Drafting Fresh Plans: How the Beer Industry Continues to Navigate COVID-19 - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Drafting Fresh Plans: How the Beer Industry Continues to Navigate COVID-19

In early March, John Dantzler didn’t need a crystal ball to predict that his beer sales would fizzle out. The co-founder of Torch & Crown Brewing in New York City, he watched COVID-19 start coursing through the metropolis, threatening to extinguish the nightlife. With its taproom still under construction, the brewery sold 90 percent of its beer to on-premise businesses—places to sit down and share a couple rounds. “We had some pain coming,” Dantzler says.

On March 16, Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered bars and restaurants to shut statewide that night. But if New Yorkers couldn’t grab beers at bars, maybe Torch & Crown could bring cans to their apartments? The brewery team spent several days duct-taping together a website for online sales, then deployed employees to deliver Torch & Crown’s IPAs, lagers, and stouts to the newly homebound citizenry, first in Manhattan and then Queens and Brooklyn. “I have a busted, old 2003 SUV that has more dents than anyone can count,” Dantzler says. “That thing has been roaring around the city.”

In a world that forced bars and taproom closures, toting freshly canned beer to New Yorkers became an intimate act of hospitality, cold comfort in a frazzled city reduced, for many, to four claustrophobic walls. “Providing a meaningful personal experience to as many people as possible is going to be the success or failure of craft breweries,” Dantzler says.

This has been quite the year, huh? A global pandemic, societal upheaval, nationwide protests, and a divisive political climate have upended everyday life, the brewing industry included. To prevent COVID-19’s spread, government officials shuttered brewpubs and taprooms across the country, equally community hubs and economic spigots. Overnight, breweries stopped making money by pouring pints, and retail keg sales evaporated. Breweries dumped drinkable beer or turned it into hand sanitizer, then began navigating the new abnormal. “Whatever your business model was before COVID, you probably should just throw it out the window,” says Adam Milne, owner of Old Town Brewing, in Portland, Oregon. “To survive, we can’t expect that everything will work out.”

Breweries are pivoting like weather vanes, fast adjusting to a swirling regulatory and economic windstorm. Old Town created a drive-through beer market, while Trillium Brewing, in Boston, started home delivering its cultish IPAs. After a decade in business, Boneyard Brewing, in Bend, Oregon, began canning beer, and Sierra Nevada scrambled to meet booming demand for its flagship beer, the 40-year-old Pale Ale. Bungalow by Middle Brow, in Chicago, is now a neighborhood provisionary, offering beer alongside house-made pizza dough and cured salmon, and Jester King turned its scenic Texas spread into a socially distant nature preserve.

Welcome to the rebooted world of beer, where the only certainty is constant change.

Provision Fun During the pandemic’s frenzied early days, people started stocking up and hunkering down. Consumers filled shopping carts with toilet paper, ground beef, peanut butter, and fairly priced, widely available beers such as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Sales have flagged for several years, but the pandemic found consumers gravitate toward canned 12-packs, reversing declines. Dollar sales climbed double digits this spring, according to market research firm IRI. “It’s causing us a bit of production grief,” says Ken Grossman, founder of Sierra Nevada. “We have enough inventory and projections to handle peak weeks, but peak months are more challenging.”

Large breweries are cogs in well-oiled distribution machines, filling pipelines as needed. But smaller breweries—especially the sort that hand sell cans and pints in taprooms and brewpubs— have worked hard to solve the pandemic puzzle of selling customers beer. Many local breweries built new engines of distribution from a grab bag of parts, some old, some new, with a dash of bold thinking, too.

This spring, Portland’s Old Town relied on two new models. First, it partnered with Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider, which home delivered its cider and Old Town beer. Secondly, Old Town created the Drive-Thru Brewers Market, a kind of collective drive-through farmers market for breweries. Like a bottle shop, Old Town buys beer from local and regional breweries such as Gigantic, pFriem, and Reuben’s Brews, then sells it to customers via an online store. On market day, people can drive, bike, or walk up to grab their beer, a one-stop shop for local beer. “This brings a bunch of breweries together with this feeling of camaraderie and support,” Milne says.

Sanitas Brewing, in Boulder, Colorado, experienced a steep sales decline following Colorado’s mid-March closure of bars, restaurants, and taprooms, leaving co-founder and CEO Michael Memsic looking for an economic lifeline. After his wife read a story about a brewery doing home delivery, likened to a boozy ice cream truck, “I hit the gas,” he says, ordering a sound system equipped with ice cream music. He retrofitted a logoed delivery van, and drivers were soon cruising Boulder’s neighborhoods with a different type of icy treat. “Watching adults chase down a beer truck to get a six-pack was a blast,” Memsic says.

