Tuesday, July 5, 2022

The brewer and the grower – craft beer industry and agriculture working hand in hand in the Barossa Valley

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Revellers at the Beer & BBQ Festival.

With the only beer, food and music festival in Australia coming up in Adelaide in July, it’s a perfect time to learn about the craft beer industry in the Barossa.

Barossa Valley Craft Malt grows and malts its own barley and malts barley grown by local brewers and distillers, supporting the local industry and adding a exciting line to its portfolio.

Western Ridge Brewing is a collective of owner/ brewers that was Barossa Valley Craft Malt’s first customer, launching its ’20k’ beer – all ingredients sourced within 20kms of the point of sale in Nuriootpa – onto the market in June 2017.

To taste the ‘terroir’ in the Western Ridge and other Barossa Valley beers, head to the Adelaide Beer & BBQ Festival 2022 on 15-17 July.

David Henderson from Western Ridge Brewing and Tom Ryan from Barossa Valley Craft Malt shared some insights about this bright young local industry with Australian Rural & Regional News.

Photos: Beer & BBQ Festival, Barossa Valley Craft Malt, Western Ridge Brewing

ARR.News: What is meant by the term ‘craft beer’ and how is a ‘craft beer’ different from other beers?

The brewer, David Henderson, Western Ridge Brewing:

Honestly the term ‘craft’ is overused.  Beer is beer.  Personally, in my head ‘craft beer’ is beer made the long way, from whole ingredients without processed or refined additives like sugar, flavour, clarifying agents, fake (‘tetra’ or ‘rho’) hops.  That said, most people would see ‘craft’ as more flavoured, hoppy, fruity, dark or just plain weird beers as distinct from basic ‘beer flavoured’ commercial beer, even though one of our craftiest beers, utilising strawberry gum leaves and locally grown and malted barley, sits firmly in the ‘beer flavoured’ category. Cutting to the chase, to me ‘craft beer’ is beer made with maximum flavour and minimum processing prior to packaging from the freshest, highest quality whole ingredients. 

The same difference as between a cask of Coolabah (commercial beer) and a Hill of Grace (craft beer), both are well made and without faults.  The difference is in the low-fi, low intervention processing and extremely high fruit quality and provenance of the latter vs the heavy industrial processing of basic quality commodity ingredients of the former.

ARR.News: How long have you each been involved in the industry?

The brewer, David Henderson, Western Ridge Brewing:

The owners of Western Ridge Brewing have a range of experience.

David Henderson has been involved in professional brewing on and off in his previous career as an industrial engineer for more than 30 years.

Dave Work completed his brewing science degree in the 2000’s and has worked in independent breweries on and off for the past couple of decades.

Alex Marshall has been active in bar ownership for the past 8 years as well as active in our brewery and another city brewery as well as having an active hop plantation in Tanunda.

Olexij has been extremely active in the local home brewing community for over a decade, growing and propagating hops, making specialty malts, judging and convening beer shows as well as making more batches the average month than most people do in a year.

As Western Ridge Brewing Collective we have been running for 6 years now.

The grower, Tom Ryan, Barossa Valley Craft Malt:

June 2017 was the first time you could buy a beer with 100% Barossa Valley Craft Malt over the bar out of a tap at a licensed premises.  This beer was the Western Ridge 20k Golden Ale.

ARR.News: Is your property dedicated to growing the produce for use in the craft beer process or do you conduct other agricultural activities?

The grower, Tom Ryan, Barossa Valley Craft Malt:

We have been cutting back on barley acreage in recent years on our farm about 5kms out of Greenock.  Wheat, Canola, Faba Beans, Oaten Hay and lentils all have more area on our farm than barley.

ARR.News: Do you grow all your own ingredients? If yes, which ingredients? If not, how do you source your ingredients?

The grower, Tom Ryan, Barossa Valley Craft Malt:

We malt barley grown on our farm and we also malt barley grown by local brewers and distillers.

Watsacowie Brewery, Sunny Hill Distillery, Robbers Dog Distillery, Sumpoynt Distillery and Battle of Bosworth Winery supply us barley they have grown themselves and we malt it.  Then they pick it up and use it in their brewing or distilling process.

ARR.News: Did you undertake special training at any stage? If so, what was that training and how long was the training period?

The brewer, David Henderson, Western Ridge Brewing:

Most of our guys have studied brewing at Regency TAFE in Adelaide, who offer both brewing short courses that run over the course of a few months as well as training as part of a certificate program over a couple of years. One has completed an undergraduate brewing degree at Federation University in Ballarat, which is 3 years full time. One has completed post graduate brewing qualifications at Federation University in Ballarat, a program which runs part time for 2-4 years.

