2020 was supposed to be the year of the taproom. The year of the beer festival. The year the hazy IPA took humanoid form and conquered the world. Nothing went down the way it was supposed to—this we know. However, we also know the beer industry is a scrappy one, and when the pandemic threw the ultimate curveball, brewers and brewery owners flexed their creative muscles to survive.
“This time felt like an opportunity to rethink how we were doing things,” says Samantha Lee, co-owner of Hopewell Brewing in Chicago. The brewery made the brave decision to close its previously packed taproom in the spring. Instead of opening a patio or similar outdoor drinking alternative, the brewery converted 30 percent of its taproom into the Hopewell Supermarket, a one-stop-shop for a slew of new brews as well as the brewery’s merch line.
“We had the space and time to experiment,” Lee says. “In a time when you are working and living in the worst case scenario all the time, it made us more open to certain types of risks. So, definitely the pandemic drove that way of thinking.”
The supermarket will likely stick around as a convenient way for customers to grab a four-pack and a Nopewell hoodie well after the pandemic is, hopefully, just a bad memory. And while Hopewell may end up being seen as a success story during a year when many breweries closed their doors forever, Lee wants to be transparent about the fact that the brewery received a PPP loan, an economic disaster loan, and a city hospitality loan, as well as a grant that allowed her to keep both front- and back-of-house staff employed throughout the pandemic.
Not all breweries were able to receive government assistance, and even the ones that did had to turn their businesses on their heads to make it through one of the most challenging years in most businesses' existence. Some of these changes will go away with COVID—fingers crossed—while others may have forever changed the way we buy and consume beer.
Almost from the moment mayors and governors began issuing stay-at-home orders, brewers began ramping up pickup and delivery options. While some relied on UberEats, Caviar, and other established delivery services, many encouraged their customers to order directly—or turn to smaller, specialized companies with less predatory fees.
“How we get our beer to people’s hands has certainly changed,” Jeffrey Stuffings, co-founder of Jester King. “We’re using a company called HopDrop based out of Austin. Their profit margins aren’t like UberEats. We’ve done more beer through Tavour than we ever have in the past.”
Other breweries did their best to recreate elements of the taproom experience with out-of-the-box curbside options. Wisconsin’s Good City Brewing turned a former bank into a drive-through, while Portland, Maine saw the launch of Allagash on the Fly, an elaborate outdoor setup where customers could talk about coolship fermentation with the knowledgeable staff while picking up a six-pack.
“Our tasting room is mostly a way to connect with our consumers. Its primary goal isn’t really to make money,” says Jill Perry, head of retail operations at Allagash. “When we were imagining how we were going to do curbside, we wanted to hang onto whatever pieces of that concept we could. Honestly, the biggest part of that was our staff, who are amazing—they love talking to people and teaching them about beer. We tried to maintain the aesthetics from indoors to outdoors, the local flavor and the personal touch.”
While Perry and her colleagues at Allagash are eager for brewery tours and tastings to resume, they designed Allagash on the Fly to last. Even with multiple vaccines in the pipeline, they don’t see curbside pickup going away anytime soon. “I don’t know when everyone will feel comfortable walking into a public space, and we want to make sure that anyone who wants to pick up our beer can do so in a way that they feel good about,” Perry says.
For most breweries, including new ones like Radiant Beer Co., which is opening soon in Anaheim, California, the question is no longer if it will sell its beer online, but how. “One-hundred percent we are going to be opening with online ordering, curbside pickup, and local delivery,” says Jonas Nemura, managing partner of Radiant Beer Co. “I think that there's an element of some of those things that fall off as life, hopefully, goes back to normal in the next couple months, but that a lot of those things are here to stay.”
