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New Breweries Have Persevered to Open During A Difficult Year

Sam and Sara Kazmer couldn’t believe their good luck. After months spent canvassing Atlanta, the couple found the future home for Elsewhere Brewing. Their bright and communal beer hall and garden, inspired by European drinking culture and serving continental lagers alongside modern IPAs, would rise inside a former warehouse in Atlanta’s leafy Grant Park neighborhood. The planned patio faced the BeltLine, a railway corridor converted into a popular trail system. “This spot was perfect,” says Sara, the director of hospitality and marketing.

Hindsight couldn’t have predicted 2020. The couple signed the lease in May 2019, plugging away until the January phone call from the firm building Elsewhere’s brewhouse. Steel manufacturing in China was stalled, fallout from the country’s early wave of COVID-19 closures. The April delivery date shifted to July, when “we planned originally on pouring beer,” Sam says.

What new brewery isn’t delayed? The couple pushed forward, hiring a brewmaster and securing its building permits and small business loan, closing on funding at the start of March. Within weeks, Atlanta and America started shutting down to stanch COVID-19’s spread, leaving breweries like Elsewhere in expensive limbo. “We’d raised $300,000 before 2020 even happened and spent most of that,” Sam says. “We couldn’t turn the ship. We had to get open.”

Even in less unsettled times, opening a brewery might be a multi-year voyage across uncertain seas of permitting and construction. During the pandemic, under-construction breweries crashed into the coronavirus iceberg, forcing fast course corrections for economic survival. Breweries shredded plans and rewrote them for a revised reality, then another, as shifting state and local regulations tried balancing business with public health. Stop, start, go backward, go forward. Repeat until you’re finally serving beer. “You shake your head and go, ‘Alright, let’s figure our way around this one,’ ” says Jeff Smith, the founder of LUKI Brewery in Arvada, Colorado, which opened last summer. “There’s a group of us that get to wear the Red Badge of Courage of opening a brewery during the pandemic,” Smith says.

The patio at Elsewhere Brewing. | Photo by Dessa Lohrey.

Focusing on taproom beer sales is typically economically sound. A brewery’s highest-margin sale is the pint that’s brewed and sold on-premise, no need for packaging or distribution. According to the Brewers Association, onsite sales are the majority of beer revenue for the majority of craft breweries. The pandemic turned that healthy business plan into a health risk, fast-tracking taproom breweries into packaging.

In 2017, Colombia native and former film sound editor Martin Quinones signed the lease for Cervecería Del Pueblo. That began a three-year odyssey through Pasadena’s bureaucratic thicket, buildout, and brewing school, where he honed the skills to make beers featuring South American ingredients, such as an IPA packed with panela sugar and sour ales flavored with citrusy lulo fruit. By last March, he was finally filling his fermentation tanks with beer, eyeing an imminent grand opening. “My plan was to focus on the taproom to let people get to know us and share our culture,” Quinones says. The invites never went out. “We couldn’t open, but we had all this beer in tanks and kegs, ready to be served,” he says.

Quinones had purchased a small hand canner, able to package one can at a time. “That became our canning line,” he says. A mention in the Los Angeles Times put the brewery on beer drinkers’ radar, bringing customers to the taproom. “After all the struggles and obstacles, you realize you can do it,” Quinones says. “We’ve done 10,000 cans with that workhorse machine. We keep making beer and keep selling out, so that’s a good sign. I just have to keep making more.”

Beer production was a big question mark for Brooklyn’s Wild East. Throughout much of 2019, the utility National Grid had a moratorium on activating gas connections for new customers. “We’d ordered a $50,000 gas-only boiler,” says Tyler March, an owner and head of operations. Backing out wasn’t an option. “We’d taken somebody’s building, torn up the floors, started doing construction, and bought all this equipment,” says Brett Taylor, an owner and the head brewer. “It was like, ‘We might not be able to do this.’ ”

To get running, the brewery added oil-burning capabilities to its boiler (gas took until summer) and started brewing in December 2019. Wild East increased production for a planned April taproom opening, “and then came the pandemic,” Taylor says. New York City shut shops in mid-March, save for essential businesses like breweries. Wild East started hand canning 32-ounce crowlers, taken home and consumed in front of computer screens. One night, a local woman walked into the brewery. “She was like, ‘Somebody on a Zoom happy hour was drinking your beer,’ ” Taylor says. “As soon as that Zoom meeting was over, she ran down to buy a crowler for tomorrow’s Zoom.”

Wild East eventually hired a mobile canner to package beers, such as the Patience & Fortitude pilsner and hazy IPA Supersaturate. Bars and restaurants proved to be unpredictable sales outlets, given the erratic openings and closures. By fall, Wild East embraced a fail-safe market: supermarkets. “The one thing that will never close is a grocery store,” March says.

