This article was supposed to be about gathering in large groups.
Less than a month ago, I had planned to dedicate this craft beer column to a preview of White Lion Brewing Company’s new taproom and facility in downtown Springfield, which is currently under construction at Tower Square. In late February I met up with White Lion president Ray Berry and brewer Mike Yates, and they walked me through the sizable ground-floor space.
Since its launch in 2014, White Lion has contract-brewed its beers in Ipswich and Williamsburg. But for years, the company has been planning to build out a brewery and taproom in Springfield. Much like the new Vanished Valley Brewing Company taproom in Ludlow, which I covered here in February, the Tower Square site is planned as something special: a place of one’s own, where the means of production hums along just a few feet from a bar full of curious customers.
At that time, White Lion had planned to open the taproom in May. But by the end of March, I had circled this story on my wall calendar and written POSTPONED next to it, along with virtually every other social and in-person professional commitment I had made for the month. In the time of the coronavirus, every day feels like a week, and the future feels profoundly uncertain.
When I caught up with Berry a few days ago, he shared that uncertainty. “One day at a time,” were the first words he offered. “That’s all we can do.”
Construction on the new White Lion site continues, but not at the aggressive pace of a few weeks ago. Yates was recently on-site doing some plumbing work, Berry says, “but you’re not seeing eight or nine employees in there anymore; it’s one or two.”
Because of the economic downturn and the evaporation of on-premise beer sales — which makes up 38 percent of White Lion’s portfolio — the company has laid off two of its seven full-time employees, and moved the remaining five employees to part-time. The brewery now delivers its beer to stores two or three times per week instead of five, and sales reps are communicating by phone and email rather than visiting their accounts in-person.
Berry says that the original plan for a May taproom opening is “probably out the window.” The length of the delay will depend not only on supply chain and labor disruptions but on how state and federal officials roll out their recommendations on social distancing.
“In my last conversation with the general contractor, they were still somewhat optimistic that they’ll have the majority of the construction done by May,” says Berry. “But realistically, there’s no rush on my end. No one wants to have a brand new facility open when there are restrictions in place about coming in to enjoy it.”
Across the craft beer market, this new reality is sinking in. According to a mid-March survey conducted by the not-for-profit Brewers Association — to which nearly 1,000 American breweries responded — 99 percent of the country’s craft breweries has been substantially impacted by the spread of the coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19.
Roughly 60 percent of U.S. breweries have slowed their brewing schedule, and 28 percent have temporarily stopped production. About 61 percent anticipate layoffs.
“The numbers aren’t pretty,” writes Bart Watson, the association’s staff economist. “Because so many breweries sell a high percentage of their beer through their taproom or brewpub, and draught sales make up roughly a third of craft production, the rapid shuttering or restriction of breweries, bars, and restaurants has drastically cut short-term cash flow as well as production in the medium-term.”
Watson also points out that the cancellation of live events at breweries creates an additional pain point for these businesses. Although concerts, private parties, craft and trivia nights, and other space rentals have commonly helped to smooth over periods of slow beer sales, the closing of that revenue stream has compounded the problem.
The result: 95 percent of respondents project their year-over-year beer sales to decrease in April. Roughly 60 percent have slowed their brewing schedule, and 28 percent have hit the stop button completely on production. About 61 percent of respondents anticipate layoffs, and another 28 percent are unsure of the staffing decisions they will have to make.
This is not, of course, just an American problem. German independent brewers say they’re losing up to 90 percent of sales across Berlin. In late March, Australian brewers warned that extensive shutdowns would deplete the country’s supply of beer within a few weeks. Ireland’s craft breweries, which rely heavily on a thriving pub scene, are similarly struggling with a catastrophic drop in demand as borders and bars have closed. And Czechia, which has some of the highest beer consumption per capita in the world, is trying to figure out how to distribute nearly 2 million liters of unsold beer before it spoils.
Nor is this just a small business crisis. Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewer, is forecasting its worst quarter in a decade due to the coronavirus (and is now shifting a chunk of its efforts to the production and charitable distribution of bottles of hand sanitizer). Many distilleries small and large, including Bacardi, are now focusing on making ethanol and alcohol-based disinfectants.
Even craft breweries of a certain size can add systemic support. Samuel Adams launched its Restaurant Strong Fund on March 18, in partnership with the Greg Hill Foundation, to support restaurant workers. In its first week, the Fund had raised nearly $500,000 in individual donations, all of which has now been distributed. Sam Adams will look to expand the fund’s reach over the coming weeks to support restaurant workers in 19 additional states.
Closer to home, Valley brewers and brewery owners have needed to quickly find ways to adapt their plans to a sea change in the economy and strict state measures that discourage in-person sales and gathering in groups — not to mention bottlenecks in the supply chain (the 32-ounce aluminum cans called crowlers, for example, are largely on back-order).
The local beer CSA Stoneman Brewery, which owner Justin Korby has been hoping to move off his Colrain property and into a larger space at the Warfield House Inn in Charlemont this spring, launched its online fundraising campaign on March 11. Hours later, stocks plunged. The Dow Jones Industrial Average ended that day in a bear market.
