One of Adelaide’s best-loved craft breweries has been snapped up by an SA-owned hotel group. Little Bang Brewing's founders today confirmed the business is now part of the Duxton Pubs Group, a hotel investment fund which operates a number of venues throughout the state, confirming rumours that had swirled for months.
Both founders are staying on to varying degrees. Ryan Davidson will become co-CEO alongside someone familiar to many in craft beer circles, while Fil Kemp, who led the production and brewing side of Little Bang, will remain on in a contractor role as he moves to Perth with his family.
The 100 percent acquisition of the brewery, beers, brand and popular Stepney brewery venue – described by Ryan as “the worst-kept secret in South Australia" – will see all existing staff remain in place and could lead to the opening of Little Bang taprooms in the future. The co-founders have become shareholders in Ed Peter's Duxton Pubs too.
It also sees the return of Oscar Matthews to the Australian beer industry. He was the main driving force behind the rise of Uraidla Brewery, whose beers have won acclaim from beer lovers and beer experts alike, before stepping away from the business in January. Now as co-CEO and an investor in Little Bang, he’ll train much of his focus on the side of the operation that had been Fil’s main concern, while working with Ryan on the wider business and brand direction.
Today’s confirmation of the “worst-kept secret” will come as a surprise to many, yet Ryan (above second from right with Ed Peter, Oscar Matthews and Brett Matthews) says the Kemps had long planned to move to WA before their daughter reached high school. As that time moved nearer, they started looking at future options for the business.
“We ummed and ahhed about how to restructure the business, and ended up fairly quickly coming to the conclusion that a sale was the way to do it rather than us trying to buy out the Kemps,” Ryan says, pointing out that none of the three most common exit routes appealed to him and wife Kerri, who heads marketing and comms for the brewery.
“You either go into an enormous amount of debt, which we didn’t want to do – we didn’t want to put our heads back on the chopping block. Or there’s crowd-funding, which has always felt a little odd to me – you’re still giving up a lot of your company for no extra expertise. Or there’s selling to one of the two multinationals.
“It always felt a bit sad when you look at it like that. When I look at things like Pirate Life or Stone & Wood, there’s always that feeling of, ‘Good on ‘em, but I guess I’m drinking something else now’, even if the product doesn’t change.”
By joining an SA pub group, he instead believes they will “get to continue to grow this thing and see it blossom”, adding: “I can say to every single staff member that their jobs are safe and they have more opportunities for advancement.
“It feels so nice to have achieved it like this when other options would have involved heart-breaking compromise.”
As for the new owners, while many in SA will know the Duxton Pubs Group, there will be Little Bang fans outside the state who are in the dark. The group was formed by three of SA’s best-known publicans, Ed Peter, Brett Matthews (Oscar’s father), and Martin Palmer, who between them have rejuvenated a number of key SA venues over the past couple of years. They include the Saracens Head, The Lion Hotel and the Cremorne in Adelaide, plus others outside the capital, with the trio having also stated their ambitions to become one of Australia’s major pub owners.
The purchase of Little Bang represents the group’s first foray into brewing, however, one that we’re assured is an investment in a business and brand in which they believe and want to help grow, rather than a means of producing beer to pour through their portfolio of pubs. The brewery, which currently produces close to 400,000 litres per annum, performed well through the pandemic at a time when many traditional hospitality businesses suffered.
In a statement to media, Duxton Pubs Group co-founder Ed Peter said the deal "means the Little Bang team can grow through our reach in the hospitality space, while continuing to brew the amazing beers they are known for."
He added: “We’re super excited to work with them on growing the Little Bang brand – which will still continue to be available in existing hotels and bottleshops, as well as a host of new ones both within South Australia and nationally.”
While speaking to The Crafty Pint about the sale, both Ryan and Oscar emphasised how the group’s ethos is distinct from the “cookie-cutter” approach taking by some in the pub game.
Ryan talked about their willingness to understand what each venue’s local community wants, citing the revival of the Saracen’s Head – “a good old Adelaide pub that was very much struggling” – as an example of breathing new life into a failing business, and the removal of pokies at some of their venues.
“It’s an interesting dynamic, and one that you don’t see too often” is how Oscar puts it. “You look at it like a pub group, but then look at the way those pubs are run and they’re very much venue specific. There’s no overarching structure or system that everyone needs to slot into.”
So, while drinkers can expect to see Little Bang beers appear at some Duxton Pubs Group venues, it’s not guaranteed, and also partly explains why both co-CEOs believe Little Bang taprooms are a possible feature of the next phase of the brewing company’s evolution.
“It’s pleasing to see that they recognise that craft breweries of this size and scale, and the following that they have, is super-important and complementary,” Oscar says.
“The taproom aspect was one of the things that was really attractive; it’s all well and good putting the beer on in a pub because you’ve got the ability to do so, but people still need to support that product. You need buy-in from the people selling the beer, but also the punter – they’ve got to want to drink it.
“[The Kemps and Davidsons] have built such a great venue, and I personally like the taproom model and think there’s opportunities to do something like what Stomping Ground have done in Melbourne – they’ve built these great venues that are very beer-focused but also go beyond that.”
That Oscar has joined the team at, and put money into, Little Bang is likely to offer assurance to fans of the brewery’s unique, irreverent brand and beers. When I caught up with him in Uraidla last October, he was eyeing up a return to his uncle’s brewery in California, SLO Brew, before choosing instead to spend the year to date enjoying “a bit of a mental refresh” – gardening and landscaping at a property in the Adelaide Hills – following the intensity of guiding Uraidla’s rise from its launch in 2017.
“I found that after four years [at Uraidla] I’d been considering my options for some time,” he says. “I really enjoyed what I had created there, but was looking for something else.”
As for his imminent return to a head brewer role, he says: “I liken it to a new chef coming into a kitchen. You always end up with a bit of a spin on things.”
The new chef arrives less than eight years on from the day Ryan and Fil poured their first commercially-released beer at Adelaide’s Earl of Leicester: the barleywine Galactopus. It was an unlikely beer with which to debut, setting the scene for a tale colourful enough it could have featured in one of the pair’s video games.
After launching the brand brewing in Fil’s shed – a space so tight the self-confessed "bearded, bespectacled Adelaide geeks" would drip sweat on each other on brew days – they moved not once, but twice, into bigger spaces and developed a knack for hospo as they went. And it hasn’t just been their beers that garnered attention either: jokes – some for everyone, some for themselves and their mates – could be found in the names and label designs of their beers, and they continued to poke fun at the industry they were part of too – remember the launch of 12,000 unique hazy IPAs at once?
“We started out as two guys with full-time jobs who were connected with the industry. This was us having a laugh with the SA beer scene by launching three beers with fun labels in styles that had never been brewed commercially here before,” Ryan says, describing the subsequent seven-plus years as “chasing the snowball ever since.”
Now, with the backing of some of the state’s most high profile publicans, plus a new business partner with a lofty reputation for his brewing nous, the chase should become rather easier.
“The potential,” Ryan believes, “is huge.”
This is the second brewery acquisition in Australia this month. You can read about Catchment Brewing's purchase of fellow Queensland operation Fortitude Brewing, and the owners' plans to build a portfolio of venues and breweries, here.