More than two months following the coronavirus-related shutdowns that shook Washington state’s beer world, businesses are starting to reopen, county by county, operating within the state-mandated guidelines. It’s part of the much-discussed Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan and it includes brewery taprooms, brewpubs, taverns, bars, and restaurants. We’ve all talked about the guidelines at length: operate at no more than 50 percent occupancy, enforce social distancing, no bar seating, limit group size to five people, and so on.
According to a report in the Seattle Times, Memorial Day weekend was the busiest weekend ever at Backwoods Brewing Company. Some people trekked to Carson, Washington from as far away as Portland to visit the brewery. After that 60-mile drive, there was a 60-minute wait for a table. Regardless of the 50 percent capacity rule, the brewery set records.
Skamania County, located along Washington’s southern border, was one of the first counties in the region to reopen for business so I suppose Backwoods Brewing should have expected to get swamped. The list of other breweries that have now reopened, or have announced that they’ve been cleared to open, includes Dick’s Brewing, No-Li Brewhouse, Whipsaw Brewing, Riverport Brewing, Burwood Brewing, Republic Brewing, and others.
By all accounts, the breweries that have opened are all seeing substantial crowds, if crowds is a word that applies in a COVID-impacted world. It proves that a lot of craft beer enthusiasts are missing their regular visits to brewery taprooms. If you long to slurp down pints with your neighbors and fellow beer lovers, the urge to rush back into the taproom and experience something that resembles normal is real and irresistible; however, if you are the owner of a brewery and taproom, you might look at the situation a bit differently.
A lot of breweries are chomping at the bit, adopting a just do it and see what happens approach. Others are looking at reopening with a more cautious, considerate eye. As unexpected as it may sound to consumers, some breweries have made the decision not to open during Phase 2 at all. “Though Thurston County is now in Phase 2, we’ve made the decision to remain to-go only at this time,” said a statement from Headless Mumby Brewing in Olympia. “Our taproom is very small and operating at 50 percent capacity would be challenging for a number of reasons.” They’ll reevaluate as time goes on.
So What’s the Plan?
At Fremont Brewing, which is probably the busiest brewery taproom in Seattle, there’s been no shortage of planning and work to get the Urban Beer Garden prepared. “We miss sharing a beer with friends, petting all the dogs, and basking in the Urban Beer Garden’s community vibe,” says Matt Lincecum, founder of Fremont Brewing.
“We’ve been planning how to safely re-open ever since Governor Inslee announced Washington’s phased reopening. We made lots of physical changes to the Urban Beer Garden to ensure social distancing, such as installing booths that can fit up to five people, converting the bathrooms to be 100 percent hands-free, along with buying a ton of hand sanitizer and face masks.”
“We’re fortunate to have so much outdoor space and we’ve arranged it to minimize contact with guests from different parties and will have a host to seat everyone,” says Lincecum. “Our Urban Beer Garden team has done a stellar job adapting to the COVID challenges, keeping everything super sanitary and clean, and they will continue to be creative in adapting along each phase of re-opening.”
No doubt, a lot of people will flock to Fremont Brewing’s Urban Beer Garden a soon as it reopens, looking to reach out and reconnect with the familiar, but what if the public is not so well acquainted with your brewery? I recently stopped in at The Good Society Brewery and Public House in West Seattle to grab some to-go beers from a safe social distance. The brewery opened in February, just one month before the shutdown. Although they were immediately embraced by the neighborhood, they’d barely gotten up on their feet when the rug was pulled out from underneath them.
According to a masked-up Nick Berger, one of the owners, “We’ve got things pretty much set up for it already,” noting that they’ve removed tables, taped off spaces, installed hand sanitizer stations, and are working on setting up a new patio-seating area out front.
Berger says that because of the type of liquor license used to operate their particular taproom, selling pints of beer is not the only consideration: the rules for their types of liquor license require them to serve food. “We have some questions about our kitchen, which we barely got up and running when we first opened, but we’re talking to the LCB [Liquor and Cannabis Board] and working that out.”
On the other side of Seattle, in Ballard, where taproom business is usually booming at more than a dozen breweries, especially this time of year, the urge to swing open the doors and quench the thirst of the eager masses must be strong, but at one of the neighborhood’s most popular breweries, careful consideration tempers the impatience.