The ability to purchase beer directly from a brewery—without having to track it down at a local beer store or wait in line for some trendy release—is bringing more beer to the masses, during a time when it's more important than ever to support local businesses. Previously, one of the biggest barriers of entry for consumers to get into craft beer was a lack of accessibility. This year, however, we saw breweries like Toppling Goliath dole out its sought-after Assassin stout via online survey and Russian River ship Pliny the Elder direct to consumers’ doors. Maybe that’s a good thing, because why should some of the world’s best beers be limited to those with the stamina to wait in line for hours for them?
“Make online orders as easy as possible for the consumer,” Nemura says. “Everyone has been normalized to the Starbucks app where you put in your order and pick it up—there’s no reason why breweries can’t be that simple as well.”
Beer for the Bottom Line
With draft beer being dumped down the drain and taprooms shuttering across the nation, most brewers in 2020 were just trying to stay afloat. In many cases, the breweries that weathered the storm best were those that were able to figure out what would sell and get it into cans fast.
“We’ve always taken this attitude that we brew what we like and drink what we want and share the rest with people who share our tastes,” Stuffings says. “When COVID hit, seeing our revenue get slashed overnight, it was definitely a pivot towards ‘What do people want right now?’”
Stuffings has no intention of giving up the labor-intensive barrel-aged mixed-culture and spontaneously fermented wild ales that put Jester King on the map, but these days, he has to think about what will allow him to keep his staff employed. “We’ve been putting beer in cans and doing more IPAs and pilsners and imperial stouts, by virtue of just giving people what they want in the formats that they want. It was an attitude partly taken out of pure survival, but that’s helped change our viability as a company. Adjusting has become the name of the game, not just for us, but for a lot of brewers,” he says.
They weren’t the only ones shifting to more commercially viable options. Alcohol sales and consumption soared during the pandemic, but market research consistently showed that consumers were most inclined toward affordable, easy-to-drink lagers and hard seltzers.
“We wanted to be realistic about what people are drinking,” Lee says. “People are drinking not only seltzers, but they want hard kombucha, they want canned spritzers. This is what people are drinking, and we drink them too. In any sort of craft or insular industry, there can be an impulse to fight against these trends and these new products. We’re so small, we don’t have to think that way.”
Wayup, Hopewell’s line of hard seltzers, comes in pretty, pastel cans in flavors like citrus and a tropical blend of key lime, pineapple, and mango. Lee says its popularity has been a lifeline, allowing for greater financial breathing room elsewhere in the business. Production costs on hard seltzers tend to be low and the profit margins high. And unlike lagers or barrel-aged stouts, a brewery can turn around a batch of hard seltzer in a matter of weeks or even days.
“Seltzer definitely is more economical to make,” Lee explains. “It takes up half the time to make, materials are cheaper, ingredients are cheaper for this most part—fruit juice can get a little pricey. If we’re able to turn the tanks quicker, that saves up time and money.”
Beer for Beer Lovers
While many breweries went into survival mode in 2020, focusing on best-sellers, others saw the year as an opportunity to expand their offerings and explore new styles. With tanks freed up by a lack of draft sales, Hopewell not only expanded into hard seltzer but also turned to its beer bucket list—new styles that the team had been itching to try, but had never had the resources to pull them off. This included a black IPA called Run It Back, which was released in August, as well as several hazy IPAs.
“That’s a change that I assume will stay with us beyond COVID—we will lean more into not just seasonal releases, but a larger variety of beer, because it's fun to try things at home,” Lee says. “Fifty percent of our business was draft before, and we couldn’t crank out enough of our Ride or Die pale ale on draft, because it's awesome to have that at a corner bar in the city. That was a really important part of our business and I hope it will be when we’re able to open back up.”
For the Radiant Beer team, it would have been easy to shift gears and open with a lineup of sure sellers, but instead they doubled-down on their vision of being one of the premier beer-makers in the region. “We didn’t want to be just another brewery making beer, we wanted to be in that upper echelon of people making incredibly high-quality beer, while also balancing that with being a local brewery where people who aren’t super beer geeks can feel comfortable,” Nemura says.