Brewer Jonny Ifergan and chef Ryan Sanders just hoped to live long enough to open Ørkenoy, their Nordic-inspired Chicago brewpub. The buildout was fraught with near-death disasters. While hauling brewery equipment, Sanders and Ifergan hit black ice and skidded off a highway. A construction worker needed stitches. A truck hit the operations manager. “We have a ‘days without a disaster’ thing happening,” Sanders says. “We’ve made it to 20 so far.”

Ørkenoy opened in September out of monetary necessity. “The bank was coming calling,” Sanders says. But Chicago restaurants were then limited to 25 percent capacity, a fraction that made no fiscal sense for the concept, in which customers could try Ifergan’s rustic European beers, such as a smoky brown ale or raw Estonian farmhouse ale, then snack on Sanders’ smørrebrød, the Scandinavian open- faced sandwich. “Just because there’s 25 percent capacity, we couldn’t operate with 25 percent staff or cost,” Sanders says. “We were spending as much money as we would’ve opening at 100 percent.”

Later that fall, Chicago again shuttered indoor dining, forcing Ørkenoy to full takeout. “We thought we were going to have one type of business, then opened with another type of business, and had another type of business, all within three months,” Sanders says. Takeout proved popular, as did Ifergan’s eclectic beers sold in customizable two-packs—marigold-infused oat stout and fennel-and-fig rye ale. Ørkenoy nailed a niche, gastronomic escapism for a locked-down world. “It gives us hope that people are willing to try new things,” Ifergan says.

Throughout the spring and summer, the Kazmers forged ahead with Elsewhere, finishing construction and installing the delayed brewhouse by summer. However, the city of Atlanta paused processing applications for liquor licenses until August, meaning Elsewhere couldn’t legally open. “You feel so helpless,” Sara says. They continued paying rent and payroll, unable to take advantage of the government programs because—get this—the brewery wasn’t open in February. “I couldn’t show any loss of revenue,” Sam says. “We were watching our bank account to a point where we weren’t going to be able to pay rent,” Sara says.

Elsewhere launched an economic Hail Mary in the form of a CSB—a community supported brewery program. Similar to a CSA ( “A” is for “agriculture”) that connects farmers to customers, members paid upfront for beer they would receive later. The catch: Elsewhere hadn’t actually brewed beer. “How are people going to put hundreds of dollars to purchasing a product they’ve never tried?” Sara says. It took less than three weeks to sell around 100 memberships, raising almost $20,000 to pay expenses and buy just enough time until the liquor license’s arrival. Elsewhere opened in October, offering canned beer to go and drafts to stay. “Even just selling 10 pints in house does so much for us,” Sara says.

Meanwhile Brewing’s director of sales and marketing Conner Gilfillan (left) and founder and brewmaster Will Jaquiss. | Photo courtesy of Breakfast Studio.

Great beer alone is no longer enough to lure customers to a brewery. Competition is steep, and quality lagers, fruity sour ales, and hazy IPAs are sold at bars and convenience stores, delivery services bringing fresh four-packs to front doors. Inventive events can attract customers, but that’s tougher in a socially distant world.

Colorado’s LUKI planned to offer a big-top hullabaloo worthy of Ringling Bros., carrying on a family tradition. (Jeff Smith’s great-grandmother had performed in the circus as Mademoiselle Chloe, charming snakes and riding elephants.) “We’re the circus brewery, so we wanted nonstop events,” Smith says, envisioning juggling contests, tarot readers, and carnival-style games of chance and skill. “We wanted to have fun and do something more than giant Jenga games on the patio.”

Demolition began in December of 2019, and soon the dark coronavirus clouds started gathering. “At that point, you look at this and go, ‘Well, what’s the business model going to look like?’ ” Smith says. The brewery opened in July with jerry-rigged outdoor seating, fresh beer, and a fresh outlook on events, in time hosting coloring contests and LEGO- building competitions with individual sterilized kits. “Whatever brewery you talk to, they’ll say, ‘I’m not going to let a pandemic stop me,’ ” Smith says.

For more than 20 years, Asheville Brewing president Mike Rangel has drawn customers to his locations with movies and pizza paired to the grapefruit-scented Shiva IPA. When a downtown bank property became available, Rangel purchased it and partnered with the Orange Peel music hall to create the Rabbit Rabbit outdoor venue and events space. Construction and concert booking started early last year. Rock band Vampire Weekend was scheduled to play on opening night in June, kicking off an ambitious event slate featuring the symphony, plays, and outdoor movies. “We were pinching ourselves,” Rangel says.

