There are many aspects of the pandemic nobody wants to stick around (although, personally, this writer doesn’t mind the ubiquitous smell of hand sanitiser), but there are plenty that look to be here to stay.
In the beer industry, breweries whose websites once looked like they were built a decade ago have seriously invested in their online stores. Likewise, beer clubs or subscriptions aren't new, yet they've come a long way as lockdowns and border closures have seen brewers develop better ways to connect with their drinkers.
Bridge Road’s Posse led the way and has been around for more than a decade now, while each year Boatrocker open their Admiralty program for those eager not just to get their hands on some of the brewery and distillery's top drops but also to enjoy other benefits throughout the year. Dollar Bill’s Rare Oak Society helps ensure the tiny Ballarat operation can put its limited volumes of barrel-aged beers and ciders into the hands of those who most want them, in a similar manner to the Wildflower Collective, which is a long-established offering from the Marrickville brewer and blender.
Last year’s COVID lockdowns saw Sailors Grave launch Deck Hands, in which members receive 72 beers over the course of the year along with exclusive merch and signed artwork. The Moon Doggies Beer Club includes digital content and Spotify playlists curated by the brewery. Modus Operandi split theirs between a Classic Core offering and one filled with limited releases.
In short, there's plenty of options on the table for beer lovers keen to take their palates to new places from the comfort of their own homes – and that’s without even considering those from retailers, whether online-only retailers like Hops to Home or the membership wings of Melbourne's Carwyn Cellars, Sydney's Beer Cartel, or Page Bottler in Canberra.
Last month saw Collingwood-based operation Molly Rose get on board with their Cornerstone 2.0 venture. That said, as the 2.0 suggests, for founder Nic Sander it's something of a return to form. Before he opened his Collingwood brewpub, Nic launched with The Foundation Series in 2017: a subscription service provided six 750ml bottles to members as a means of introducing Molly Rose to the world and raising some startup funds.
As the brewery was taking shape, Nic followed The Foundation Series with the first Cornerstone but, while he felt subscribers enjoyed the offering, he struggled to get beer out in a timely fashion and, ultimately, paused the scheme.
“I jumped in a bit too deep and tried to do 12 bottles in the year I was opening my venue," he says, "and didn’t quite hit the timelines I wanted to hit."
Roll on to spring 2021 and the brewery team are approaching it from a new angle.
“It’s the Molly Rose experience without having to come to the pub,” Nic says. "People would normally come in and taste a couple of beers on tap and then take half a dozen beers home and we think that’s the best way we can offer.”
Thus, Cornerstone members receive a dozen or so beers every couple of months, a mix of barrel-aged beers designed for cellaring and sharing plus cans ready to drink now. Nic's also keen to include cocktails and other interesting offerings, such as the odd haiku or two, with the idea being to avoid making the pack solely one filled with high-end, complex beers and instead one that represents Molly Rose as best as possible.
“It’s more of a curation of our favourite beers at the time,” he says. “I took some inspiration from wine subscriptions, like Good Pair Days. They send you stuff for your cellar and stuff that might drink in the month or over a couple of months.”
Cornerstone 2.0 comes in environmentally-friendly packaging designed to keep the beers cold from tank to members' doors, and supplied tasting notes are kept at a minimum to reduce waste. Instead, Cornerstone members can access a section of their website filled with details of how each beer is made, the stories behind them, food pairings and recipes for dinner, cocktails and info for homebrewers eager to recreate some of Molly Rose's beers. There's also a spot for members to vote on future releases with the web page a way of introducing the wider Molly Rose team to dedicated drinkers.
And, while such a subscription has always been intended as a part of the Molly Rose model, COVID forced them to improve how they connect with customers online.
“I think the experience we’re providing with the extra stories and video content is quite different post-COVID,” he says. “We wouldn’t have put so much emphasis on providing that experience; the experience of having to share our story digitally has impacted how we’ll share it into the future.”
It’s a view echoed by Joshua Murnane, of Black Arts Brewers and Blenders. Their Coven intake for 2022 opens later this month and, while it predates the pandemic, lockdowns have served as a further push to keep that channel of communication with fans open.
“You used to heavily rely on all your wholesalers,” Joshua says. “Whereas now you have to be really on your game with Instagram, Facebook and communication with those who are talking to you. And that really helps you talk more directly to the customers.”
As a small brewery – what Joshua calls the “absolute micro end of commercial” – dedicated to sour beer that deals in batch sizes in the hundreds rather than thousands, Black Arts typically play at the pointy end of the beer world. The Coven gives those most engaged of fans access to experimental beers, which means they can enjoy a direct conversation – and dedicate some of their weirder beers to their hardcore followers.
