At 4 p.m. on March 16, Ska Street Brewstillery opened its doors to the public for the first time in Boulder, Colorado. The brewpub—a joint effort from the 25-year-old Durango, Colorado-based Ska Brewing and Palisade, Colorado-based Peach Street Distillers—became the first brewery and distillery to be under one roof in Colorado’s Front Range Urban Corridor. The milestone lasted exactly one hour and 15 minutes. During a 5 p.m. press conference, Governor Jared Polis ordered all bars and dine-in restaurants statewide to shutter for 30 days with exception of takeout and delivery.
“That was a blow to a wave of positivity that we had been trying to focus on through everything,” says Ska Street general manager Katie Nierling. “I had hoped restaurants could have stayed open a little longer with limited seating.” A couple of days before the announcement, the brewpub held a friends and family night—at least some people got to try Ska Street’s Bloody Mary deviled eggs with brandy mustard—and on opening day capped the capacity to 50 at a time. Ska Brewing and Peach Street, which both serve food, were able to switch to carry-out, but Nierling felt because Ska Street—and most new businesses—begin as cash negative enterprises, it was best to close down for the time being.
“For us, as an untested business, it’s hard for me to rationalize paying people to be there and to continue to order food and prep when we don’t have really good data to base what our business will be.” Unfortunately, she had to temporarily furlough 70 employees, including out-of-state college kids. “We hope to see them again, but for a kid just starting out or a kid trying to get through college, that’s a really hard thing to navigate,” she says.
If the closures last more than 30 days, then Ska Street and many other businesses might not recover. “When you shut down a restaurant, bar, brewpub, or brewery, you’re putting a huge hit in the supply chain,” Nierling says. “Because that means we’re not ordering food from our food vendors. That means we’re not ordering ingredients for beer. That means the linen supply company isn’t making regular deliveries… There’s such a trickle down effect to this.”
Nierling explains that some breweries have been quick to adapt to the unexpected change in business models, because it's not the first time they've had to rally together as a community. “Colorado has a lot of wildfires every year. Breweries, bars, and restaurants are some of the first to put together fundraisers for fire relief efforts and for first responders,” she says. “I think it’s in our nature to be an industry that responds in a positive way to the community needs, and now more than ever, we need our communities to lift us up instead of the bars and restaurants taking the usual pattern to lift the community up. Now we need the help.”
Uhl’s Brewing is another Boulder-based brewery that opened two days before the statewide shutdown. “The morning after the grand opening, there was a general understanding that a public health order would be put into place, eventually,” says Chris Crowe, Uhl’s front-of-the-house manager. “On top of all that goes into opening a new brewery, the situation was changing so rapidly that we had no choice but to constantly [move to] a contingency plan. It is very disappointing to not be able to share beer with our friends at our establishment, but we are doing everything we can to get Uhl’s beer out there.” Crowe and namesake owner Aaron Uhl are offering beer-to-go in cans and crowlers.
“The consumer support for beer in Colorado is incredible, with one of the finest beer drinking cultures in the world,” Crowe says. “But customers cannot be driving around to multiple breweries every day, so we are trying to get most of our beer out to retailers right now.” Uhl’s is much smaller than Ska Street—they employ a total of five employees. “We have had to eliminate basically all paid hours, but our team will be welcomed back the moment we can re-open for onsite consumption.”
In Seattle, where the first confirmed U.S. COVID-19 case occurred, breweries have continued brewing and opening. Cold Crash Brewing, which only brews gluten-free brews, opened on February 16, a month before Washington State Governor Jay Inslee shut down breweries and restaurants, similar to what other states are experiencing. Last weekend, Cold Crash owners Robyn Campbell and Erin Treankler, a wife team and the brewery’s only employees, started offering carry-out in growlers and cans and will soon add crowlers. The only upside to the current crisis is they were able to push canning up a month. “We expedited that timeline, so that meant a lot of late nights working on setting up equipment, canning labels, and marketing,” Treankler says.
Despite the overall chaotic mood, they’re trying to figure out what comes next. “How do we adapt with our business, come up with a new strategy where we hope to still be successful as we move forward, and take the initiatives we’re using now and use them once this is over?” Treankler says. Cold Crash benefits from the tasting room operating only on Saturdays and Sundays inside a 600-square-foot, 12-seat establishment. And it helps they’re a niche business: they’re one of two gluten-free breweries in Seattle. “I think our customer base will always be there versus who knows what another customer would do,” Campbell says. “Because gluten-free beer isn’t necessarily available in a grocery store, so they have to seek it out.”
With one weekend in the new world under their belt, Campbell and Treankler say they had good sales, but it remains to be seen what it’ll look like in the coming weeks. “If we move forward and we’re not able to make the same amount of sales that we were, that may slow down our growth,” Campbell says. “However, I think the thing to remember is we’re all in this together. Every other small business is in this together. We’re all going to grow together. We’re all going to band together and make sure we’re supporting one another through this challenging time.”
This is uncharted territory for all of us, but the craft brewing industry is a strong and resilient community.”
There are more uncertainty and challenges facing breweries that have not yet opened their doors but are scheduled to do so in the coming months. Esoteric Brewing—touted as the first minority-owned brewery in the Greater Cincinnati area—is supposed to open in May, but it’s possible it’ll be delayed. “Currently, we’re still on track, and the coronavirus has not affected our build out,” says Brian Jackson, Esoteric’s founder. “But we’ll be watching the market and environment closely to make sure we’re making the best decisions we can in order to have a successful launch.”
All the way in Hawaii, Oahu’s Lanikai Brewing Company—which right now is only open for beers-to-go and retail sales—plans on opening a 100-seat brewpub and experimental microdistillery on the North Shore. Even though they’re eyeing an August or September opening, CEO and founder Steve Haumschild says the current climate makes it difficult to set a definitive date. “Hawaii is in a quarantine state and tourism is dead,” he says. “Hotels are under 7 percent occupancy. State departments for licensing are closed or limited, so we can’t move through the licensing process until it’s re-open.”
Broomfield, Colorado’s established 4 Noses Brewing plans to open Wild Provisions Beer Project—an 8,000-square-foot barrel house and taproom that will focus on open fermented lagers and coolship beers—in April; they are a couple of weeks out from finishing construction. “We’re holding off on announcing any sort of grand opening until we see how this situation progresses,” says 4 Noses brewmaster Tommy Bibliowicz. “The silver lining is that we’ll have a little extra time to get our beers ready and make everything perfect. While I wish we could open right away, more time to focus on our creations means a more exciting grand opening, whenever that may be. This is uncharted territory for all of us, but the craft brewing industry is a strong and resilient community.”
Main photo of Ska Street Brewstillery coutesy of Dustin Hall/Brewtography Project