging year and the board unanimously felt that continuity while the industry recovers would be the best thing for the association and the entire indie beer industry", said David Kitchen from Ballistic Brewing Co and IBA Treasurer.
"I'd like to thank Peter for agreeing to serve out another year on the board to lead the industry into this year of recovery", added David.
"The last year has been a massive challenge for the association and every indie brewery out there", said Philip, "now we need to shift our focus from survival to recovery and growth - there is a lot to do so I'm looking forward to helping to lead the organisation through the big list of priorities we have for the indie beer industry.
"With our GM, Kylie Lethbridge, now in place and a cohesive and driven team I really feel that the association is up to the challenges that 2020 has presented us.
"I am also very pleased to see the election as a full board member of Corinna Steeb who brings a tremendous amount of business and governance experience and Clare Clouting who has deep experience in beer quality, manufacturing and production. The reappointment of Johnny Latta follows on from the great work that Johnny has been undertaking for members in the Trade Marketing project team that the board felt was important to continue."
"On a personal note I am most looking forward to finally being able to travel around the country and have a beer with my fellow members!"
The IBA has a full agenda for the next year focusing not only on our banner annual events like BrewCon which will be held next in August 2020 on the Sunshine Coast and our broader advocacy agenda of addressing the key issues facing independent brewers.
Priorities for the next year include ensuring a fair excise beer tax rate for indie brewers through the increase of the small brewer rebate to $350,000; supporting regional growth through additional Government investment; ensuring open market access for indie brewers through the review of tap contracts; and obtaining a commitment to fund the development of a long term strategy for ensuring that the indie beer industry can achieve its goal of reaching 15% of the Australian beer market by 2025.