This means a variety of West Coast and hazy IPAs alongside an experimental barrel-aging program, which will feature beers like a gin barrel-aged wit. This commitment to creativity quality doesn’t stop at what’s inside the can. Since they are the new kids on the block and won’t be able to introduce their beers to customers face-to-face, Radiant is putting some extra effort into how their beers are packaged.
“Overall, you need to find more creative ways of expressing what that brand is about,” Nemura says. “For us with the name Radiant Beer, we’re going with very bright, fun, and lively labels. We’re doing what we can to press that out with the label design, social media, and all that to try to tell that story that you can’t tell without someone physically coming in and chatting with your staff.”
The Touchless Taproom
“That is the question that keeps me up the most: how do we launch our brand when no one can come to our party?” says Cambria Griffith, Director of Marketing at Radiant Beer Co. In more normal times, brewery openings and beer releases—not to mention the concerts, open-mics, local charity fundraisers, Oktoberfest parties, and all the other events that take place in taprooms—were a mainstay of the industry. This year, brewers attempted to translate some of the experiences and community-building so core to craft beer into the digital sphere.
“Before, we could fit 100 people in the taproom. We had events monthly and food pop-ups,” Lee recalls. One of Hopewell’s most notable events is its Act Natural wine and beer festival, which Lee hopes will return in the near future. “That was our way of engaging with our neighborhood and customers that were a really important part of our business and our identity. Without that, it’s ‘what do we do now?’”
The answer, at least for Hopewell, has been to embrace social media. Much of this is informative, a way of keeping customers in the loop about upcoming releases, but some of it has a more personal tinge. In particular, Lee loves the fact that regulars have reached out in a show of support. “So many more people are posting about their beer on Instagram or social media. It's really fun to see people really dive into it,” Lee says.
While Zoom fatigue has begun to set in for many, this growing virtual community is likely to linger on in some form even after social distancing rules subside. If anything, the pandemic has forced brewers to examine the benefits of events that reach beyond the confines of the taproom. Earlier this month, Allagash hosted its annual Stomping Grounds Artisan Showcase, which supports artists and craftspeople from Maine, through social media. The results were such a success that the organizers say they may never completely revert to the old format.
“This was the first time we did it virtually through Instagram and people loved it,” Perry says. “All these artists got to reach people they never would have. We’ve seen the larger scopes and audiences for things that we didn’t have before have been really fun to work with.”
Other breweries have totally reimagined the taproom experience to make it compatible with social distancing. Earlier this year, Tree House announced that it would open two additional locations, one in Deerfield, just south of Vermont, and one on Cape Cod. Meanwhile, Jester King decided to transform its Texas ranch into a kind of beer-centric nature park, where customers could drink beers along hiking trails and among a herd of baby goats.
“Historically, our business model has been kind of a small weekend beer festival,” Stuffings says. “Pre-COVID, if the weather was cooperating, we’d have 1,500 people come through. We knew when we got the green light to reopen last May that that just wasn’t going to be responsible, so we pivoted to this largely spread-out setting. I’d been walking around Jester King for years and there were various secluded places where I’d take other brewers and friends. So the logical thing was let’s do that for our guests: let’s have seating in the goat pasture or the vineyard.”
As ample as the space might be, Stuffings and his colleagues still made the decision to limit the number of possible guests. Although they introduced the idea of timed reservations for safety purposes, it’s had a few other unintended positive benefits.
“We’ll probably stick to doing reservations,” Stuffings says. “It’s not the same raucous experience, but ticket times and wait times are shorter. In some ways, I think it’s a nicer experience.”
For less-established breweries, sprawling setups outside of city centers may never be a practical option. Other big-name breweries with followers devoted enough to travel, however, may be likely to follow suit in the future. Even when large crowds no longer induce heart palpitations, it’s good to be able to escape them once in a while.
There’s no way to know how the coming months will shake out, but one thing is certain: there’s no real going back from here. 2020 was a year that forced the industry to reevaluate structural elements both large and small. Now that things have shifted, the taprooms of tomorrow are never going to be quite the same.