Korby pivoted quickly. Over the next two months, Stoneman will focus on fundraising for a side project that Korby developed and designed this winter: a portable trailer that can be towed and set up quickly as a pop-up bar, for flexible use at beer gardens and festivals. Stoneman also continues to contract-brew locally, which means Korby’s beers are still available at grocery and package stores.
“As long as I’m open to the public and selling beer somewhere, I’ll be able to keep my business alive,” Korby told the Greenfield Recorder in late March. He pointed to the motto printed on the back of his cans of Warfield Dream IPA: “Victory is surviving long enough to tell one’s tale.”
Many local breweries have converted their on-premise sales into a system of pre-order and curbside pickup. When a family member of mine was craving some In Absentia, an IPA produced by Brick and Feather Brewery in Turners Falls, he was pleased to discover that the company had quickly made this transition.
He reserved several four-packs of canned beer, paid online, then picked up his order that afternoon, making minimal contact with the staffer seated behind a table in the brewery’s entryway. Craft beer fans who want to support small businesses (and, really, who doesn’t?) can find similar updates on local breweries’ social media accounts, which seem to be more active than ever.
“Talking to brewers, I’ve seen that it’s such a resilient, creative, awesome group of people. If anybody can shift gears quickly and come up with a cool solution to a complex problem, it’s the beer business.” — Chris Sellers, The People’s Pint Brewery
Craft beer also survives thanks to its symbiosis with bars and restaurants, virtually all of which are hurting. Governor Baker introduced a bill in late March that would allow for restaurants with current liquor licenses to sell closed containers of beer and wine alongside meals ordered for takeout and delivery — a measure that several states, including Connecticut and New Hampshire, have already adopted. The Massachusetts House and Senate passed the bill last Monday.
But for many bars and restaurants, that won’t be enough to ward off the possibility of permanent closure. Although two trillion dollars of federal stimulus money will help small and independent breweries with loans and forgiveness programs, the hard fact remains that roughly 55 percent of American craft beer is sold either on draft or at the brewery itself. For now, that majority slice of profits is gone.
The People’s Pint in Greenfield has been closed since mid-March. Although the People’s Pint Brewery continues to produce canned beer, the restaurant’s indefinite hiatus — and the resulting layoffs in the bar and front-of-house staff — have left a deep mark, says brewery manager and head brewer Chris Sellers.
“There’s no way to gloss over the difficulty that we’re feeling,” he says, adding that the Pint’s on-premise sales have always comprised the bulk of its profits. “It’s really hard to say to our family of employees: we don’t know where this is going to go.”
The brewery is currently operating on a skeleton crew and setting strategies week-by-week. “Fortunately, package stores remain open,” says Sellers, “and it’s exciting to see that people are still buying our beers wholesale. It’s a small but significant percentage of our revenue, so we don’t have to put a full stop to everything.”
The Pint is seeing an “outpouring of encouragement” online, Sellers says, which helps his crew move forward. “Craft breweries have never worked on a one-size-fits-all model,” he says. “Even before this happened, I’ve seen so many different versions of successful business plans for breweries. But this will definitely shift a growing industry. Business plans and outlooks have to evolve.”
At Amherst Brewing, the majority of sales have typically come from draft pours at the brewery and its several Hangar Pub and Grill locations around the Valley, says head brewer Caleb Hiliadis. “Now, we’re adjusting to a package model,” he says. “Pretty much everything is going into cans, and we have as much of it going to package stores as possible. That’s been a big shift for us. I feel for every restaurant right now.”
Amherst Brewing also now offers delivery of cans with food orders. Cans are also available for curbside pick-up, takeout, and delivery at every Hangar restaurant.
Brewing, by nature, requires weeks of advance planning. “We want our beer to be fresh all the time,” says Hiliadis. “But is our distributor going to take it next week? You can’t be sure. And a lot of package stores are just trying to run through their inventory, which means they aren’t buying a lot in. Everything is fragile.”
As a result, Hiliadis is doing his best to play it a bit safe. “We have a new experimental hoppy beer out,” he says, “but we’re not introducing a lot of new beers at the moment. We’re just trying to make a good product that people can enjoy in trying times. And when we re-open, I’d prefer to start with a little less beer than normal, rather than make too much and just be sitting on it.”
“It’s tough to have to switch lanes all of a sudden,” he adds. “But in craft beer, everyone always tries to stay nimble. It’s not like you can predict everything. But our industry changes all the time. So, we’ve always had to think: what if? That’s the reality for everyone now.”
This is why Sellers at the People’s Pint is encouraging people to locate the brewery nearest to home, and go buy their beer.
“A lot of breweries really rely on their taproom business, and I worry that if we’re not supportive now, some will struggle to survive after this,” he says. “We want this community to come out of this strong. And maybe people can step outside the box a little bit and try something new from a brewery that they haven’t had before.”
“We’re a strong micro-economy in the state, and we’re able to be fairly flexible,” he adds. “That’s what keeps me confident about the Massachusetts beer industry. In all my travels, talking to brewers, I’ve seen that it’s such a resilient, creative, awesome group of people. If anybody can shift gears quickly and come up with a cool solution to a complex problem, it’s the beer business.”
The Beerhunter appears monthly. Contact Hunter Styles at [email protected]