22nd July, 2022

Slowbeer: How a craft beer institution thrives in an ever-evolving market

Retail craft beer pioneer Stewart Went discusses how he adapted to a once-quiet market that exploded overnight.

Slowbeer, a mecca for craft beer diehards, might seem at odds with Stewart Went’s corporate banking accounting career. But as it is with so many business stories, his was a fascination that grew into an obsession.

It all began at a South Melbourne wine shop Stewart co-founded in the late 90s.

“There’s always been a very small Australian scene,” he says. “It was never more than about five breweries – imagine beer being boring and badly packaged.”

Slowbeer street sign
The sign hanging outside Slowbeer’s current location on Fitzroy’s busy Smith Street.

At least, that was the way of things initially.

“Then a guy set up an import business out of Brisbane.

“I don’t know why he picked me, but he sent me a box of beers that cost 25 bucks each; styles I’ve never seen before from US brewers I’d never heard of.”

After breezing through the box, Stewart was gobsmacked. He knew he had to spread the good cheer.

“Soon I was encroaching on the shelves allocated to wine.”

But wine shops being wine shops, there was only so much space he could dedicate to beer.

“One of our employees had a real liking of craft beer as well, so we rented a little shop in Hawthorn for cheap.

“We just saw this market for it.”

A once-novel market becomes saturated

Over the next 15 years, Stewart would open more craft beer retail stores, but today, only Fitzroy’s Slowbeer remains. It’s a business journey that offered Stewart front row seats to a radical market shift.

“Back in the halcyon days, we were the only store in Australia that could say we exclusively stocked craft,” he recounts.

“People would drive from all over Melbourne to buy beer.”

Slowbeer upstairs
Stewart’s modest craft beer shop includes an upstairs area with comfortable sofas and even a pool table for those looking to escape the noise and bustle of the pub.

But things changed after craft beer fever swept through the country.

To Stewart’s dismay, even regional supermarkets started hopping on the bandwagon.

“By 2015 there were probably 500 good options in Melbourne. But how do we differentiate ourselves from your local IGA?

“You’re either large or different – I had to be different.”

Embracing the ambience

Slowbeer stands out by emphasising a feature many imitators – and all supermarkets – lack: atmosphere.

“We’re not a beer hall. We want to be a comfortable, relaxed place to have a beer.

“There are four or five hundred beers to choose from, so the ideal experience is someone coming in to buy a $30 bottle of beer and sharing it.”

Slowbeer tap list
Stewart features some unique brews on tap on his regularly rotating tap list.

While it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but many beer diehards swear by Stewart’s preferred drinking experience.

Accounting for unique twists in the market

A market dictated by novelty, such as craft beer, has its pros, but Stewart notes there are also drawbacks that aren’t immediately apparent.

“There’s never been a better time to drink if you want to drink different things,” he says. “That’s a good thing about the energy of the market, there’s always new stuff coming out.

“But from an operational perspective, it can be quite overwhelming.

“A lot of breweries produce limited-edition, seasonal stuff every two weeks and never release it again.

“That’s great if you’re a drinker, but I have to think about all the costs associated with stock management.”

As a busy entrepreneur running a complex side hustle, it’s clear why Stewart values timesavers like his business management software to lighten the load for things like payroll.

“The interface is friendly and it’s all there in front of me.

“I’ve got to do everything myself, so I need things like that because I don’t have time to run around.”

Stewart Went
Stewart has combined a love of craft beer with financial nous to keep his passion alive.

He also knows which technology not to waste time with.

Good Soul Wines, one of Stewart’s other businesses, still takes advantage of the tried-and-true marketing he relied on in earlier booze businesses.

“The wine business has about 15,000 people on the newsletter. It took forever to build that up, and they might get like four percent hit rate or a newsletter, but four percent at $300 average purchase makes it worthwhile.

“We’ve got 16,000 Instagram followers but that doesn’t necessarily translate economically.

“Whereas email, I know it’s old hat, but it’s still far more effective than Insta.”

Turning your passion into a side hustle

Craft beer is a passion for Stewart, and Slowbeer reflects this in more ways than one.

“I’d have to be in the business full time to really make a difference,” he says.

“You can only get so much for yourself when you’re paying people casual wages.”

Slowbeer's front bar
Patrons enjoy sitting in for a tipple at Slowbeer’s front bar.

And when times are tough – like during the pandemic – he’s still needs to rise to the occasion in order to keep the dream alive.

“We’ve got staff, but a lot of it falls back on me or my partner.

“Three months ago, we had to be in there every weekend, we just couldn’t find people.”

But after all these years, it’s clear Stewart returns to Slowbeer for a reason.

And the legions of beer aficionados he’s helped create wouldn’t have it any other way.