Then came the punch. In March, COVID-19 restrictions paused the project mid-construction. “Even a 30-day delay could jeopardize June shows,” Rangel says. By mid-April, Rangel realized that massive concerts wouldn’t happen anywhere that summer. “Our occupancy, which sounds obscene now, is 4,500 people,” Rangel says of the acre-plus property. Rabbit Rabbit opened in late August with a rebooted layout and approach. “We put 40 tables out there, about 20 feet apart,” Rangel says. Occupancy was limited to 300 people, masks and temperature checks mandatory, no milling. Rabbit Rabbit began offering movie nights, rooftop comedy shows, trivia, Saturday morning cartoons, and a winter wonderland with socially distant Santa. “We have a big space where people want to go,” Rangel says.

For the last decade, Will Jaquiss has worked toward opening a brewery, putting in time at Portland’s Breakside before putting down roots in Austin. He purchased a nearly 4-acre property in 2018 and built, from the ground up, a complex featuring a pretty and playful taproom and an outdoor playground, soccer field, and music stage where 600 or 700 people could take in a concert. All were off-limits when the brewery opened in October. “We got a lot more picnic tables than we were originally going to start with,” Jaquiss says.

Meanwhile Brewing leaned into its coffee program, drawing an a.m. crowd. “On nice days, people are out there with their laptops and taking advantage of the sunshine and fresh air,”Jaquiss says. The brewery’s beverage program is also designed for diverse tastes. Pilsners and fruited sours share the drinks menu with wine, cider, chocolate milk, and cocktails featuring house-made hard seltzer. “We wanted to make sure that everybody had something to drink,” Jaquiss says. Meanwhile is also testing seated concerts. “Just being out in the world and sitting at a table with beer and listening to live music is a great compromise during a pandemic.”

Canned beers at Cervecería Del Pueblo. | Photo by Dylan + Jeni.

Nobody likes delays, and the last year has been like waiting for a flight to depart during a blizzard. When will it happen? Will it be safe? Prolonged pauses caused some breweries to close before opening. Blue Point built seafood-focused Brooklyn brewpub the Hull, installing brewing equipment in a nautically designed underground space. Terrific idea for a different timeline.

An extended pause can provide positives. Had Rabbit Rabbit opened for that June concert, “we would’ve gotten stomped,” Rangel says, regarding customer flow, beer service, and bathrooms. The delay is a “yearlong dress rehearsal,” Rangel says.

Plans for Ogma Brewing in Jackson, Michigan, around 40 miles west of Ann Arbor, started taking shape in 2018. Andrew Volk and brothers Kevin and Troy Craft (formerly of the Dark Horse and Griffin Claw breweries) sought to create a community-driven brewery, but roadblocks soon appeared. Utilities and an adjoining alleyway required reconstruction, followed by licensing issues and then, well, you know what happened. “The not-being-open part has benefitted us in ways that we didn’t expect,” says Volk, the head of brand development. Ogma can only hold around 50 people, and full capacity is uncertain. Seeking more seating, the brewery is building an outdoor patio, and there are discussions with local government to permit drinking in an outdoor social district. “It’s nice to not have to pivot live,” Volk says. (Ogma hopes to open this spring or summer.)

Seattle’s Chris Elford likes to tell people his brewpub is opening in reverse. “It started in one place and went a little backward and got retooled,” Elford says. Initially, a developer approached Elford and his business partner, Anu Apte, about opening a bar in his waterfront building. (Their collection of bars includes Navy Strength and Rob Roy.) Instead, they eventually decided to open the tropically focused brewpub Here Today. “We’ve always wanted to be more on the maker side,” Elford says.

Securing a space was the smoothest part. The initial brewer opted for a different direction, and raising funding proved logistically daunting. “We would’ve just thrown an open house,” Elford says. “It’s forced us to be more creative.” Here Today created a three-minute video sales pitch, raising more than $850,000 (as of press time) and keeping the brewpub on target for a summer start. “We’re finding people are looking a little more optimistic about the future,” Elford says.

The pandemic didn’t end ambition and optimism. There have been dark days, weeks, months, and a whole year and counting. But human nature is to hope that we’ll persevere, that a vaccine will safely return us to barstools to sit beside strangers and friends. Carefree hours spent with cold beers loom over the hill. Breweries are doubling down on a better, thirstier tomorrow. In December, Penguin City Brewing in Youngstown, Ohio, purchased a massive warehouse as part of a nearly $4 million expansion, and Creature Comforts Brewing, in Athens, Georgia, is opening a Los Angeles location this summer. The last year also proved to Quinones that Cervecería Del Pueblo can thrive, not just survive. “We had lines for our beer,” he says. He put aside his hand canner, hiring a mobile-canning company to boost production. “If we were able to sell this much beer, without any history, in a pandemic year where people are struggling, I think we can still do it— and more.”

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