National bottle shop chain BWS says there is “absolute mutual benefit” in widely stocking independent Australian beer and that their commitment to doing so is only “strengthening”.

As the company launches its multi-million dollar Local Luvva campaign to raise awareness of indie craft brands stocked in their stores, their Local Craft Champion Michael ‘Crafty’ Latham said they would be “permanent fixtures” across BWS stores from now on.

Latham was the pioneer in terms of BWS getting a greater range of craft beers into their stores and he said the Local Luvva campaign was proof the wider company was now in full support.

“The commitment is getting stronger. It’s strengthening certainly,” he said.

“The Local Luvva campaign shows that commitment and that these brands will be permanent fixtures across our stores.”

Rolled out across the country, the campaign includes over 600 billboards and digital screens that promote 92 local and independent Australian brewers, winemakers and distillers. Indie beer brands feature heavily, and include the likes of Willie the Boatman, Philter, Hop Nation, Bentspoke, Stomping Ground and many more.

“The journey started about four years ago, of us wanting to focus on local offerings in stores, and providing something different for consumers,” Latham said.

“The first brewer I spoke to was Pat (McInerney) at Willie the Boatman in Sydney. Originally he was ‘no way’. I think he represented the wider craft industry of being wary of a company like ours.

“But in time Pat felt it OK to give it a shot and we originally started in just six stores with him. That same approach has now been replicated across Australia and it’s working.

“It’s of absolute mutual benefit. It has helped us to grow and our craft growth has been exponential.”

‘One of the single most positive experiences in my beer career.’

McInerney said that initial wariness came from a real perception in the craft industry that “national supermarket chain bottle shops didn’t have the best public relations profile with us”.

“We were very sceptical. Small producers in general were,” he said.

“But in all honesty it has been one of the single most positive experiences I’ve had in my beer career.

“Michael and his whole team have shown incredible support for Willie the Boatman – and the whole industry. It has been amazing brand awareness for us. We are now in 40 BWS stores I think.”

McInerney said BWS had defied their “big chain status” by a bespoke, professional approach that included transparent communication and prompt payment that had aided cash flow issues during the height of COVID.

“And they’re not just buying our core range. They’re buying 100 cases of our limited releases and that’s basically half of our entire stock.”

McInerney said during his time with BWS his sales into independent bottle shops were far more than ever before. He felt this was in part because of the “trickle down effect” brought on by a big chain store helping to raise awareness.

“I think the reason for that is the critical mass of people are becoming more aware of craft brands and that they don’t need to go into a bigger store to find it.

“I think the awareness of buying local has also been heightened because of COVID.”

A good news story

Almost overnight, when COVID’s impact on the Australian beer industry was first felt, BWS and Dan Murphy’s, through their parent company Endeavour Drinks, made a push to help small and local suppliers out in their time of need. Over 350 new suppliers and thousands of their products were taken on board.

One such case was Abbotsford’s Bodriggy Brewing Company.

“We got them on board during COVID and set them up in about 30 local stores I think,” Latham said.

“Their story has been one of the true good news stories to come out of COVID.

“The added exposure we helped give them meant they could re-employ one of their main brewers. It was a really nice feeling when we heard that.”

‘Raised our credibility’

“By doing what we’ve done with indie beer, it’s raised our credibility with the public,” Latham said.

“When we first really started stocking craft in good numbers we were getting Facebook comments that showed people couldn’t believe it. They were wary too. But they have come around as well and can see we are in partnership with these brands.”

Latham added that even in non-traditional craft beer regions he was seeing a steady uptake of indie brands.

“Take Western Sydney for example, we’re getting store managers getting requests to stock the likes of Willie and Akasha as new growth suburbs pop up and a new demographic moves in.”

This article originally appeared on Beer & Brewer.

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