Sparkke beer and wine company shakes up the local alcohol industry with its provocative labels

Winemaker Sarah Lyons of beverage company Sparkke.
Winemaker Sarah Lyons of beverage company Sparkke. Photo: Supplied

Every so often a business comes along that pushes the boundaries.

The Sparkke Change Beverage Company (or Sparkke as it's more commonly known) is one of those, and they've just celebrated one year of giving back to important social causes. 

It started when Adelaide founders Rose Kentish (who also runs her own McLaren Vale wine label) and marketer Kari Allen became frustrated at the direction of the alcohol industry.

The can's labels are intended to spark conversation.
The can's labels are intended to spark conversation. Photo: Supplied

The duo, who met via their children and shared an interest in creating change for this next generation, began with a crowdfunding campaign, which raised more than $100,000 on Pozible to kickstart the company. 

The industry was too "male, pale and stale", as Pernod Ricard Scholarship winemaker and Sparkke's head winemaker, Sarah Lyons, puts it.

"The majority of the beer industry is owned by two companies, and it's all advertised to young guys as 'their' drink. It needed to be shaken up."

This approach gets up the noses of the organisations that control the status quo within our industry.

Creating a social enterprise

"We wanted to spark some conversation, challenge things that need to be thought more about," Lyons says.

Lyons and her team wanted to use provocative can labels to spark conversation about meaningful issues, while also making a financial difference.

The company donates about 10 per cent of direct sales and 4 per cent of wholesale purchases to worthy causes. 

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Each of the six canned drinks is attached to its own cause: there's the "sexual consent" apple cider, ginger beer for asylum seekers, change-the-date pilsner, "gender-equality" lemonade, white wine and bubbles (yes, in a can) for marriage equality, and "climate change" pale ale.

"Everyone in the team will put up some ideas for what we want to create conversation around, and then we all vote on which we like the best," Lyons says.

"From there, we do a lot of research [on the facts and organisations to donate to] and come up with a message.

"We want to give some love back to the communities and groups we want to support."

The beers themselves are made from natural ingredients, and without preservatives, at Willunga Brewery; the alcoholic ginger beer is made with locally sourced raw ginger; their "hard lemonade" includes fermented South Australian lemon juice; while the wine, made at Vintners Winery, comes from McLaren Vale and Adelaide Hills fruit. 

One year in

Sparkke's bubbles being served at a recent Elton John concert was a highlight of their first year in business, Lyons says. The company, which now employs 10 staff, also hit the wider market and festival circuit.

"This year we're the official ginger beer of Adelaide Fringe and we'll be at Mardi Gras – there are some exciting things happening," she says.

"We've also had some personal successes: for example, our brewer [Agi Gajic, formerly a brewer at Young Henrys in Sydney] makes a huge and diverse catalogue of sophisticated products, and achieving that is a big celebration in itself."

There have been challenges, however, including learning how to can wine and making sure the range of beers were all premium quality.

The strong social messages on the cans also led to some inevitable backlash. But co-founder Kentish is taking this on the chin: "This approach gets up the noses of the organisations that control the status quo within our industry. We're incredibly active on social, too, so our brand is exposed to regular trolling. We like to think that if we weren't rocking someone's boat we wouldn't be doing out jobs. You could say we take the backlash as a real compliment."

Ultimately, though, Lyons says, "The truth behind how well we've done is in how good the drinks taste."

Kentish says the company's plans include establishing a new brewery site and front-of-house venue. "We have new products brewing, new markets calling, specialty brews in development, and new cause partners in conversation. Watch this space."

See the Sparkke website for local stockists.