Food & Drink

How Craft Breweries Are Finding Creative Ways to Stay Afloat

craft breweries covid-19
Maitane Romagosa/Thrillist

From restaurant closures and widespread staff layoffs to a growing number of state-mandated shelter-in-place orders, the hospitality sector at large has taken quite a beating over the last few coronavirus-crazed weeks. And just like their less-boozy neighbors, craft breweries around the country are also struggling to stay afloat amid a sudsy sea of uncertainty and ever-heightening restrictions. With bars and restaurants shifting their operations to take-out and delivery only, wholesale orders have plummeted and the personable neighborhood taprooms that once served as the industry’s lifeblood are being forced to hang up their tap handles for the foreseeable future.

According to a March 17th survey conducted by the Brewers Association, a national trade group for small and independent craft brewers, a whopping 98.9% of respondents reported that COVID-19 precautions and regulations had already spurred drops in onsite sales and distributor orders as well as canceled events. 95.2% said they anticipated the coming month’s sales to be down compared to last year and 57.7% admitted that company layoffs were probable. All this in an industry that’s just now beginning to level out after a decade of almost comically impressive growth. 

So how are America’s craft darlings tackling one of the most economically and socially precarious moments of the 21st Century? Exactly like they’d tackle any challenge that came their way: with creativity, ingenuity, community-mindedness, and a boatload of cleaning solution. Here are just a few of the things brewers are doing to stay safe and busy during these wild times.

Thinking outside the box (and the brewery)

Thanks in part to temporarily loosened liquor laws, many small breweries were able to keep product moving and workers working by swiftly and seamlessly transitioning to take-out cans, bottles, growlers, and, in some cases, kegs.

“The difference between our situation and a restaurant is that we’re a manufacturer,” says Lauren Grimm of Grimm Artisanal Ales. “We already make a packaged item that we can easily sell to-go. It's just a matter of setting up differently.”

While Grimm and her husband/co-owner Joe have been modifying their output to account for a significant drop in restaurant and bar sales, a steady stream of exceptionally thirsty (and respectfully socially distanced) curbside pick-ups has allowed them to continue brewing new batches. There’s been such strong demand, they’ve even begun adding take-home kegs to the menu.

“We set up a little desk at our front door and our bartenders have been working it,” continues the award-winning brewer. “We don't have more than two customers at a time but there's been a constant flow. The bartenders were worried when we shut down the taproom but they've all been really excited about the to-go fills. Especially with the shelter in place, everyone wants to have a good time when they're stuck at home.”

Similar efforts are being made throughout the country. Chicago’s Old Irving Brewing is one of many area breweries attempting to keep quarantiners sated throughout the lockdown. The celebrated brewpub took their operation a step further with a new direct-to-curb service. “We have implemented a ‘no contact’ curbside pickup approach by only accepting payment over the phone with a credit card (sorry no cash or walk-ins) and placing your packaged and labeled order on a table outside of our front door upon your arrival,” Old Irving announced last week via Instagram.

Chicago’s Hopewell Brewing Co. is also jumping aboard the take-out train, though they’ve sweetened the deal with extra incentives. Customers can opt to add a sunny houseplant from Plant Shop Chicago to their mixed case of puckery specialty ales. (“Feeling like adding on a little calm greenery to your space, you know, now that you're at home for a little while?” suggests the brewery’s online shop.) And that isn’t the only non-perishable Hopewell Brewing is offering. They’re one of dozens of Chicago businesses supporting Chicago Hospitality United, a line of limited edition t-shirts and accessories backed by local workwear brand Stock Mfg. and hospitality studio Leisure Activities (Sportsmans Club, Ludlow Liquors, Estereo). All sales benefit bar and restaurant workers affected by the city’s shelter-in-place order.

“We're so grateful for initiatives like the Chicago Hospitality United t-shirt project, it honestly makes us all tear up,” says Hopewell Brewing Co. co-founder Samantha Lee. “This crisis is upending everything [but] these kinds of acts of kindness make me optimistic we can get through this with collective action.”

Down in Lee County, Florida, Fort Myers Brewing is also finding inventive ways to pay it forward. “In the next couple of days, we’re going to launch what we’re calling internally a ‘community board’ where people can call and pre-buy beers for others,” reports co-owner Jen Gratz-Whyte. “So if someone wanted to call and buy 20 beers for 20 nurses, they can do that.”

Fort Myers is also turning to to-go orders and merch sales to support their hardworking team. “We provide health insurance to our staff, including our bar staff, and we're doing everything we can to make sure they continue to have that insurance, which means they have to continue to be employed,” Gratz-Whyte explains. “We're rotating through all of our staff for to-go beer, we're putting together a list of odd projects, and we're also selling t-shirts to raise money for them -- kind of like a tip, just something to boost their income in the meantime.”

Going digital

The practice of brewing might date back to the Sumerian era, but those dusty roots aren’t stopping today’s craft industry from enthusiastically embracing modern technology. Brewers of all sizes are harnessing the power of the internet like never before, both as a means to sell beer, share valuable resources, and foster community.

“We do a lot of wholesale and the fallout from the closure of all bars and restaurants is pretty significant. At first our distributors were like, ‘Okay we can’t take any kegs but we'll take packaged.’ And now it's, ‘Actually we can't take anything,’” Grimm notes, describing her brewery’s decision to kick-off online ordering and delivery. “We're like, ‘Okay, what's going to happen to the beer in our fermentors and how are we going to adapt our production schedule moving forward? Let's start doing delivery.’ We launched on Caviar on Monday and we're about to launch on Grubhub. That's been a lifesaver, like a significant lifesaver. I don't know what we would do without those services.” 

