Shapeshifter Brewing to pour into Japan

Rising costs and a lack of interest in craft beer from Gen Z consumers are persistent hurdles for local breweries, but one Findon-based brand is looking overseas for success.

Jun 26, 2024, updated Jun 26, 2024
Shapeshifter co-founder James McCall will soon start sending beers to Japan. Photo: David Simmons/InDaily.

Shapeshifter co-founder James McCall will soon start sending beers to Japan. Photo: David Simmons/InDaily.

Small-batch craft beer brand Shapeshifter Brewing has taken on many forms in its five years of operation, and its latest is as an international distributor.

In the coming months, Shapeshifter will load up some pallets with its beers and send them to a buyer in Yokohama, Japan.

It’s a glimmer of optimism for co-founder and head brewer James McCall, who sat down with InDaily over a beer at the Shapeshifter Brewing brewery and venue in Adelaide’s western suburbs to chat about the brand’s history and the industry’s future.

In a warehouse on Crittendon Road, McCall, co-founder Kevin Mulcahy and a small team of brewers make modern-style, small-batch beers with names like Party Shirt (a colourful, easy-to-drink, hazy session ale), Sunshowers (a California pale) and The Craic (an Irish stout, of course).

McCall and Mulchay’s journey began with help from some friends that InDaily profiled recently: Big Shed. The Old Port Road team gave the duo – who met while completing a brewing course at TAFE – access to brewing gear for their first batch of beer.

These days, Shapeshifter still uses that very same gear – although the company doesn’t have to share it with Big Shed anymore after the latter upgraded when it moved into its massive western suburbs shed.

Though a small operation compared to Big Shed’s 1400sqm warehouse, the digs Shapeshifter is in now is a big step up for the co-founders who started as gypsy brewers, and before that, home brewers.

“The story that most people would tell when they open a brewery is that they made such good homebrew that all their friends wanted it all the time and they had to open up their own brewery,” McCall said.

“That was not the case for me: I just made it for myself and didn’t really ever get my friends’ opinions. It was more experimental than trying to make the best beer ever.

“There definitely were some mishaps where I accidentally added too much hops and the beer was too bitter, but when a new hop would come out I would be interested in what it tastes like, or trying a new yeast strain.”

His experiments meant he had cheap beer to drink at home and he’d laid the foundations for the core values for what Shapeshifter would morph into.

With Big Shed’s help, the co-founders jumped from hobby brewers to professionals. But like Big Shed, Shapeshifter built its venue in the midst of COVID.

McCall told InDaily that he watched the cool room being built via CCTV footage because he was in lockdown.

“In the early days of the brewery there were only three brewers and within a week and a half we all got COVID, so brewing just stopped because we all had to isolate,” McCall said.

“During the early stages when we opened up there were the gathering restrictions and we had to wear masks. As a brand new business, we were immediately affected by what our revenue expectations were going to be.”

Shapeshifter’s brewing gear was once Big Shed’s. Now it lives at the craft brewer’s Findon venue. Photo: David Simmons/InDaily.

The brand partnered with other craft breweries around Adelaide to create a mixed box of beers – “some of the most success we’ve had, because so many people were either in isolation or locked down and they couldn’t go out and buy beer”.

“So we sold a lot of beer,” McCall said.

“Through COVID we were actually quite successful selling directly. As much as a pandemic can have a silver lining, at least that happened.”

Since then, Shapeshifter has built its reputation as a brand that takes an experimental approach to craft brewing – building on McCall’s past as a homebrewer.

“Our focus is on modern-style beer as we like to call it,” said McCall, ahead of the brand’s involvement with the Beer & BBQ Festival in July.

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“We do still brew some traditional styles, but in general we’re always looking to make new styles of beer that are emerging using new hop verities that have just been released to the market, experimenting with different yeast strains, and teaming up and collaborating with other breweries around Australia that think the same way.

“Our focus is on making the freshest, most delicious beer that we can while still always creating new styles. Our model is more focused on limited releases, so we release two to three beers a month that are brand new and that might never be brewed again.”

Like other craft brewers, Shapeshifter is competing for a slice of the craft beer market which is a small fraction of total beer sales.

McCall said it was a “busy market” right now, and that competition was fierce, even with international beers increasingly making their way onto bottle shop shelves. At the same time, retailers are selling more locally-made craft beers.

But a recent trip to Japan has resulted in a coup for Shapeshifter which will soon start exporting some beer to the nation.

“I was in Japan not too long ago and met up with a guy there who imports pretty much exclusively Australian craft beers,” McCall said.

“We’ll be sending a pallet or two over to Yokohama in the next few months, which is a brand new market for us. Hopefully, that unlocks a new market and wins us some international fans.

“[The Japanese] love craft beer. I found when I was over there that the market was almost like it was here pre-COVID. They love all these new different beers and they seem to be quite price insensitive.

“The joy and magic of craft beer is still alive in Japan and probably growing.”

Though the Japan deal is a sip of success for Shapeshifter, the brand remains sensitive to price pressures for raw materials – something that particularly impacts the Findon brewer because of its small-batch model.

“We don’t buy as much in bulk compared to the larger breweries, so we’re definitely more prone to the effects of it,” McCall said.

“But we’ve stayed strong and our approach to always making with quality ingredients has not changed.”

What is becoming more of an issue for Shapeshifter and other craft brewers is changing consumer preferences. Craft beer is more expensive than mass-produced beer, and consumers are spending less generally as interest rates bite.

Another hurdle for the sector is the disinterest in craft beer from Gen Z drinkers.

“Younger people these days, they don’t see craft beer as craft beer; they see it as beer because it’s been around since they were born,” McCall said.

“Whereas for someone my age (37), there was definitely a craft beer boom in the early 2000s. It was this new product. But I’m pretty sure Gen Z see beer as beer.

“Maybe people that age now think that craft beer is what their dad drank – which is probably true because their dad is in their 40s and that’s what he drank. So maybe for them, craft beer isn’t cool at the moment, but it will probably come back around and it will start being cool again.”

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