Much like winemaking, you can make good beer with talent or training, making great beer needs both. Sadly there is a real lack of quality beer training in Australia. A couple of Metropolitan TAFEs offer basic training, although the groundbreaking work at Regency TAFE has lead to this these programs slowly expanding around Australia.

Of more concern is that there are only two universities with real undergraduate offers, which are buried inside science curriculum electives, and only one with a real post graduate offer.

ARR.News: How do you compete against the larger players in the beer industry?

The brewer, David Henderson, Western Ridge Brewing:

The trick is to avoid that.  Large players compete on price and volume, they can deliver a keg ready for less than it costs us just to get the same volume into the fermenter.  As soon as you try and compete with the majors you will lose. 

We compete by focussing on different avenues to market, by delivering a tasting experience; where people can see the product being made and talk directly to the people who made it as they try it; and retailing our beer, where we can be price competitive. 

We have to take advantage of our small scale, where we can use field traceable barley malted a few hundred kg at a time on farm.  We can more easily access a broad range of hops, because our smaller batches mean we’re not required to buy large volumes; it’s much easier to get 5kg of hops than 50.   We can take risks with product as the cost of a single batch worth of ingredients is low, even if it is high per litre by comparison.  For example, we can make a fruit beer using figs from a single 100+ year old tree, because we didn’t need more than the couple of kg of fruit the tree is able to produce to make it.

ARR.News: How do you work together with other agricultural producers, craft beer enterprises and the local community in the region?

The grower, Tom Ryan, Barossa Valley Craft Malt:

We help local brewers and distillers add a truly local and distinct product offering.  It enables people to come to a brewery like Western Ridge in Nuriootpa and drink a beer made from Barossa Malt.  Even with only one or two products in their range containing our malt it provides consumers options to try ultra local. 

Wineries have long promoted ‘terroir’ and the ability to taste where a wine’s grapes have been grown.  Now craft beer, particularly in the USA is promoting ‘terroir’ in their craft malts and beers. [‘Terroir’ can be found in barley.]

So why not come to the best corner of the world and try a beer from the Barossa?

Breweries we supply: Western Ridge; Rehn Bier; Greenock Brewers; Ministry of Beer (called brewed with a view on social media as a US company has rights to Ministry of Beer); Silver Bark Brewery; Watsacowie Brewery and Battle of Bosworth Winery (they have a beer). 

Distilleries we supply: Sunny Hill Distillery; Robbers Dog Distillery; 5 Nines Distillery; and Sumpoynt Distillery.

ARR.News: What promotional and marketing strategies do you pursue?

The brewer, David Henderson, Western Ridge Brewing:

Active social media, not paid reach, but organic discussion encouraging fans to post and talk about our beers by sharing our passion and making sure there are ingredients, flavours, artwork or even venue ambiance worth posting about.  By doing this even the 2* review saying your beer flavours are weird but if you’re into that kind of thing it’s worth a visit can drive new people to drop in and have a positive experience.

The other trick is to use wholesale wisely, at our scale we make more selling a pint over the bar than a few pallets in to wholesale; but if we play our cards right those two pallets act as little postcards on the shelves of cool bottleshops and lists of popular restaurants that lead new people to discover you and plan a visit. 

If you get it right you have advertising which covers its direct costs while also driving growth in customers.

The grower, Tom Ryan, Barossa Valley Craft Malt:


ARR.News: Do you export your product overseas?

The brewer, David Henderson, Western Ridge Brewing:

Beer is best drunk in the shadow of the brewery that made it, near the day it was packaged. Great beer is not pasteurised or filtered, it is not shelf stable and is intended to be drunk fresh; so exporting beer is not something we are focussed on.

Professional brewers will often quip that the way you export beer is by shipping the ingredients and making the beer at the destination, which is how the vast majority of ‘imported’ beer is made globally. We would have to cut drinking quality corners to achieve sufficient shelf stability for export and that’s not a trade off we are willing to make.

That being said, we are active in engaging with overseas brewers, so we export our story regularly, with the long term goal of having travellers plan a visit to our brewery.

The grower, Tom Ryan, Barossa Valley Craft Malt:


ARR.News: Have you been impacted by the global supply chain logjams? If so, how?

The brewer, David Henderson, Western Ridge Brewing:

Literally everything we do has been impacted. From the cost of cleaning chemicals, through the refillable bottles we use for take away of small batch beer, to the material needed to print our labels. Don’t even mention pallets.

We have had to put off or delay facilities programs because ducting and pipework pricing went through the roof and availability dropped. We have maintenance spares that we are jury rigging as they are literally sold out globally.

