Fremont Brewing Urban Beer Garden

Local breweries and beer businesses adapt, find ways to meet COVID-19 challenges

 

This is the first in a series of stories about how breweries and other beer-related businesses are adapting to meet the challenges of the current COVID-impacted business environment. We have no idea how long any of this will be relevant, by the time you read this the landscape may have changed, making all of this moot. But that’s what the last couple weeks have been like.  

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Pivot, Pirouette, Adapt

In the face of a massively uprooted business landscape, some of our local breweries and other beer-focused businesses have adapted quickly and brilliantly, continuing to find a retail outlet for the beer they’re accustomed to selling across the bar in pint glasses. Many such businesses are offering growler and crowler fills, canned and bottled products, online ordering, curbside pick up, and even beer delivery. (Photo above from Fremont Brewing’s Facebook page.)

Dozens upon dozens of local breweries and beer-focused businesses are working through this (see our list) and I cannot possibly tell you about all of them here. I’ve talked to some people in the industry about how they are pivoting to meet the challenges presented by the shutdown and I’ve learned that there’s no single recipe or strategy. Everyone I spoke with is following CDC guidelines and is aware of the importance of safe practices.

Some Basics

  • Some retailers will only sell you the beer in a brand new, unused growler. This is not profiteering. Don’t be ridiculous. It’s for health and safety. Breweries do not mark up the price of a glass jug enough to make it worth pissing you off.
  • Most breweries, pubs, and bottleshops are quite active on Facebook and other social media channels right now. Check in to make sure you understand what’s going on. We are doing the best we can to keep our list up to date.
  • Most retailers have gone to a “no-cash” model. Cards only. Money is dirty. Order online when you can. Use Apple Pay or tap-to-pay where available.
  • Some breweries and beer retailers are offering delivery. Others are looking at it. Subsequently, we will do a separate post to address the issue of delivering beer directly to customers.

Not a Pivot. A Pirouette

So how are those efforts to pivot and adapt working out? When I asked Janet Lightner, the General Manager at Boundary Bay Brewery in Bellingham, she said, “Pivot? It’s more like a pirouette.”

Drive up beer and food at Boundary Bay Brewery and Bistro.
Drive-up beer and food at Boundary Bay Brewery and Bistro. (Photo from Boundary Bay Brewery)

The company has offered food and beer to go, as well as delivery service, for some time, but these days those methods are the only way it can sell anything. Last Friday Boundary Bay Brewery and Bistro tried something entirely new: it opened a drive-thru operation in the alley behind the brewery. Customers could get beer, as well as fish-n-chips, without leaving their cars. Beyond thirst and hunger, the community was driven to show its support for the beloved brewery.

“We’ve been overwhelmed and humbled by how much the community wants to support us,” said Janet in a phone interview. As far as the business sense or financial viability of this dramatic change is concerned, she says, “When we stop spinning, I’ll take a deep breath and look at the numbers.”

Not business as usual.
Not business as usual. (Photo from Boundary Bay Brewery.)

Marley Rall, the owner of Brewmaster’s Taproom in Renton is also adapting to the situation. Her business, a taproom and bottleshop, suddenly became a to-go-only operation, selling growlers and packaged beer. For the business, which has always relied heavily on across-the-bar pint sales, there’s been a learning curve.

“One thing we’ve noticed is that we need to look at our hours of operation,” she said, noting that the dynamic nature of the situation is keeping her on her toes. “We thought we had it covered, that everyone was working from home and could come in to pick up beer in the afternoon, but we’ve learned that some of our regular customers are considered essential and can’t stop by until they’re off work.”

These businesses are facing drastic changes, it’s not business as usual and it presents a different kind of revenue stream, but I’ve yet to talk to anyone who seems too concerned about anything but keeping the beer flowing. Right now, businesses like Boundary Bay Brewery and Brewmasters Taproom are satisfied that money is coming in at all. It’s better than the alternative.

Safety First

Of course, public health is a consideration in all of this and businesses are looking to not only sell beer, but also to do it responsibly and in a manner that protects the health of customers, employees, and our human community. That means making it quick and safe for people to pick up the beer, with as little contact and as much distancing as possible.

To-go beer station at Bad Jimmy's Brewing in Seattle. (From Facebook.)
The new, temporary to-go beer station at Bad Jimmy’s Brewing in Seattle. (From Facebook.)

