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‘We’re staring into the abyss’

As Melbourne’s beer industry attempts to navigate yet another period of uncertainty, thoughts are turning to whether some businesses will ever recover.

Just as a “brief moment of sunshine peered through the clouds” the outlook is grim once again as breweries and bars revert back to either a takeaway only model or close for the indefinite future.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s statement yesterday, that he will be revealing a “a new phase of income support” in relation to current wage subsidies on July 23, will come as a massive relief to many of the city’s hospitality businesses, but that is only one aspect in a range of uncertainties.

For Steve Jeffares, co-founder of one of Melbourne’s more well known breweries, Stomping Ground, “cracks were starting to show” in his normally steely resolve, and he felt that six weeks of lockdown was a significant amount of time.

As well as their Collingwood-based brewery, Stomping Ground operate a brewery and bar at Melbourne Airport, while a new brewpub is planned for the south east of the city in the new Morris Moor redevelopment.

“We’re staring into the abyss. Much is unknown at this stage,” he said.

“The longer this all goes on, the longer it is going to take to recover. It is a massive setback for us. There is a very dark cloud looming for many in the (Melbourne) industry.”

When restrictions lifted back in early June, he said “people were chomping at the bit” to return to a level of normalcy in places like his brewpub and there was real anticipation for a further easing of restrictions “to allow businesses to bounce back”. But subsequent quashing of those hopes had been “a reality check”.

“The levels of anxiety within our industry have dialled up as the cases of infections have grown.”

For Bar Josephine owner Aaron Donato, it’s time to return his Footscray craft beer bar to a state of total shutdown – as it was for the three months following the initial lockdown period that started in late March.

He reopened on June 22 “for a weird few weeks, when a brief moment of sunshine peered through the clouds”.

“It’s crushing to see businesses that were successful and viable months ago, including mine, now staring down the barrel of oblivion,” he said.

Donato also owns the Pie Thief pie shop and a new cocktail bar Troubles in Dreams. Both are in close vicinity to Bar Josephine. The latter only opened its doors in recent weeks. It too is now shut indefinitely.

“It feels like shifting sands because no one knows where this is heading. The government doesn’t know. In six weeks there may still be outbreaks.

“Many in the beer industry are already burnt out. We’ve been pivoting, and scrambling, and cancelling orders, and pouring over government legislation. You make a plan and then 24 hours later it is in the bin because the goal posts have moved. You owe it to your staff and your community to fight on, but it is exhausting.”

But fight on they must, and they say they will.

Jeffares said, “if you look hard enough, there are positives”.

“Like most fellow breweries in Melbourne, we received extraordinary support from the community through the first lockdown and hopefully that is again the case now.”

He said their online store had proved a success over recent months and created “unexpected revenue”. They had been canning beer more frequently than ever before and would now continue that model, along with sales of their variety packs and other methods allowed under the Level 3 restrictions.

“We’re really proud with how we’ve managed recent setbacks and we’ll continue to do what we can for our staff, for as long as we can.”

Moon Dog Brewery, who operate two venues in Abbotsford and Preston, are confident they can navigate this period.

“People are feeling deflated, and it is far from ideal, but we’re confident we can get through,” Moon Dog’s brand marketing manager Brook Hornung said.

“We’ve done this before and perhaps it will be easier this time to go back to what worked, like our takeaway and delivery services.

“We will be doing as many things as we can to survive and to redeploy our staff back in to other aspects of the business.”

Bar Josephine’s Donato said an extension of JobKeeper beyond the originally planned September cutoff was paramount to the survival of local small businesses.

“If JobKeeper didn’t happen. If the state government didn’t provide grants to small businesses, then we’d all be screwed right now,” he said.

“It’s not like JobKeeper has stopped the bills coming in. It means that we’re not bleeding to death. We’re trickling blood instead.”

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