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Not tapped out yet: Local breweries adjust to pandemic by reimagining business models, taprooms

UPDATED: Wed., May 13, 2020

Brian Carpenter, right, is the taproom manager at Brick West Brewing, and Sam Milne is the head brewer. The coronavirus pandemic “has allowed us to take a step back, look at our current processes and begin to make us even more efficient in the future,” Carpenter said. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Brian Carpenter, right, is the taproom manager at Brick West Brewing, and Sam Milne is the head brewer. The coronavirus pandemic “has allowed us to take a step back, look at our current processes and begin to make us even more efficient in the future,” Carpenter said. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
By Greg Wildermuth For The Spokesman-Review

As we all continue to go about our day-to-day lives while this unprecedented crisis caused by COVID-19 stretches into its third month, it is certainly understandable if craft beer has not made it to the top of your list of things to worry about.

But for the hundreds of people in the greater Spokane region who are involved in the industry as owners, brewers, bartenders and more, it is a nervous time.

In late March, the Brewers Association, the largest craft brewing trade organization in the country, surveyed its members about how COVID-19 was expected to affect their business and received more than 900 responses.

Startlingly, 60% of respondents nationally believed they would have to close their doors permanently within three months if social-distancing measures stayed where they were at the beginning of the crisis.

Even as states have made strides in allowing breweries to maintain some level of distribution via to-go orders and delivery, analysts are expecting the on-premise taproom closures to cost the industry $8 billion in lost revenue if they continue into June. Washington, being home to the third most breweries of any state in the country, feels this impact harder than most.

Locally, breweries are doing anything they can to weather the storm, but the timing was poor. “A lot of us were ramping up production as spring and summer approached,” said Dave Basaraba, co-owner of Spokane’s Mountain Lakes Brewing. “Wholesale (restaurant and bar) markets are all but dried up.”

This left even smaller-sized breweries like Mountain Lakes sitting on a lot of beer, so they have had to get creative. They have been working with a mobile canning company out of Oregon along with several other local breweries so they can all get as much beer canned as possible and limit the amount that goes to waste.

Limited operating hours and a desire for customers to stock up also have led to the re-emergence of the 64-ounce glass growler, the once-ubiquitous craft brewery staple that has fallen out of popularity in the last several years.

“They are the most cost-effective and earth-friendly option for most people to come and help support their local brewery,” Basaraba said.

For new breweries, there has been an entirely separate set of challenges. Ryan Maliski, owner of Spokane’s Hello Brew Co., began brewing this year as a member of the Steel Barrel brewery incubator in downtown Spokane, which provides brewing space to startup breweries in exchange for a portion of future revenue from that brewery.

Plans were set for a big release party on March 20, the same weekend much of Spokane shut down. “(Our brewery) doesn’t know what the good times of beer sales really looked like, so we don’t know what we are missing” Maliski said.

Washington state’s quick reaction to start allowing brewers to directly sell to consumers via curbside pick-up and beer delivery has been beneficial to an incubator-based brewery without its own taproom.

“We went from not having any ability to do retail sales of our beer at all to being able to sell bottles of beer directly to consumers,” Maliski said. He and other brewers hope that this loosening of restrictions will become permanent post-coronavirus pandemic.

The question of what happens next is the one that the industry is grappling with most. It appears that breweries will be included under Phase 2 of the Washington’s Safe Start initiative. When Phase 2 begins, taprooms might be able to open at 50% capacity, with no bar area seating and no parties of more than five.

Brian Carpenter, taproom manager of Spokane’s Brick West Brewing, thinks things will be different. “The taproom experience will return to a new normal down the road, but spacing and maximum table sizes will give each space a different feel,” Carpenter said.

Several breweries also have used this time to make cosmetic improvements to their spaces that would be much more difficult to do while open for business. Patrons will see even more of a dedication to cleanliness, according to industry members.

Although taproom standbys like shared board games and self-serve popcorn might become things of the past, Carpenter believes lessons learned from this experience can help guide the taproom going forward.

“It has allowed us to take a step back, look at our current processes and begin to make us even more efficient in the future,” he said.

Everyone I spoke with for this story expressed cautious optimism for the future of local craft beer, especially if people can continue to do everything possible to support them during this shutdown.

So, take the time to pick up beer from a brewery you have never been to, or stop by to say hello and pick up a growler from your favorite local haunt.

“The great thing about local craft beer is the community that it creates,” Basaraba said. “It is truly of, by and for the people who drink it, and there is something altogether beautiful about that, especially in times of crisis.”

More beer news

Local breweries are collaborating to support the local hospitality industry. Hello, Lumberbeard, Project Craft and YaYa are teaming up to release a collaboration brew as part of the “All Together” project, a worldwide collaborative brewing effort originally conceived by New York’s Other Half Brewing.

A portion of proceeds from these beers will be donated to organizations supporting the hospitality industry in the communities where the beers are brewed. The local team is expecting to begin canning the beer on May 20.

The collaboration brew should be available for pick-up from various taprooms not long after production. Expect to see other local breweries over the next few weeks also step up to the plate and brew beer for this great cause.

Brewery openings

While the pandemic has been difficult on established craft breweries, it also has thrown a large wrench into the plans of several local entrepreneurs hoping to open breweries in time for summer. While some have put their plans on hold, two new local breweries have taken the plunge and opened their doors for to-go service this month.

Snow Eater Brewing Co. (2325 N. McKenzie Lane, Liberty Lake) is the first brewery to open in Liberty Lake and will add another stop to the Interstate 90 craft beer corridor between Spokane and Coeur d’Alene. Stop by and pick up a growler to welcome Snow Eater to the neighborhood Thursdays and Fridays from 3-6 p.m. and Saturdays from 1-6 p.m.

Trails End Brewery (350 W. Bosanko Ave., Coeur d’Alene) is expecting to open its doors in the next couple of weeks, and in addition to an initial top list of six beers, Trails End also will be serving a menu of handcrafted pizzas.

Pizzas and 32-ounce growlers will be available for curbside pick-up, and you can bring in glass growlers to have them sanitized and filled. The hours of operation will be announced on its social media pages.

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