When the pandemic hit, spurring the ensuing (and necessary) shut-downs, there was no dearth of articles predicting the doom of craft brewing, with titles such as “Coronavirus Could Kill Craft Beer” or “Will Craft Brewing Survive?” And, indeed, a survey conducted in April by the Brewers Association revealed a marked decrease in category sales, massive furloughs and layoff, and looming closures. The median drop in sales was of 75%, with an average drop of 65%. Seventy percent of responding breweries said the would be forced to close within 6 months, and 45% said they could only hold out for 1-3 months.
Now, the virus is surging all over the country, prompting renewed shut downs and bans on indoor service, just as the weather turns cold and the winter dark looms ahead.
The Independent Restauranteurs association estimated this past week that if things don’t improve and without government assistance down the pike, 70-80% of independent restaurants won’t make it to spring. Breweries and taprooms face many of the same dynamics as restaurants, so as one goes, so likely goes the other.
It’s could be a long dark winter faced by our friends in the industry.
But … and this being 2020, there is a but… it may surprise one to think that there is a silver lining to the pandemic when it comes to the beer scene, but if we look closely, we’ll find one.
On the one hand state, county, and local governments responded by liberalizing alcohol regulations, permitting outdoor seating, allowing breweries and taproom to take advantage of restaurant exemptions in order to keep operating. Another key were customers, who switched to to-go only ordering without batting an eye, and who’ve made it a point to support their local brewers and taprooms.
On a federal level the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act and PPP loans also helped breweries and taprooms to survive through the spring.
Thus, while the industry has indeed been hurting, happily we’ve not seen the massive wave of closures that we might have, had nothing been done.
Have there been closings? Certainly, and specially in the last couple of months, it seems that every other day brings the sad news of a venue shutting its doors, but alongside that we’re seeing a smaller but notable string of openings, between expansions of already existing businesses, new brewers taking over an existing brewery space, or projects long in the works that would be delayed no longer.
(There has also been an increase in interest in homebrewing, which is always a good thing.)
Commercial brewers have also pushed out and gotten their beers onto stores shelves and coolers, and in some cases, they’ve even managed to expand keg sales -no mean feat given that pretty much everyone had, at least initially, reduced the number of taps running in the face of declining sales volume.
Many have stretched to find ways to get the beer out, be it by starting to can or bottle their beers, or by offering pick-up sales, delivery, and even shipping. This has permitted many a brewery which had previously relied on tap room-only sales to get their beer out and gain exposure over a wider geographical area; and, crucially, to make sales.
In other instances, the stretch has been in infrastructure and equipment; whether it be in building or improving patio spaces, investing in an in-house canning line, or delivery staff and vehicles.
In other words, immediate needs raised by the pandemic have prodded many of our friends to make investments and changes that will pay dividends in the long term, when this mess is all over and done with.
Thankfully, we can say that reports of craft brewing’s demise were a bit premature, to say the least.