Image: South_agency/Getty Images
Image: South_agency/Getty Images
As pubs begin to re-open across Brisbane, UQ graduate and Newstead Brewing Co. founder Dr Mark Howes speaks to Contact about how he drew on the power of the community to keep the family business alive during the COVID-19 crisis.
A pandemic that has forced people to physically distance from each other has brought one Brisbane business closer to its customers, suppliers and competitors.
“We lost 50 per cent of revenue overnight. We went from 90 employees to 20 within a few days, we lost all on-premises trade and 60 per cent of wholesale trade,” Howes said.
“Beyond that is the emotional reality. Friendships and mentorships have been lost, and we’ve been forced to let go young people with amazing promise.”
But during a time when many bars and restaurants had to pull down the shutters, Howes, his family, and the wider Newstead Brewing Co. team have kept innovating to keep their dream alive.
Howes is brutally honest about the fact there was no grand plan in place, other than to stay in business.
“We were just throwing organic, digestive waste at a proverbial wall to see what would stick,” he said.
“All strategic intent was discarded the minute we realised we couldn’t control what came next, or when it happened. We were just trying to be in the minds of people who were scared, bored and at home.”
Appropriately for a brewery, most of the initiatives were born over a few late-night IPAs after a long day. These included a drive-thru at their Milton venue, buffalo wing challenges, easy food-ordering platforms and free delivery within 200 kilometres of the brewery.
Perhaps the most inspirational of the changes wrought by necessity were the close connections forged with local producers.
Sourcing from other Brisbane businesses was already a significant focus for Newstead Brewing. Local suppliers include Hoodlum Honey, with hives on the roofs of both breweries in Newstead and Milton; Loop Growers, which takes the brewery’s kitchen waste and uses it to grow vegetables that sometimes end up back in the beer; and Little Acre Gourmet Mushrooms, which grow all of Newstead Brewing Co.'s mushrooms at West End.
But the pandemic has reinforced the brewery's commitment to its neighbours.
“We have used this awful scenario to double-down on our commitment to local partnerships,” Howes said.
“We changed coffee suppliers to Coffee Supreme, which roast in Woolloongabba. We changed milk to Barambah Organics. We set up a makeshift providore, with organic meat, pastured eggs, organic free-range milk and bread, which is all locally sourced.
“There are people from our community who have lost more than 50 per cent of revenue. They are hurting, so by buying local and independent, you have an immediate, tangible effect on the people who live next door.
“The global corporations, with coffers that will see them last months, will survive this. Small, mum-and-dad businesses are hand-to-mouth, and what happens this week determines their viability next week.”
The Newstead Brewing Co. network actually includes many other Brisbane brewers, who to outsiders might be seen as rivals
“A lot of our mates run breweries that aren’t as lucky to have easy retail offerings. It has been a privilege to help get their beer into the hands of the public,” said Howes, who has pivoted his offerings to include mixed cartons from multiple local brewers.
Howes’s ability to think laterally was honed during his time as a student, and later as a researcher, at UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB), which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
“My first experience in creative thinking was during my honours year, working under Dr Fiona Simpson and Associate Professor Carol Wicking. They unlocked a curiosity in me that I didn’t realise I had.”
This curiosity sparked a desire to undertake more research, and Howes enrolled in a PhD in Professor Rob Parton’s group, which investigates the microscopic intricacies of human cells.
“Rob really encouraged me to be an independent thinker, but was always there for accountability. I really believe that IMB taught me to think: how to analyse and challenge my own personally held ideas, and how to test them,” said Howes, whose memories also include fun times such as foosball battles, in particular the time when he finishing a tournament after a call to say his wife was in labour (he made it).
Amongst the fun, was the wonder of science.
“The people were amazing, but the science was also breathtaking. I remember spending hours and hours on the electron microscope, in awe of the complexity hidden deep within cells. I would take so many images of cellular structures, which completely irrelevant to my research because they were astounding.
“The IMB is a place that demands you be the best version of yourself. To be surrounded with enthusiastic geniuses, who are furthering knowledge in the absence of economic glory is an inspirational reality. And it pushes you to go further, think deeper, be keener than you ever thought you could be. Only one person can discover a process, or event, or element, for the first time.
“The IMB is an incredible nursery of ideas, and one I was privileged to partake in for a number of very enjoyable years.”
In addition to his experiments in the lab, Howes was running some extracurricular experiments in home brewing. When his parents were seeking a business to invest in in 2010, they decided to take the plunge as a family and turn Mark’s hobby into a full-blown commercial concern.
Now, as they face the most challenging time for businesses in a century, Howes reflects on the good that has come out of the pandemic.
“In the general run of business BC (before COVID), we lost our connection with those most important to us, our community,” Howes said.
“This opportunity has seen us re-engage with locals. For example, we have been running free deliveries, seven days a week. So, on Saturdays and Sundays, you were likely to see the Howes clan, kids and all, rocking up to your door to deliver your order.
"Those left at Newstead are family, a group of people with shared, intense experience, and we are more powerfully connected than ever before.”