Things have changed in the hours since we published this article with borders to close between NSW and Victoria. We wish everyone in the region the best and hope the closures - and the COVID-19 outbreak - prove to be short lived.
A year ago today, while most people around the globe were preparing to celebrate New Year's Eve, many in Australia were preparing to fight for their lives. The violent bushfire season was building in ferocity, threatening vast swathes of the country, including the South Coast of New South Wales.
Thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed or damaged by the blazes, and many more were crippled by the loss of tourism revenue.
However, as Australia continues to put out fires of a different kind as COVID-19 continues to rear its head, the beer industry on the South Coast is looking forward to a far better summer following a year of survival, recovery and rebuilding.
Among those hoping for a bumper season is the team at Lockstocking Brewery, a tiny operation on farmland in the popular tourist town of Pambula. While the business wasn't touched by flames last summer, it was still hit hard.
Through the first 15 days of 2019, the brewery brought in more than $60,000 in sales. Across the same period in 2020, that figure barely climbed over $6,500.
Brewery director Peter Caldwell told The Crafty Pint the psychological impact of the previous summer still permeate the community.
“Obviously the bushfires were a huge tragedy,” he says. “It had a very significant psychological effect on people down here. The damage to buildings is significant but the damage to people isn’t always on display.”
Following the bushfires, Peter believes the local community banded together, something that continued during the pandemic.
“The locals have been amazing," he adds. "The adversity at the start of the year really brought everyone closer together.”
As the community and country move on from the devastation of the bushfires and the pandemic, Peter says there is a tangible sense of positivity about the upcoming summer period.
“Now that the borders have opened, things are slowly returning back to normal," he says. "Sixty percent of our business comes from Victorian travellers, so now that they are returning there is a lot of positivity.”
Another business preparing for a significant summer season is Cupitt’s Estate in Ulladulla, north of Batemans Bay. Head brewer Liam Jackson says that, while the estate felt the pinch of COVID, community support and strong planning has put them in good stead for the coming months.
“We’re still fairly restricted with what crowds we can have,” he says. “However, the way we’ve adapted to the new norm has meant a more consistent stream of people coming through.
“Being in such a nice area, we’ve seen a really strong stream of visitors. The last few months have been really good trading.
“I think all businesses around here are looking forward with an eye on the COVID numbers… I think there’s the potential for a massive summer.”
Support from the local community during lockdown was crucial, according to Liam. He says the staff made a strong effort to work with the Ulladulla community and create a family atmosphere.
“During lockdown, we continued to focus internally and on the local area,” he says.
“Our business is all about family, and the greater work family. It’s a really core part of our business that, when people come here, they feel like they’re coming to a familiar place.”
One person well aware of what businesses like Longstocking and Cupitt’s are preparing for is Nigel Ayling. He's the founder of We Love Craft Beer and created a craft beer festival in Merimbula back in March – just before the lockdown – in support of the region's industry.
After spending significant time traveling around the state visiting different breweries, Nigel echoes the thoughts of Peter and Liam.
“Generally, the consensus is that it's going to be a busy summer,” he says.
“Numbers are swelling in all the towns; I think the summer is going to extend longer than most people are used to. It’s going to be busy right through until April.”
Thanks to this uptick in tourism, Nigel believes brewers and venues need to be ready for whatever is thrown their way.
“Obviously, getting more people into these venues and trying these beers is a positive,” he says. “People are coming back and injecting money back into these towns and businesses.
“However, on the downside, a lot of places are struggling with staffing. A lot of the breweries along the coast are quite small. A lot are really only producing for their backyard.
“It’s all about capacity: have venues got the staff to produce enough to get themselves through this period? It’s going to be an adjustment, a lot of these venues have had nobody coming through their taproom for most of the year.”
Despite running one of the smallest breweries on the South Coast, it looks like it's a challenge Peter will gladly accept.
“It’s going to be a great summer,” he says. “You can feel a hum in the brewery again, you can tell that people are moving and excited again."
If you're visiting the region, you can find the above breweries and many more good beer venues in the free Crafty Pint app. We're also running a story next week on Ryefield Hops' plan for recovery after they lost their entire crop last season.