Australia’s drinking tastes are changing. Gone are the days of a slab of beer and a goon bag – today’s consumers are demanding premium products and an experience to match.

Despite the decrease in the quantity of alcohol being consumed, the industry is worth $11 billion in revenue annually and growing – enough to push any amateur brewer, winemaker or distiller to take their hobby to the big time.

Alcohol is the topic of the second podcast episode in our mini-series on “Innovating Vices”. We’ve been looking at traditionally stigmatised and heavily regulated industries to find out how entrepreneurs challenge the status quo. John Hyslop (founder of Deviant Distillery), Mike Clarke (founder of Sauce Brewing Co) and Sarah Lyons (co-owner of Sparkke Change Beverage Company) have faced a cocktail of challenges. Here are a few “neat” tips they shared.

Breaking with tradition will always be hard

John Hyslop is shaking things up in the whiskey scene.

“We make a product that’s identical to whiskey in every way,” John explains, “but we don’t use barrels, which is the traditional way of aging. Because of the way we age it, we don’t meet the legal definition of whiskey.”

Usually, whiskey is distilled from fermented grain and aged in wooden barrels, with 30-50% of the product lost due to evaporation. John put his background in industrial chemistry to good use and redesigned the system to cut down the time it takes to make  whiskey, and reduce the amount of alcohol lost to evaporation.

Where other companies spend two to 20 years producing one batch of whiskey, Deviant’s technology can produce an ultra premium spirit in just 10 weeks.

John is confident that those in the industry who aren’t on board with it will come to realise that Deviant is targeting a different market segment than the more traditional brands.

By pairing modern, Instagram-worthy marketing, state of the art technology and the ability to tweak a product in ten weeks rather than ten years, Deviant is giving conventional whiskey producers a run for their money. 

Fixing more than a drink

Passion and perseverance are traits that Mike Clarke, founder of Sauce Brewing Co, relies on to keep his head in the brewery game, because in a heavily regulated industry like alcohol, there are always hoops to jump through.

Producers Ellen Leabeater and Jocelyn Floro chat with Mike Clarke from Sauce Brewing Co. Image: Rix Lee.

Mike did the legwork and was eventually granted a liquor license for Sauce’s tap room with a capacity for 200 people. Next minute, a local business objected the already granted license, requesting the capacity be reduced significantly.

Sauce joined up with a handful of other members to form the Inner West Brewers Associations “to lobby council and work with council to solidifying better conditions in the local council planning regulations for micro breweries,” explains Mike. the group’s goal is to “work with council on solidifying some certainty into local planning legislation.”

Collaboration like this isn’t a trait found in many industries, but sometimes alcohol can tease it out.

For example, when Mike was researching, experimenting and brewing up flavour combinations for Sauce’s products, he needed people to help out. “There are always people willing to help taste test beer,” Mike tells us.

But when considering licensing or taste tests, you need to keep an eye on the budget.

“The golden rule when opening a brewery: work out your budget and then double it. You might come close – because there will always be something you weren’t expecting,” Mike advises.

Sometimes the mixer just ain’t right

Knowing that a refreshing bevvy can spark both casual and controversial conversations, Sparkke Change Beverage Company decided to create a product that could be a platform for initiating an open dialogue. Oh, and make delicious award-winning drinks to boot.

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Co-owner Sarah Lions explains that Sparkke’s stylish cans aren’t just all talk. “Each can has a different message on it in order to spark conversation around, different social issues or areas that need to be talked about and things that potentially might need to be changed.”

In addition to inviting buyers to discuss current social issues with their friends, family and Tinder dates, 10% of direct sales and 4% of channel sales also go to their cause partner organisations.

While non profit organisations are usually grateful for donations, it’s understandable why some may hesitate to accept proceeds from an alcohol company.

“There are definitely [groups] that don’t feel like it’s appropriate to take money from an alcohol company. Which, that’s the brand’s positioning and that’s totally fine. They need to stick to what they think is best for themselves.”  

Despite some setbacks, Sparkke have had much success in the industry. Their “Consent Can’t Come After You Do” apple cider recently won Australia’s Best Medium Cider at the Australian Cider Awards – and the company have only just turned one.

Whether it’s business partnerships, industry competition or local legislation, startups will continue to face unanticipated challenges. Sometimes it’s best to sit back – maybe pour yourself a glass – and remind open minded.

By Melinda Bruning, UTS Master of Digital Information Management.

The Hatch podcast has launched a new mini-series on “Innovating Vices.” ‘Alcohol’ is out now — listen online, subscribe on Apple Podcasts or on your favourite podcast app.

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