• Michael Field

Off Air: Brewing in a Time of COVID


For some added insight before reading the conversation, check out this article: Brewery Sales Dropping Sharply.

Mike

2020 has been a tough year for so many businesses due to the effects of COVID-19, but one of the hardest hit are those in the service industry, local breweries in particular. Many did not survive the initial quarantine and even after phased re-openings began, there are still some craft breweries that may not survive a pandemic that has seemingly no end in sight. During the height of the quarantine in April, breweries reported to the Brewers Association that sales dropped a median of 70% and an average of 65%. Now that many have reopened their doors to some extent (limited seating or to-go options), I’m sure that number has gone down somewhat, but during this time many taprooms have closed up shop for good and many more still teeter on the verge of shutting down.


Elyse, as our resident “beerfessor” (patent pending) how do you see breweries rising to the occasion to survive or even thrive within these strange times? Do you see attendance getting back to their 2010s glory days any time soon (say, when a vaccine is developed) or do you think this is the new normal for the foreseeable future?


Elyse

Drinking beer is an inherently social activity for a lot of people, so this pandemic posed a huge potential threat to the craft beer industry, especially considering there are always new breweries opening up and trying to break into the scene. I know these are major buzzwords, but I think a lot of craft breweries (at least in our area) have absolutely risen to the challenge of working through this pandemic by adapting and pivoting in the ways that they engage their customers.


Breweries are more active on social media, not just creating posts but being more interactive as well. While everything was still closed earlier this year, we saw a lot of live virtual events (trivia, musicians) and even tastings intended to keep people interested in what was going on at their favorite local brewery. A lot of breweries around here also began offering pickup and delivery services to keep up with demand, which I’m sure didn’t make up the margins compared to pouring drafts in a taproom, but it’s something. I’ll be curious to see if those services will continue once the pandemic is over as well. Do I think things will ever get back to normal as far as brewery attendance goes? I don’t see how it couldn’t -- as I mentioned before, drinking beer is such a deeply rooted way of socializing and we already see people going back to breweries as safely as possible … I think when things truly open back up, breweries will have a hard time accommodating the people that are thirsty (pun intended) for human interaction, and that’s a good thing.


Mike

Well that’s good to hear. I’ve been wondering for a little bit if some kind of brewerycquelling like we’re seeing now was going to take place sooner rather than later anyway simply due to the sheer deluge of breweries that were popping up (and even in the pandemic still are in some places), like our new local brewpub, Dockside (shameless episode plug). Maybe this has just sped up the closings of those that would have been swallowed by the more successful breweries as well. Do you agree?


I am also surprised that we are not seeing more breweries try to combine forces; not just in single beer collaborations (of which there are many), but in full on “collectives” as I’ve seen them called elsewhere. Share in the cost, develop only your most popular types, and enjoy the combined knowledge and skill of your crew. The beer would have the collective’s name, but also the individual brewery, much like video game studios today (shameless 2pB plug).


Is there anything different or a unique idea you might have that you haven’t seen implemented yet that might help breweries increases their sales and growth or social media presence? Especially as it gets colder and their patios and outdoor seating areas start to close.

Elyse

I completely agree about your “collective” observation -- the craft brew industry

seems to thrive on teamwork, so it’s surprising that we haven’t seen more of them join forces. But we have seen a lot of collaborative efforts, like the “All Together” (another shameless episode plug) and “Black is Beautiful” recipes that were provided to breweries to start a new beer and then add their own unique take on it. Just by participating, it must have driven sales up and improved marketing quite a bit, I would imagine.


I think we also saw breweries start branching out beyond their comfort zones by creating different types of beer they hadn’t made before, getting in on the hard seltzer trend, and so on, in order to appeal to a wider audience of drinkers. I don’t really have any unique ideas that I haven’t seen the professionals try though; most of them seem to be doing pretty well considering the circumstances. As you said, though, these efforts may be thwarted once the cold weather hits and so many breweries that have just been able to open up to the public will once again have extremely limited space for customers if they cannot accommodate outside seating anymore. That would be my main concern in the coming weeks and months, especially if we see another uptick in COVID cases. Keep wearing your masks, everyone!!


Mike

Great observations. I think the craft beer industry’s commitment to innovation and their collaborative and inviting spirit are all things that will help many of them continue and thrive in this environment. They will lift each other up when possible and work together to ensure that the craft beer industry can stay strong during this uncertain time. So toss out that Bud Light, dump that Corona and go support your local brewery. Even if you aren’t a fan of “trendy” Sours and IPAs, you’re sure to find lagers, pilsners, stouts, and cervezas that will put many of those corporate beers to shame and put your money toward helping your friends and neighbors and keep a community staple alive and well for when we can all come together again and share a pint or two.


Cheers!

Mike Butler and Elyse Riekert co-host a weekly podcast, Crackin' One Open, where they talk about brew, news and pop culture reviews. They'll dive into a craft beer, from how it was made to the history behind the brewery. New episode every Friday.

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