Brewing up a new business plan

Take a look at how Ballarat’s Red Duck microbrewery is riding out the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.  

Red Duck, a small independent Ballarat brewery with six casual staff, was opened by husband-and-wife team Scott and Vanessa Wilson-Browne in 2005.

Scott and Vanessa from Red Duck BreweryVenturing into the beer game was a giant leap of faith for the pair as they were brew-making newbies: Vanessa had been working as a product manager at Ansett Holidays and Scott had a graphic design business.

Why the career U-turn?

“It was a crazy idea at the time, I sometimes think,” laughs Vanessa. “We’d just moved from Melbourne to a beautiful homestead and farm on Lake Purrumbete near Camperdown in western Victoria because we wanted our kids to grow up in the country.

“When we opened on the farm, there were only a handful of craft breweries in the country; people didn’t have much opportunity to purchase different styles of beers other than lager. We decided that needed to change so we jumped in head first: we ordered some secondhand tanks from New Zealand and learnt along the way.”

Five years later, in 2009, they relocated their farm-based brewery to Ballarat, impressed by the city’s vibrant food and drink scene and its long history of brewing.

Turns out the couple have a serious knack for making the amber liquid.

They have 10 rotating beers in their range but can only create about 570 litres per batch, making them one of the smallest microbreweries in Australia. Yet great things come in small packages. Their operation has garnered plenty of fans, especially for their top seller: a pale ale made from Australian malt, US yeast and European hops.

While they get a lot of support from businesses in and around Ballarat, the microbrewery receives orders from across Australia.

Collaboration features in their business plan too. In 2017, Red Duck partnered with Victorian abalone producer, Kansom Australia, to create the world’s first abalone craft beer using wild caught Australian abalone for export to China, Malaysia and Japan.

But sales this year have been a challenge.

“Business dropped between 60% to 80% when coronavirus (COVID-19) hit,” reveals Vanessa. “We were forced to close our cellar door, which attracted between 100 and 300 people each week, also, many of our customers had to close their businesses too, which meant no orders from them.”

Grants though, have helped the business stay afloat. Namely, from two rounds of the Victorian Government’s Business Support Fund program.

“The Business Support Fund grants ($10,000 and $5000) that we received have been a bit of a lifeline for us,” notes Vanessa. “It has been a tough year, but it also has made us look at our business more thoroughly. The downturn has enabled us to do brewery upgrades and focus on social media.”

With the funds, they’ve installed a new floor and canning line, updated brewery tanks, re-conditioned their chiller unit and added a new glycol unit (used to cool beer and control fermentation), plus they’ve employed a social media specialist to optimise e-commerce.

“We’ve had an online shopping cart for a few years but haven’t done a lot on social media to direct people to it,” says Vanessa. “Comparing the last six months to the previous year, our online sales have gone up over 300%. We put this down to a more active social media program: we’re posting three to four times a week now, whereas previously it was once every couple of weeks! And we’ve also invested in new, professional images.

“The craft beer market’s an ever-changing beast: there are many more players now and it’s a lot harder to get shelf space in stores. But I guess the reason for our success is that we’re small and can easily change, and we don’t have huge overheads. Working for yourself has both its rewards and its challenges but we really do enjoy doing what we do, it’s a lot of fun creating new beers.”

Find out more about the Business Support Fund on the Business Victoria website.

Vanessa’s top three business lessons she has learnt during restrictions

  • Be willing to adapt your business, always.
  • Take a break. Never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.
  • You cannot do it all – outsource areas that are your weakness.