“They’re all the ones who like to tell you what they like and don’t like and that has meant I can really throw some interesting things at them,” he says.
“I can really spend a lot of time and a bit of money in doing weird and wonderful things to see how the market might perceive it.”
As brewers and blenders who are always experimenting, he wanted to find a way to get some of their test batches – which originally could be as small as a litre – into the glasses of people who might be keen to try them.
“I thought it would be cool to extend those to 50-litre batches and then get patrons in to get their opinion and feedback on what works and what doesn’t work,” Joshua says. “Then it also helps with a bit of capital at the start of each year, which helps to tick over any dull periods.”
They've capped their Coven membership at 50 each year though are seeing if they can go a little higher for 2022 and, while they think there’s a lot of value for those who invest $450 for a 12-month membership, they wanted to make it more affordable so split it into a two-tiered system.
“Originally, we had it as one tier but there were people saying they couldn’t afford [the] outlay,” Joshua says. “So we thought we could do a two-tier thing, so you can have one bottle or two and it doesn’t matter which tier you’re on as you’ll still get access to discounts.”
At Tasmanian farm brewery Van Dieman, their subscription service, The Paddock, focuses on their wilder, more experimental releases, with boxes containing beers produced in tiny volumes – such as a "native saison" brewed with snow blossom – that aren't available anywhere else.
For brewery founder Will Tatchell, it's proved to be a way to connect with and gain feedback with not just fans, but also brewers of such beers, as well as a more efficient way of selling such small batch beers far and wide – just one-fifth of members are based in his home state.
"It provides a bit of excitement for me," he says. "It's something different.
"It's almost that trial and error side of things, and it's a great feedback loop."
Given members include the Dollar Bill team, Topher Boehm of Wildflower, five members of the Stone & Wood brewing team, and experienced brewers Glenn Harrison and Paul Wyman, it's a high-quality feedback loop too.
"Just two beers in each pack are released to the public," Will says. "The rest are exclusives. If I was a member, that's what I'd want: tasting stuff no one else has."
As for the logistics, he says: "I can either send [these beers] into wholesale and try to get 1,000 people to pay $40 each, or get 100 people who enjoy our beers to pay $400 for them."
At Black Arts, Joshua says being able to sell such beers upfront helps not only with planning beers that require a long gestation period but also with expenses across the year.
“That first release of Coven is what paid our rent and paperwork for excise and the like for the whole year,” he says.
As for the consumer side of the experience, Pia Poynton, the business development manager at Perth’s Nowhereman Brewing, has been a longtime member of a number of breweries' beer clubs. For her, part of the appeal is gaining access to beers from breweries without much of a presence in her state.
“I like the guarantee,” she says. “I love Boatrocker and Wildflower and I like the idea of not having to worry about it and knowing I’m going to get the beers. And when you do the maths on it, it works out quite well for pricing.”
The personal aspect of connecting with brewers helps too; as one of the original members of Boatrocker’s Admiralty, she received a handwritten note from co-founder Matt Houghton.
“It was definitely Matt’s scratchy handwriting,” Pia says. “Well, I think it was anyway!”
She recently made the tough call to leave Boatrocker’s Admiralty because the number of beers in her cellar was growing, leading her to realise she was collecting beer more than drinking it.
“I felt like I was getting a little membership fatigued. In hindsight, I probably should have gone halves with a mate and we could have divided it up."
It’s not the only form of fatigue, however. Pia says there's a lot of different beer clubs all promising direct-to-drinker offerings that don’t distinguish themselves from one another. With the experience at craft-focused bottleshops typically so good, she believes anyone trying to build a beer club as a way to enter the industry as a retailer needs to find a way to stand out and support local breweries, particularly given the impact of COVID on many of the country's smaller operations.
“That market has now reached a point where you need to be offering something different," she says, "because there are so many of these beer clubs around.”
Done well they remain a great way for brewers to connect with drinkers. Pia's pretty sure she signed up to a Molly Rose subscription before she'd even tried one of their beers, which will be of comfort to Nic and his subscription services peers.
“We’re all about getting our beer to the people who love it most," Nic says, "so a subscription where you drop beer directly to your best people is always going to be front and centre for Molly Rose.”
Barrel-aged beer fans keen to sign up to next year's Coven can sign up to the Black Arts' mailing list, while Molly Rose's November Cornerstone intake is currently open for pre-sales.