In West Seattle, Beveridge Place Pub is open for growler sales, as well as sales of bottles from its extensive and oft-eclectic bottle list. They’re also selling crowlers of beers delivered to the pub by local breweries. I stopped in the other day to quickly grab some beer and found that things had been rearranged a little bit, and cleaned to extremes. I mean, seriously, it was operating-room clean. Furniture had been moved to create plenty of space for distancing.

I asked the owner of Beveridge Place Pub, Gary Sink, if it was making business sense for him to stay open like this. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “It’s something.” He pointed at the two beertenders and said, “We’re here.”

The super-clean bartop at Beveridge Place Pub (from Facebook).
The super-clean bartop at Beveridge Place Pub (from Facebook).

Another change, they’re offering any of the beers on tap in growler fills, including things like big, wood-aged beers and even barleywine (prices vary). A growler of barleywine? Now that’ll put you right. As soon as the shutdown was announced, Gary also updated the pub’s website to include the opportunity for customers to buy gift certificates online. They are not selling beer that way yet, but suddenly it’s a consideration.

When it comes to online sales, Stoup Brewing in Seattle went from zero to 60 in an instant. The brewery had been selling beer to go but once the shutdown was announced, Stoup upped the game with the addition of an online store. Purchase the beer online then stop by the brewery to pick it up. The garage door is open and there’s a new, temporary sales station set up so you don’t need to enter the business. If you paid online, you don’t even need to swipe a card, just flash your ID, grab your beer and go. (See our list to find other breweries taking online orders.)

The beer station at Stoup Brewing. (From Facebook.)
The beer station at Stoup Brewing. (From Facebook.)

Down the street at Reuben’s Brews, it was a bit different. “We’d been using our online store for special releases, allowing people to order those rare beers online instead of lining up at the taproom on release day,” says Adam Robbings, brewmaster and co-owner at Reuben’s Brews. “All we had to do was add our other packaged product to the system.”

Beer pick up station at Reuben's Brews.
Beer pick up station at Reuben’s Brews.

Unlike many breweries, Adam says they’d announced that the taproom was changing to a to-go only model before the shutdown was announced. Out in front of the taproom, on 14th Avenue in Ballard, the brewery set up a to-go beer station where people can maintain safe distancing and quickly grab their beer, whether they ordered it online or not.

Photo from Facebook.
Photo from Facebook.

So are the to-go orders at Stoup Brewing and Reuben’s Brews matching the velocity at which the breweries were selling beer when the taprooms were fully open? That doesn’t seem to be much of a concern right now as breweries like these across the state are focussed entirely on moving what product they can.

And speaking of cans, the spike in to-go beer orders has created something of a kink in crowler supply chain. Crowlers are the 32-ounce, fill-from-the-tap aluminum cans that have gained popularity in recent years. The empty cans, which are typically filled at the time of sale, are suddenly in short supply. It is likely that this is not a permanent situation and is more like a glitch in the supply chain that will likely get remedied quickly. Let’s hope so, anyway.

The crew at Cloudburst Brewing pre-filling crowlers to speed thing up for customers to move along. From Facebook.
The crew at Cloudburst Brewing pre-filling crowlers to speed things up so customers can move along. From Facebook.

Again, regarding the issue of public health, at least one local brewery recently made the tough decision to close down and stop offering to-go sales. Dru Bru, which is located at Snoqualmie Pass, issued the following statement:

“It’s no secret. We love the mountains and we love our mountain community. Unfortunately, over this past week we have seen way too many people flocking to the mountains for recreation which is putting our small community here at Snoqualmie Pass at risk. In response to this, we’ve decided to make the difficult decision to stop to-go beer service until further notice. We will continue to make every effort to get our products on-to retail shelves and keep our beer finder up-to-date (drubru.com/beer). The sooner we get serious about isolating, the sooner we will get through this.”

Chalk it up to leading by example.

Agility and Diversity

The ability to adapt to meet the demands of a changing business environment is an important trait for any company, but as of this particular moment in time, it seems essential in the beer business. Something that many beer drinkers probably have not considered, there is virtually no market for kegged beer. With restaurants and bars closed down, there’s virtually no market for draft beer. It follows that beer distributors have stopped taking delivery of kegs from breweries.

Not every brewery enjoys the benefits of diverse sales channels. For breweries that do not package beer in cans and bottles, the situation right now is particularly dire. While draft beer sales at brewery taprooms, pubs, and restaurants have stalled completely, grocery store beer sales have increased during the shutdown. One industry insider told me that since the shutdown, and throughout the COVID-19 scare, beer sales across the grocery store segment have been up by 20 percent.

What happens next, we do not know. For now, support your local brewery in any way that is safe and possible.