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The Craft Beer Industry Is Hopping Again After An Unprecedentedly Tough Year

After some major pandemic changes, breweries are prepped for a strong summer.

When the pandemic hit, craft breweries, like many other businesses, were faced with furloughing staff, shuttering their doors, and thinking of innovative ways to get their products out to the masses without being able to invite them indoors to drink or to do sample flights. According to the Brewers Association, independent breweries saw their numbers decline at least seven-to-eight percent in 2020. We spoke to craft brewers around the country about how they changed their business models throughout the pandemic...and which of those changes you can expect to see remain in play when you finally get back to visiting your favorite breweries.

“There was a lot of pivoting,” says Mike Roosevelt, owner and Chief Science Officer of The Alementary Brewing Co. in Hackensack, New Jersey: “We never even thought about having online shopping because the goal was always to get people in the tap room. All of a sudden, those goals changed. Then it was really about driving people to come to the online store to pick-up.”

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Peter Hoey, co-founder and brewmaster of Urban Roots Brewing in Sacramento, CA, says his brewery also made the shift quickly to online sales, but they also tried to figure out how to engage their customer base. “The key for us was keeping an ever-changing and exciting beer release schedule for a fresh look at our brand and offerings while at the same time keeping quality for every style we create very high,” says Hoey, who noted that at one point mid-pandemic, the company was releasing new beer every single week. "That’s what enabled us to bring staff back faster than many surrounding businesses. Together we developed meal ideas, beer promotions and other need-based solutions to increase business and get our team safely back to work.”

Others, like Rising Tide Brewing Company in Portland, ME, became restaurant overnights. The popular brewery in the East Bayside area of town had always been a destination for rotating food trucks, but due to the need to contact-trace guests, that wasn’t a feasible option. Rising Tide's Director of Business Operations and Owner Heather Sanborn credits this pivot for keeping them afloat. “We knew that he had lost millions of dollars in wedding bookings for the summer. [We partnered with Ryan Carey of Fire and Company, who] brought his wood-fired pizza oven and set it up in residence at Rising Tide. We shifted to table service as well. We haven’t served inside since last March." Now, Rising Tide has a "much more food and restaurant approach" than it ever had before.

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Another solution to this out-of-nowhere hit? Breweries that previously weren’t selling their beers to retailers had to make that a part of their business model: “Distribution wasn’t a significant part of our business plan prior to the pandemic, but now we have personnel and infrastructure in place to sustain those sales while returning to normal operations in the restaurant,” Hoey explains.

Founder of Chula Vista Brewery Timothy Parker agrees.We’ve started canning and getting it out into stores and we’re approved to do shipping throughout the state of California,” he says. “We did have a slow-down because selling off the tap was taken away, so we had to get creative and find new streams of revenue." Now that things are slowly opening up again, Parker explains this new venture will continue to be an important part of the brewery's revenue. Most of the craft brewery reps Delish spoke to plan to (or already are) doing the same.

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Across the board, though, most of these craft breweries are also planning on keeping the new changes in place, even while restrictions about dining loosen up post-vaccine. For Rising Tide, that means outdoor dining on their expansive patio, for Alementary, a revamped biergarten, and a large biergarten and temporary outdoor dining space will now live in the parking at Urban Roots. But through all the struggles and changes, all the breweries remain focused on community. They brew special beers to give back or just making their breweries feel like a place where people can bond—even while social distancing.

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“Giving back to the community is part of our mission,” says Sanborn. “Maine Island Trail Ale, our seasonal session IPA, our biggest selling beer is back [for the season]. And we’re excited that we’re able to keep supporting the Maine Island Trail Association."

“Even during the pandemic we managed some philanthropic activities both on the National and local levels,” says Hoey. “Being a part of the community means participating in the community, so philanthropic activities have been and always will be core to what we are and what we do, even when times are tight.” (All the more reason to support your favorite local beer producers, huh?)

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And despite last year’s challenges, all the breweries are feeling pretty positive about what's to come in 2021. “I am entirely optimistic about the summer,” adds Sanborn. “I think people are going to want to travel. I think they are going to want to be social and drink beer and be together and have places where they can casually be together and I think breweries are the definition of that.”

“We are feeling optimistic about the summer,” agrees Roosevelt. “The last year has taught us how to be nimble and quickly adjust as circumstances change.”

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