By Kirsty Needham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – As demand for a cleansing ale collapses with the closure of clubs and hotels to combat the spread of the coronavirus, Australia’s craft brewers are refocusing on the urgent public need for clean hands.

Australia’s medicines regulator changed its rules on Monday to make it easier for small brewers and distillers to make hospital-grade hand sanitizer, citing high demand from rural hospitals and aged care homes.

Sanitizer is one of the items that have been stripped from supermarket shelves as the public stock up on protection against the highly contagious virus.

The rule changes mean that distilleries will not need government approval to make sanitizer if they use one of two recipes developed by the World Health Organisation.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said that would not only ease supply pressures, but provide opportunities for Australian businesses to diversify at a difficult time.

“Wineries and grape growers affected by smoke damage caused by the recent bushfires, and boutique distilleries that have lost passing tourist trade, are turning to manufacturing alcohol, the key ingredient in sanitisers,” he said in a statement.

Microbrewery One Drop regularly drew a crowd at its Sydney taproom to sip on its international award winning-beer before last week’s compulsory shutdown of pubs and restaurants.

“All that momentum we had is gone,” said head brewer Nick Calder-Scholes, who switched off the beer fermentation taps on Monday.

“All our tanks are empty. We won’t produce any more beer, it’s a waste. We will use our expertise to help make hand sanitizer,” he said.

Calder-Scholes said the whole industry was working together to shift gear. The supplier of fruit for One Drop’s Peach Sour beer will instead supply sugar for ethanol.

“None of us have done this before but the craft brewery industry are all in this together.”

One Drop was unable to source 500ml (16.9 fluid ounce) bottles in Australia as more companies pile into the market, so will bottle 200ml hand sanitizer to sell for A$10 ($6.10).

Martin Svehla of gin distiller Banks and Solander said he has been receiving constant phone calls from skincare brands seeking ethanol, and has switched to distilling alcohol for hand sanitizer.

The relaxation in regulations “definitely helps”, Svehla said. “By far the biggest market is the general consumer, and this frees up supply for healthcare workers.”

Manufacturers must test alcohol in each batch and maintain production records, the regulator said.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; editing by Jane Wardell)