Shipping a small box from Melbourne to Adelaide via name brand courier took over a week recently, posting a package from regional Victoria to Adelaide took nearly 3 weeks. It is chaos.

The grower, Tom Ryan, Barossa Valley Craft Malt:

Fertiliser, and energy costs have increased significantly. 

Fertiliser costs in terms of growing grains has seen a big increase since the Covid 19 pandemic started. 

Energy costs are significant when running a malthouse.  Malting grain takes us around 9 days and there in nearly always at least a fan, pump or air compressor running during the growing phases (7 days) and the kilning cycle takes us 36 to 48 hours which requires a lot of heat energy.  We have 13kWs of solar panels on the farm however this isn’t enough to cover our energy requirements.

ARR.News: How many different varieties of beer do you make?

The brewer, David Henderson, Western Ridge Brewing:

All of them? To date we have made over 120 different beers across the vast majority of judged beer categories and we have no plans of slowing down.

We have a small ‘core range’ of local favourites, and some seasonal beers that are popular enough to make bigger batches of, but our focus is to make use of the best and most interesting local ingredients to make ever changing small batches of beer.

ARR.News: How do you see the future of the ‘craft beer’ industry in Australia and your own enterprises in particular?

The brewer, David Henderson, Western Ridge Brewing:

Small and local.  The beer wholesale market is crowded to the point of being gridlocked, we really don’t see much more opportunity to achieve returns as a wholesale brewery in the Australian market. 

Our view is that growth will be at the niche fringes, in direct to customer, small batch, local breweries; where authenticity, the provenance of the ingredients, the connection with the community and the quality of experience drive loyal customer bases for the actual brewing sites and the demand for new and different product can drive regular online/direct sales that deliver better margins than wholesale channels at competitive prices.  

We reckon there will be a decrease of larger scale wholesale breweries, as they are displaced by home brands in the major chains or acquired by multinationals; replacing the current real diversity of product with what we call ‘craftwashing’, where the acquisition and creation of a broad range of marketing brands is used to substitute for authentic product range on the shelves, reducing real competition and driving margin growth to the end of the chain without the consumer noticing.  This will be coupled with a growth of owner operated retail breweries as small to medium breweries shift focus from growing into viable wholesale breweries into retail breweries who can break even on significantly lower volumes.  Venues that are locally focussed with taprooms designed to engage directly between supporters and producers, as the ability to get product into larger supply chains becomes more constrained. 

This future is not without its own challenges, as we will see the larger pub chains start to add breweries to their sites in their own form of craftwashing to head off this growth, particularly in country centres where local pubs are already controlled by a single group.  Some of these will be genuine breweries, with skilled staff making interesting small batch beer; but most will be a veneer without authenticity or substance.

There are a lot of headwinds with changing consumer behaviour post COVID, the reducing pool of hospitality staff, rising overhead costs; but most of them are more concerning to larger breweries who rely on maintaining large wholesale turnover to survive; for smaller retail breweries, as long as they can tap into direct to public, small batch packaged product without overcapitalising, the future is much brighter.  It is very hard to displace an authentic, local, owner operated venue without opening a better, authentic, local, owner operated venue.

As long as you work well with other local businesses, supporting restaurants and other services, effectively and deeply engage your locals in your story and success, even in direct ownership; it will be very difficult for a larger organisation to open an effective competitor as there is no point to wedge in. 

Particularly in regional areas in states with cost effective producer licensing that provide for retail and bar service, it is viable to operate a small batch brewing venue that serves a small community at extremely low annual production, requiring very little capital and allowing a low bar for viable cashflow; the small scale allowing them to be principally owner operated and the relatively higher retail margins providing some protection from rising costs and workforce challenges.

The grower, Tom Ryan, Barossa Valley Craft Malt:

I think the Craft Beer and craft distilling industries have a bright future and I hope I can come along for the ride.

ARR.News: What is your favourite beer?

The brewer, David Henderson, Western Ridge Brewing:

Changes all the time, literally the hardest question for a brewer to answer.

In terms of broad style, most of our guys are really getting excited by the evolution of barrel soured and aged beers by Local brewers, though the oldest of our team remains a dedicated fan of ‘old fashioned’ craft styles like west coast IPA’s (believe it or not this bitter, aromatic hop forward style is about 50 years old now) and british real ales.

The grower, Tom Ryan, Barossa Valley Craft Malt:

Western Ridge, 20k; Rehn Bier, Heritage Mild Ale; Greenock Brewers, Dinner Ale; Ministry of Beer, Barossa Blond; Silver Bark Brewery, Amber Ale; Watsacowie Brewery, Farmers Gold; Battle of Bosworth, Pale Ale.



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