The new outdoor space at Sanitas Brewing in Boulder, Colorado. | Photo courtesy Sanitas Brewing/Anna Tucker

The van was a ray of fun during dark times, but “like a lot of things in life, when you start having fun, people get skeptical,” Memsic says. Colorado’s liquor enforcement division eventually asked Sanitas to stop slinging six-packs out the window like soft serve. Now, customers order beer online for home delivery. “We’ll drive our van into the center of a cul-de-sac, and everyone has their lawn chairs set up,” he says. “This is a way to engage with our community.”

Trillium is the quintessential modern line brewery, customers queuing for four-packs of hazy IPAs, sold fresh and fast. But as news of the COVID-19 outbreak in China broke in January, married founders JC and Esther Tetreault realized the disease would eventually dock stateside. They needed to rethink a business that attracted tightly clustered humans for in-person transactions. Goodbye, beer lines. Hello, online sales, a fix for both the workforce and safety. “We already had a fleet of trucks, and we wanted to create work for our team that was potentially going to be sitting around or out of work,” Esther says. By mid-March, the brewery debuted Trillivery, a contactless home delivery service around Boston and the metropolitan region. Overnight, the sales pivot essentially democratized the cult double IPA. “We’re more accessible to everyone,” Esther says, adding that “JC was out literally running routes.”

Welcome to the rebooted world of beer, where the only certainty is constant change.

In addition to home delivery, breweries are taking advantage of permissive laws in Oregon, California, New York State, and elsewhere to mail beer to consumers. Additionally, breweries are turning to third-party delivery companies such as Tavour, which added around 40 new breweries from March to May alone. “I couldn’t keep up,” says Tavour vice president Meghan Packard. “The [pandemic] has changed the way breweries think about shipping beer across the country.” Tavour is also seeing an uptick in subscriptions, a safeguard against the outside world. “The customer doesn’t have to worry or go anywhere to get beer delivered from their favorite brewery.”

Feeling Welcome Over the last decade, brewery taprooms have become central gathering places to share cold beverages and warm company. In a pandemic- stricken world awash with unseen disease vectors, the taproom’s communal nature became a potential liability. “What hospitality meant before is really kind of obsolete,” says Daniel Kleban, a founder of Maine Beer Company in Freeport, Maine. Flawless beer and friendly service is now the lowest bar. From layout to proper protection for employees and customers, “what hospitality means now is how safely you’re operating,” Kleban says. For Maine Beer, this means requiring reservations, limiting parties to six people, for a 90-minute window, and expecting guests to wear masks except while seated (and the requirements will likely keep shifting based on the status of COVID-19’s spread).

Breweries are re-envisioning safe, hospitable places, ones with enough space to keep customers at arm’s length—comfortably together, alone. Artisanal Brewing Ventures, encompassing Sixpoint, SouthernTier, Victory, and Bold Rock Cider, installed air-purifying systems at its taprooms. Land-Grant Brewing, in Columbus, Ohio, placed touchless hand sanitizers throughout its beer garden, only serving guests canned beer ordered via mobile app. Trillium’s reopened locations, including its Fort Point restaurant in Boston, minimize server contact by making guests—who reserve tables—scan unique QR codes to order drinks and food by phone, while Sanitas created a shaded 8,000-square-foot outdoor space, installing a bar in a shipping container. “My goal is to bring as many people socially together as possible,” Memsic says.

Few breweries have facelifted operations like Jester King, a farmhouse brewery located around 20 miles west of Austin, Texas, in the Hill Country. The brewery transformed its 165 acres into a nature preserve, featuring a 2-mile walking trail and six socially distant seating areas near its vine- yard, hop yard, goat pen, and tree-shaded groves. Guests reserve seating in two time blocks, with a buffer in between for deep cleaning, and order food and drink via QR code before grabbing it from a designated row of tables, no human con- tact necessary.

“Now everything at Jester King is virtual, other than actually eating or drinking,” says founder and owner Jeffrey Stuffings. This was not 2020’s anticipated play. Two years earlier, the brewery expanded its property by buying an adjoining pizzeria and events center for weddings. “Spring was supposed to be our first fully booked season,” Stuffings says. Instead of wallowing, Stuffings reimagined a different drinking experience. “I’ve spent years just casually walking around Jester King and hanging out in spots that aren’t public facing,” he says. “It dawned on me that, ‘Hey, why not have people sit out here?’ We want to be able to share our land.”

In nearby Driftwood, Vista Brewing takes that statement literally. The 21-acre farm brewery grows much of the tomatoes, peppers, squash, okra, lettuce, and other produce used in its restaurant, which closed during spring’s coronavirus outbreak. “Ninety percent of our revenue is predicated on people coming to Vista,” says Kent Killough, a co-founder.