The internet has also proven to be an effective information sharing tool, helping small breweries from coast to coast navigate a cascade of new state and federal regulations. The California Craft Brewers Association hit the ground running on March 16th with their COVID-19 Resources page, a wealth of information outlining everything from current operating laws to small business loans and mortgage support. The Brewers Association is also on the task, setting up their own resource center with a focus on industry best practices like draft line sanitization and other OSHA-recommended virus prevention measures. The Illinois Craft Brewers Guild is now keeping tabs on their members’ current offerings and statuses with an interactive spreadsheet and popular check-in app Untapped is doing their part with #gregslist, an editable database listing beer purveyors and ways to support them. 

Even fans are getting into the mix. Brooklyn-based beer writer Courtney Iseman recently launched NYC on Tap, a website promoting New York area breweries managing the pandemic’s many effects.

“I've visited a few breweries and bottle shops here in Brooklyn over the past week to get beers to-go -- safe and socially distanced, of course -- and it's been the only bright spot in all of this,” says Iseman. “I just want all these businesses to get as much support as possible during this scary time. Plus, I've temporarily lost most of my writing gigs, so since no one is currently paying me to spotlight great beer, I took to doing it for fun.” (Check out Thrillist’s own list of ways to support your local breweries.)

Florida’s Fort Myers Brewing is using their internet presence to stay engaged with their local customers while also spreading the love to frequent collaborators like musicians and food truck operators.

“The first thought was our employees and then it became, ‘Okay, how many different small businesses rely on our brewery being open and thriving and how do we pull in them and help them?’” recalls Gratz-Whyte. “Thursday is usually our food truck rally and we always have live music. So tonight one of the bands that plays regularly is going to go live on Facebook in the empty tap room with a Venmo or GoFundMe for donations. People can pick up beer and food, take it home, turn off the 24/7 craziness, and hopefully relax for 30 minutes. It’s like a virtual Fort Myers Brewing.”

Pitching in

Sometimes survival isn’t just about balancing the books. Like many distilleries, several craft outfits have begun using their equipment to produce mass quantities of much-needed hand sanitizer for government workers, healthcare professionals, and other essential folks. According to Sam Calagione, founder and president of Delaware titan Dogfish Head, the decision to temporarily swap booze for disinfectant was a no-brainer.

“We also make spirits and we already knew that distilled alcohol is a central ingredient in sanitation. It wasn't long after we saw the accelerating cases in America that we said, ‘Geez, we should get ahead of this and start making sanitizer,’” says the craft pioneer. “Then Saturday morning, [partner company] Sam Adams brewmaster David Grinnell emailed me with a photo of a European distillery who had started doing it the week earlier and by 9 AM Monday we were working on a recipe. We thought we would just be making it for our coworkers in our production facilities, but on Monday afternoon the governor's office reached out to us and by Tuesday local hospitals were reaching out to us. Within a day we were allowed to start labeling and we shipped our first batch out Friday. Now we're ramping up production. We only got out 12 gallons this week but we're on pace to get out 200 gallons next week.”

Agreeing to become one of the state’s chief providers of hand sanitizer during a viral outbreak is no small feat. Thankfully for the brewers, the transition has been an easy one: “The central component in our gin and vodka is a neutral grain spirit that we make from fermenting what’s basically beer. Now instead of adding Juniper and hops, we're adding hydrogen peroxide, glycerin and reverse osmosis water to make the sanitizer.”

Calagione and crew have even found a way to help non-government workers through this state-backed project. “The governor said, ‘Hey, you need to charge market value for this. We're doing this to replenish our supplies but also to help private industry in our state,’” recounts Calagione. “So I said, ‘Okay, we'll charge you market rate, but I'd rather take the profits and deliver them to a fund the Delaware Restaurant Association is establishing for unemployed hospitality workers.’ My wife Mariah, who runs the non-profit part of our company Beer & Benevolence, is working with DRA and we hope to have the fund set up this coming week.”

And if you’re worried the hand sanitizer initiative means less 60 Minute IPA or Sam ‘76 at your local grocery store, don’t fret. The good stuff hasn’t stopped flowing. “Beside Dogfish here in coastal Delaware we also have facilities in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and a small one in Boston and all four of them are still open,” assures Calagione. “Thankfully beer is considered essential production for American populace. We were proud to learn that.”

Making lemonade 

Since its inception in the late 1970s, the American craft brewing industry has subsisted on a diet of resourcefulness, boundless imagination, and willful collaboration. Those qualities lie at the very core of the craft ethos, continuing to fuel the fight against macro mediocrity even as small batch brewing becomes commonplace. And those are the same qualities needed to cast a bit of sunshine onto a situation as dark and gloomy as this one.

“We're enjoying thinking through some new beer projects. Like what keeps well, you know? We're going to need more lagers. Yesterday Joe was talking about making a Grimm light beer and selling it in six-packs,” says Grimm. “In general, it just feels like this moment of idea formation. It's a huge shift, not only in the global economic reality and social reality, but also in our company and our industry and our city. We're just like, ‘Yeah, let's figure this out!’ It's kind of like going camping.”

“Whether you're a brewery or a journalist or a hairstylist, we’re all in the same place so we have no choice but to get through it together,” adds Fort Myers Brewing’s Gratz-Whyte. “I'm obviously nervous, but I am optimistic. I think our industry is going to suffer greatly but we’re a bunch of creative people who believe in community and we're going to help each other out. It's going to be rocky for a little bit but we're resilient.”

The future is, of course, unknown, but if there’s one consumer category fit to weather this gloomy storm, my money’s on craft beer.

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Meredith Heil is a Thrillist contributor.