What if you could give money to a social cause every time you had a night out? What if helping others was as easy as lining up at the bar? What if you could help fight homelessness among young people just by buying a beer? The people at Tomoka Trading Co. asked the same questions.
I first discovered Tomoka Trading Co. at trendy Melbourne bar Seamstress. I was waiting for a friend and had started clinically reviewing the beer list in search of something I hadn’t had before. I’m usually unsuccessful, but this time I came across a pale ale from Melbourne brewer Tomoka Trading Co. I asked the bar staff if it was any good, and soon after found myself with a bottle in front of me.
I picked up the bottle and was surprised to find on the label the words ‘Social Enterprise’. Put simply, this is a brewery that puts giving to charity at the heart of its business. For every drop the company sells, a portion goes directly to a social cause.
Fast-forward a few months, and after spending a lot of time telling beer drinkers and non-beer drinkers alike this story, I sat down to speak with Alex Hutchins, the founder of Tomoka Trading Co.
We met at Self Preservation on Bourke Street in Melbourne’s CBD — one of the 20-something and growing places in the city that has the brewery’s beer on their list.
The seed that would become Tomoka Trading Co. came from a revelation from Alex Hutchins. He would go out with his friends and find himself spending a lot of money at the bar, but he wondered why it was easier for people to spend money on beer than it was to give it to a charity or social cause. This lightbulb moment, although I’m certain I’ve heavily truncated the timelines, sparked Alex’s interest in finding a way to combine people’s love of beer with making a difference to their community at large. And so, Tomoka Trading Co. was born.
Initially self-funded, the brewery began with humble beginnings as Alex used his own savings to commission the beer through a brewery in Mildura and with a newly-made beer in hand, began approaching bars and cafes around Melbourne. He didn’t own a car at this point and would instead bring as many bottles as he could on the tram into the city to deliver personally. When he ran out he would get the tram back north to collect more. But it wasn’t an easy road, and after a year into the brewery’s life, Alex was diagnosed with a gluten allergy and could no longer drink from the empire he was creating. But for Alex, the brewing company had a mission far larger than beer it sold.
This mission is built out of the belief that the bigger the company grows (Alex has since been joined by business partner Kevin Carland and a several other employees) the more it can donate and contribute to the community. At present they contribute money solely to Kids Under Cover, but the brewery is also a big supporter of the Australian literary scene, supporting popular literary journal The Lifted Brow. These core relationships run to the very heart of the Tomoka Brewing Co. business, where despite recently moving to a brewer in New South Wales, the company continues to use ingredients from the Victorian farmers involved at its beginning.
Tomoka Trading Co. follows a similar approach to other for-purpose companies such as Melbourne’s Thank You, StreetSmart’s CafeSmart initiative, and TOMS shoes, and like those titans of social enterprise, Alex isn’t willing to take no for an answer when it comes to the company’s beer and their purpose, that for him are one and the same.
‘People out there have good hearts, and they want to help where they can,’ said Alex, referring not just to the public, but also the businesses that stock the beer. And like any good cause, without the right exposure it can be difficult to make a difference, meaning the challenge for Tomoka Brewing Co. is to make sure that when people are deciding which beer to choose, they know that there is a beer that stands for more than just alcohol. Alex acknowledges that it is a long road, but he also notes that a year ago he started out with one employee, and now there are three.
‘People out there have good hearts, and they want to help where they can.’
In the end, it’s about choice. It’s true that in the current alcohol climate where experimentation is ripe and where every possible type of beer is available, we are more than spoilt for choice. However, when faced with the choice of which beer to choose on a night out, there are very few that will pay it forward.
Beer is meant to be social; perhaps it can help society too.