Mother Nature refused to pause. As plants grew tall, vegetables ripening, Vista decided to create a weekly farm share. “It sold out in 10 minutes,” Killough says. The brewery now operates a farm stand offering its own vegetables, honey from the Vista apiary, and employees’ side projects making roasted coffee, CBD-infused honey, and hot sauce, plus local baguettes and wagyu beef raised on Vista’s spent grain. “We have a community that now sees a brewery as a stop on a supply run,” Killough says. “It’s a shift in consumer behavior.”

Outdoor seating at Jester King. | Photo by Max Kelly.

Fermenting the Future When COVID-19 went viral, barstool seers began predicting the end of the premium four-pack. In a world sucker punched by staggering unemployment, paying upward of $24 for four cans of extravagantly hopped IPAs is absurd, right? “It’s an affordable luxury,” says Kleban of Maine Beer. Even when times are down, people are “not dramatically shifting from well-crafted beer to racks of Budweiser.”

Rob Archie, a co-founder of Urban Roots Brewing & Smokehouse, in Sacramento, California, experienced that firsthand. He opened Sacramento’s Pangaea Two Brews (now Pangaea Bier Café) in 2008, during the Great Recession. “Although people were losing material things, they could get arguably one of the best beers in the world for $10 or $15,” Archie says. “It comes down to simple pleasures.”

Instead of dimming demand for Urban Roots’ lagers and IPAs, the pandemic forced a change in packaging. Previously, Urban Roots—a 500-seat brewpub serving smoked meats—sold 90 percent of its beer on-site, primarily on draft. But with the sit-down service iced, brewmaster and co-founder Peter Hoey quickly booked a mobile canner and started retail distribution. “We’ve had to be very nimble,” he says, heartened by widespread community support. “It still amazes me that someone will pay $20 for a four-pack of beer that I made.”

Pulling a pint at Jester King. | Photo by Max Kelly.

Since opening in 2010, Boneyard Beer only kegged its perpetually popular IPAs, which never lingered. “As fast as we could grow the company, we remained sold out,” says Tony Lawrence, the co-founder and brewmaster of the Bend, Oregon, brewery. When the pandemic hit, being a draft- only brewery was instantly bad business. “My distributors were sitting on 1,400 kegs of beer, and I had about 800 kegs in my warehouse and another 2,000 barrels in my fermenters,” Lawrence says.

In his initial business plan, Lawrence intended to can Boneyard beer. With draft dried up, “we took the original game plan and pivoted to cans as swiftly as we could.” By mid-April, Bone- yard was canning RPM IPA, Hop Venom double IPA, Diablo Rojo red ale, and other popular beers. Ten years too late? Nah, right on schedule. “Everybody was just sitting there like, ‘It’s about time,’ ” Lawrence says, adding that the brewery can’t meet demand. “When you hold that can in your hand, look at the artwork, and take a sip, it’s a new relationship between Boneyard and our customers,” he says. “This will be amazing as we enter our second decade.”

Charging forward in a churning world, expect to see more breweries go against type and explore new drinks categories, some beer, some beyond. Sierra Nevada now offers Strainge Beast, a line of hard kombucha, and Allagash has the Little Grove line of fruited 100-calorie “sparkling session ales.” Brooklyn’s Grimm Artisanal Ales—beloved for hop-saturated IPAs and oak-aged sour ales— makes Grimm Lite, a light American lager priced to move at around $12 a six-pack.

Jester King built its bona fides on spontaneously fermented wild ales, but it now makes canned hazy IPAs and imperial stouts. The special releases attract people for purchases, which are consumed elsewhere. The days of drawing droves to Jester King to leisurely sip low-alcohol farmhouse ales are not boomeranging back. Breweries must pull numerous levers to find profitable paths. Like COVID-19, there’s no fast and easy fix. “We’re looking at this as a two- to three-year process to emerge from,” says Stuffings, who also plans to make wine.

These are highly volatile times, no two days identical. The moves that breweries make today may be meaningless tomorrow, discarded as easily as sanitary plastic gloves. Jester King briefly closed a second time, in late June, due to Texas state orders, and Old Town paused its market. Moreover, the inescapable reality is that many breweries will shutter, beer no magic shield against the damaging economic salvos of stay-at- home orders, diminished draft sales, and shaky consumer confidence. “Some of this is going to exacerbate what was already happening,” says Bart Watson, the chief economist at the Brewers Association.

This is not the bubble popping on a world of flavorful beer, sending drinkers back toward mass-produced lagers. But COVID-19 will pump the brakes on a freewheeling beer era, forcing breweries to reimagine their roles in a masked world. Instead of just placing a beer before people, it’s a fresh chance to place people before beer, a healthier approach for the industry’s long-term vitality. Says Urban Roots’ Archie, “Going out and having a beer means something totally different today than it did yesterday.”

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