When the news broke earlier this year that a novel strain of coronavirus was spreading rapidly through Wuhan, China, Pete Terns began to worry. At the time, it was business as usual at Middle Brow, the Chicago brewpub he runs with his wife, Polly Nevins. Although the US government’s official stance was that there was nothing to be concerned about, Terns was alarmed.
“I knew we could last a few months if we shut our doors, but we couldn’t pay labor. We’d go under,” Terns says. “That kept me up at night for a month and a half. I just kept thinking, ‘How am I going to find ways to bring money in so I can keep getting money to my employees who have bills to pay?'”
In recent years, taprooms have become an ever more crucial revenue stream for many of the 8,000 craft breweries in the United States. Even those with widespread distribution often rely on in-house sales of food and drink to help them stand out in an increasingly saturated market. For Terns, the sales from Middle Brow Bungalow, which serves sourdough pizza alongside draft beers, are essential.
By the time Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker announced the closure of all bars and restaurants until March 30, Terns was already scrambling to find ways to avoid letting all of his staff go. Like many other breweries, he began offering delivery, although instead of hopping on Caviar or UberEats, he hired his own waitstaff to do it so that he could continue to afford to pay them.
“Delivery companies take a huge cut and I have employees who are desperate to work,” Terns says. “I’d rather give our people the work, rather than these corporations that are licking their chops.”
Thanks to the efforts of the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild, the Illinois Liquor Control Commission has decided to lift some of the usual alcohol delivery regulations, a decision that may save some of the state’s craft breweries from certain bankruptcy. Still, for Middle Brow, delivering a few extra cans simply wasn’t enough. To make ends meet, Terns, like a number of other brewers around the country, has had to get creative.
“Mid last week before everything went nuts, we launched this community-supported fermentation,” Terns says. “It’s kind of like a CSB instead of a CSA, but the difference is this also includes the sourdough bread we make fresh every day. So what we’re doing is packaging really rare beers that we’ve been sitting on for years and making specialty breads only for subscribers.”
Subscriptions start at $7 for a weekly loaf of sourdough made with locally milled grains and up to $18 for pizzas like a riff on a Roberta’s classic with hot honey. The pies sell for more than $20 at the restaurant, but Terns wanted to keep prices as affordable as possible. Rotating beer options include standouts like Pith, a dry-hopped kölsch brewed with pomelo pith, which was a collaboration with the local band Melkbelly that came about after Terns read the band’s interview in October. Middle Brow will also offer CSA baskets of produce from their local farm suppliers, all of which are priced at cost including labor.
“We’re putting together pizza kits that people can make with their families if they’re bored out of their minds. They look like tiffin boxes in India with all toppings and cheese in different layers,” Terns says. “On the boredom side, we’re also going to start livestreaming concerts from inside the brewery. All those people are out of work. So we’ll tag a unique URL to a product, and through people buying that, it’ll give us the money to pay the artists.”
That kept me up at night for a month and a half. I just kept thinking, ‘How am I going to find ways to bring money in so I can keep getting money to my employees who have bills to pay?'”
With unemployment applications surging to well over 200,000 within days and catastrophic layoffs underway within the hospitality industry, all of these calculations ultimately come down to keeping as many people on the supply chain in business as possible. Recognizing that some employees may soon be facing food insecurity, Terns is offering all of his staff two meals a day, whether they come in or not.
“They’re not three-course meals, but they’re plentiful. We’ve offered to pack them up in kits and just hand them to our staff in brown bags if they don’t feel comfortable coming in,” Terns says. “These are just some of the quick things we’re doing to bridge the gap until the government realizes what’s going on.”
Over in Brooklyn, in the state that currently has the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the nation, Grimm Artisanal Ales is also trying to find ways to push through this period. Founders Lauren and Joe Grimm made the decision to close their taproom before the official order came from the state to do so.
“It’s crazy. Nobody knows what this means to our business,” Lauren says. “Every day the chaos, the need for social distancing, and the need to be concerned about the health of ourselves, our employees and our customers just exponentially increased.”
Though the future for everyone remains uncertain, Lauren feels fortunate to have enough savings that she will be able to continue to take care of her staff. At the moment, her team members are racing to adjust their brewing roster to include more barrel-aged options and lagers, which will keep until demand returns.
“Joe and I are very positive people, so we’re just trying to make the most of this situation,” Lauren says. “I think having our beer available to go has been a really wonderful way to connect with our regulars who want to come get their beer, but also just to chat for a little while.”
In the small town of Driftwood, just outside of Austin, Texas, Vista Brewing relies heavily on draft beer sales. As of yet, they have not been ordered to close their taproom, but Karen Killough, who co-founded the brewery with her husband Kent, believes strongly that it was the right thing to do. As a member of the Texas Craft Brewers Guild, she’s trying to help other craft breweries in her community survive.
“We’re trying to flatten the curve and we all have to do our part. Every business, particularly small businesses, are trying to pivot to find new revenue streams to make it through this,” Killough says. “Everybody’s going through this together. We all want our businesses to not fold because of this. We all are trying to take care of our own families.”
Karen and her husband are currently taking care of their six-and-a-half-year old and their four-year-old twins, all of whom were looking forward to being on vacation, but are now at home. Their family friends, who run Wildflower Caramels and have three small children, often collaborate with the brewery on special flavors like a caramel made with a Mexican hot chocolate imperial stout with guajillo peppers. Vista Brewing just put in a large order and they’re working with mushroom foragers, ranchers, cheesemakers, and all of their other suppliers to try and help sell their products. Because the brewery also has an onsite organic farm, they’re planning to launch Vista Farm Boxes, a subscription-based CSA next week.
Everybody’s going through this together. We all want our businesses to not fold because of this. We all are trying to take care of our own families.”
“It’s springtime in Texas and our farm is about to explode with vegetables and our restaurant is closed,” Killough says. “First and foremost, we’re taking care of our team by giving them food, and then we’re going to help elderly folks who can’t make it to the grocery store, then we’re going to open it up to sales to the local community.”
For the time being, visiting the taproom is impossible, but Karen says she plans to leave the walking trails along their sprawling grounds open to visitors for mental health reasons. Vista Brewing has six acres of wildflowers, including an abundance of blue bonnets now in bloom. Customers are welcome to wander while the staff fill their growlers, provided they maintain a safe distance from one another.
"I think of people’s mental health being at home all the time and having this fear of going outside the home," Karen says. "That’s part of our mission anyway: we provide this space for people to be outside in nature. We have two large festivals and weekly music performances here. We host educational classes on foraging and beekeeping. It just breaks my heart to cancel them all."
Right now, visitors can support the brewery by signing up for memberships or purchasing merchandise at their online shop. As the days go by, there will be more items for visitors to purchase to support the brewery, if they so choose.
“I know that everyone in the world is watching their budgets. I’m not asking people to spend money when they don’t feel comfortable, but every little bit helps small businesses right now,” says Karen Killough. “We’re trying our best to take care of our team. That’s what worries me most as a small business owner. Our employees are like our family and there are no hospitality jobs right now.”