The craft beer community is reeling as concerns and restrictions surrounding the coronavirus pandemic have grown. Businesses feel the acute pinch of forced closures, and the more than 8,000 breweries in the country—some born from the ashes of the 2008 financial crisis—are now struggling to adapt.
In states where it’s permitted, such as Florida and Ohio, breweries have launched to-go sales and pre-order capabilities with curbside pickup. Others are delivering directly to their consumers during the pandemic.
“When our bars and restaurants were told to cease pouring beers, our customers asked, ‘How can we support you?’” says Tomme Arthur, cofounder of The Lost Abbey in San Marcos, CA. “In looking for solutions, it became obvious that we had to take the beer to them.
“Is this easy? The answer is things worth doing rarely are. Is there anything better than having the owner of a company you love knock on the door with cold fresh beer? I think not,” says Arthur.
Breweries like Rockwell Beer Co. in Missouri and others are adapting to evolving circumstances by changing what they brew. Rather than making styles with quick turnaround times in fermenters like India pale ales, brewers can begin mashing in lagers or imperial stouts that require weeks or more in tanks or barrels. This means breweries can continue to operate and be ready to serve their communities when the restrictions lift.
This is especially pertinent in states like New York, where breweries have been deemed “essential” businesses and can keep on a skeleton crew. But in states where breweries do not have that designation, the work must begin now to empty any tanks of existing beer, and to properly close draft lines and other essential systems.
Larger breweries with big distribution networks are better positioned for ongoing sales because of their volume and ability to stock store shelves. Off-premise accounts like liquor stores and groceries are reporting near-record alcohol sales numbers.
Larry Bell, founder of Michigan’s Bell’s Brewery, notes how consumers are stocking up on familiar favorites to help pass the time. This led Bell’s to release Oberon Ale, its summer wheat ale, early. The beer usually debuts at Bell’s annual Oberon Day festivities, which will be held virtually this year.
“Is this easy? The answer is things worth doing rarely are.” Tomme Arthur, cofounder, The Lost Abbey
Other breweries will try to maintain a sense of connection and support for their communities by turning to the internet and social media.
Breweries that have had to lay off staff, especially those whose once-bustling taprooms went dark in the last week, have established virtual tip jars on their websites.
In Buffalo, various musicians set up inside the empty Community Beer Works taproom and livestreamed performances several nights last week.
“We know just how hard the epidemic is impacting our musicians [as] many of them entirely depend on bars as venues for making their living,” says Ethan Cox, cofounder and president of Community Beer Works.
Big beer festivals, like Cigar City Brewing’s Hunahpu’s Day in Tampa, have been canceled, while others, like Funk Fest, held by Yazoo Brewing Company in Nashville, have been postponed. In the meantime, brewers are debuting virtual gatherings.
In Iowa, the state brewer’s guild announced a “Socially Distant Beer Festival” for the afternoon of March 28. Attendees will be encouraged to buy local beer or merchandise from breweries in advance to help support those businesses, and then log on to drink with other beer enthusiasts.
“With forced closure of bars, restaurants, and brewery taprooms, our staff are losing jobs left and right,” says J. Wilson, the executive director of the Iowa Brewers Guild. “Few of them have any kind of safety net. We wanted to do something that could benefit them, and a beer fest seemed a great idea.
“One of beer’s great qualities is its ability to bring people together,” he says. “In the current crisis, that’s understandably off-limits, so we conceived our best alternative.”
As the beer industry stares down this crisis, what remains certain is that the ingenuity and creativity of the brewing community will be the very thing that helps it to survive.