“How to safely reopen in Phase 2 is very much on our minds,” says Lara Zahaba, one of the owners of Stoup Brewing. “While we do anticipate reopening to some degree during Phase 2, it won’t necessarily be the moment Governor Inslee gives us the go-ahead. We are currently working on taproom set up and safety procedures and will open when we feel confident that all new systems are in place to provide the safest possible environment for our staff and customers.”
Reuben’s Brews, which operates two taprooms in Ballard, is also giving the reopening a lot of thought and consideration. The company recently conducted an online survey of customers to gain an understanding of how people want, and expect, the taproom reopenings to look. Perhaps the most important takeaway from that survey, people are most concerned with the actions of other people, with 78 percent of respondents saying that they are concerned about the behavior of other guests.
One concern I’ve heard voiced by fellow beer drinkers, survey respondents, and brewery owners involves enforcement. Not so much enforcement, really, as expectations. The guidelines tell consumers what to expect, but those guidelines are meaningless if they go unenforced. There are some tricky regulations to navigate, everyone on both sides of the bar wants to remain healthy, and people want to know that they can rely on taproom operators to enforce the rules.
Stoup Brewing recognizes this. “We are also working closely with all of the Ballard breweries to establish consistent policies and expectations across the neighborhood,” says Zahaba. “Our hope is that consistent enforcement of the same rules across the district will help brewery visitors know and abide by those rules.”
A Partnership with Patrons
Spokane County was among the first to get the green light for Phase 2. John Bryant, owner at No-Li Brewhouse in Spokane, says the first weekend was a success in part because of the attitude of his customers.
“We researched and prepared a written Covid-19 Safety Plan that we implemented, educated, and trained with staff,” says Bryant. “All customers are aware of the importance of social distancing and appreciate the attention to detail. Customers and No-Li staff are honoring responsible behavior and are happy to be enjoying a pint of beer. We wish all the best in these difficult times and appreciate the support of our communities.”
I don’t think anyone is expecting life to return to normal during Phase 2 of the reopenings. You’ll be able to sit down and enjoy a beer at a brewery’s taproom, and that may feel vaguely normal, but it will be a different kind of experience. Will it be the new normal or will it just be the normal-for-now? Will we enjoy it as much as we enjoyed visiting brewery taprooms before the world got flipped on its head? Only time will tell.
A Glimpse at Stoup Brewing’s Approach
Just to give you an example of the kind of consideration, thought, and effort that breweries are putting into reopening, Stoup Brewing provided a list of how they’ll do things. No doubt, there may be more changes as time goes on, but for the initial reopening, here’s what you can expect to see at Stoup Brewing.
- Staff temperatures will be checked daily and logged
- Staff will wear masks and gloves will be provided
- A single beer tender will work each bar to maintain social distancing between staff
- The main taproom will not be open for seating. A beer to go station will remain upfront at the garage door so that people that don’t wish to stay can still safely purchase beer without entering the space.
- We will have a single point of entry/exit with a person posted to track the number of people in the space
- A line for draft pints will be spaced at 6′ intervals and customers will be directed to the beer garden or upstairs where tables will be appropriately spaced and marked with acceptable seating configurations.
- We are installing plexiglass separations at all ordering points
- We will be asking customers to wear masks when not seated at their tables (when ordering beer, using the restroom, entering/exiting)
- At traditionally busier times we will also staff our beer garden and upstairs bars to minimize the line in the taproom.
- When upstairs is open, all doors and windows will be propped open for maximum airflow
- We are extending the space in front of the brewery with barriers to provide as much outdoor and distance seating as possible.
- We are asking customers to bus their own tables to minimize our contact with dirty glassware. Signage will be posted at bussing stations to show how empty glasses should be placed upside down in racks so our staff can simply remove the rack and put it in the dishwasher.
- Our stairwells will be one way (up to the restrooms on the east side and down to return to the beer garden or exit on the west side)
- We will have clear signage explaining that children do apply toward the number of people allowed to sit together (5 or fewer) and that children and dogs must be seated at tables with their parents at all times
- Water stations will be removed and water will be available by request at the bar
- We will not be accommodating tastes before purchase to minimize unnecessary contact with glassware