Nov 28, 2020
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The country's expanding craft beer industry runs the risk of going flat with brewpubs and microbreweries facing a winter of siphoned sales, spurred by expected shutdowns to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
Among the more than 8,300 independent breweries in the U.S., the vast majority of them – about 6,000 – are small-producing microbreweries and brewpubs, which thrive off of their on-premise beer sales. Beer sales on location have plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic.
To raise awareness about local independent beer makers' plight, the Brewers Association, the trade group representing breweries, on Nov. 29 is promoting Small Brewery Sunday – slotted between Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday.
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Frank Kuhns, co-owner of Settle Down Easy Brewery Co., in Falls Church, Virginia, will be observing Small Brewery Sunday.
Some breweries will have special beers on tap and for sale, at curbside or delivered in some cases. Others will have special offers including discounted gift cards. (Find local breweries on the Small Brewery Sunday site.)
"These are extremely desperate times," said Justin Cox, founder and CEO of Atlas Brew Works in Washington, D.C. "We hope people will go to local breweries and patronize them so they will be in existence when we come out of this thing."
Breweries have typically seen sales fall about 22% in the July-September quarter, a recent Brewers Association survey found. Roughly two-thirds of those sales were to customers who could drink outdoors, suggesting that the cooler months may lead to even bigger sales declines.
Another finding: Nearly one-fourth of breweries (22%) are not confident they will still be in operation this time next year. With many regions increasing restrictions and cold weather muzzling outdoor consumption, smaller breweries face "an existential threat," said Bob Pease, president of the Brewers Association.
"It's very important we get the word out about the challenges these breweries are facing and remind consumers these businesses are part of the local economic fabric, they hire and employ your friends and your neighbors," Pease said. "They have been local gathering points and they are often heavily involved in involved philanthropic efforts in the community."
Turning to curbside sales
Like many smaller breweries, Atlas Brew Works relies on taproom sales for about 70% of its revenue, which "dried up immediately" when businesses were forced to close, Cox said.
The brewery began making sales available curbside within days of required shutdowns at the pandemic's outset. Even though customers can come to the taproom, recently, Atlas Brew Works began shipping to homes in Virginia and Pennsylvania, with plans to begin shipping to Ohio soon, he says. "You have got to figure out as many ways to make things happen as you can just out of survival necessity," Cox said.
Free State Brewing Co., in Lawrence, Kansas, began offering special beers for delivery only and selling take-home meals – some simply needing reheating, while others had ingredients you combined to cook the meal.
When customers do come in person, the staff tries to create a welcoming but rules-following atmosphere, says general manager Dominic Sova. "Yes, I tell people to put their mask on frequently. If they get up to go to the bathroom and forget to put their mask on, they feel healthy and safe to the degree that for a moment they have forgotten about everything else going on in the world," he said. "I tell the staff that means you have done a good job."
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Limited crowd sizes has slowed the growth at two-year-old Settle Down Easy Brewing Co., in Falls Church, Virginia. "One thing is your financial performance, obviously, is stale, but what’s really disappointing is the human capital side of it," said co-owner Frank Kuhns.
In March, the brewery had to furlough its employees including seven bartenders. Eventually, pandemic loans helped guarantee wages for their head brewer and one of the bartenders, he says. But most of the bartenders had to find other jobs. "We are focusing more on our families to help us run the business," he said. "The three owners have been behind the bar almost every night just because staffing has been so difficult."
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Kuhns began delivering beer in his Jeep Cherokee and the brewery has had several special events including Octoberfest and its second anniversary celebration earlier this month.
Coming this Small Brewery Sunday
For Small Brewery Sunday, the brewery will have specials on canned beer and bargains on gift cards. "As pandemic cases have surged and more restrictions loom, we want to elevate more promotions on Instagram and ... of course, delivery," Kuhns said.
Beer lovers shouldn't take for granted the nation's brewing abundance, the Brewers Association's Pease says. Currently, more than two-thirds of Americans live within 10 miles of a brewery, the association estimates. Craft breweries contributed $82.9 billion to the U.S. economy, employed more than 580,000 workers, and donated more than $80 million to charities, the group says.
Beyond that, brewpubs and taproom are unique spots to drink, eat and congregate.
"You want to go out and patronize these places," said Atlas' Cox, "so when this is over, we don't just have a bunch of Applebee’s on every corner."