The food and beverage industry has faced dire straits during the COVID-19 pandemic — and beer is no exception. With sales severely down across the board, Washington State Beer Commission head Eric Radovich recently cautioned that “in the neighborhood of 50 percent” of the 420 medium-to-small breweries in the state could close permanently by summer, if stay-at-home restrictions continue that far out.
Though such an estimate may be based on contingencies, it tracks with what’s happening locally. Many small brewers rely on draft sales for a heavy portion of their business (40 percent, according to the Brewers Association). With that demand almost completely dried up, some are dumping perfectly drinkable beer originally earmarked for now-canceled events and closed bars.
“We’ve had to dump roughly 15-20 bbls [630-800 gallons] due to this slowdown,” says Steve Luke, founder of Cloudburst Brewing, adding that 75 percent of his production originally went to draft sales. “Our hope is that we can eventually get our production back up, put more beer in cans, and make some of them available to our Seattle restaurants and bottle shop friends, but that’s still a ways out.”
One slight lifeline has been recent changes to the state’s liquor laws that allow all restaurants that hold a spirits, beer, and wine license to sell beer in growlers, jugs, and other sealed containers, as long as it is accompanied by food. Thus, some restaurants have been putting orders in and collaborating with breweries for sales, such as Super Six and Stoup Brewing.
But that may be a small stopgap. With uncertainty over when Washington’s stay-at-home order will end — and what taprooms restrictions will look like when it does — many local breweries will need to make drastic adjustments. “We’ve reduced costs, moved to a to-go, and delivery service, and moved to self distribution model which allows me to keep my staff employed to do deliveries to accounts,” says Andy Gundel, owner of Urban Family Brewing.
Some, like Cloudburst, are canning beer for the first time since going into business. Others, like Machine House Brewing, are trying to come up with creative solutions, such as putting beer in bags (which suits a cask ale-focused brewer like Machine House, due to the low carbonation of its featured beers). And then there are the promotional pushes, such as the toilet paper giveaway Seapine Brewing and Lowercase tried last month.
Even if those adjustments stave off some of the more dire predictions for the local beer industry, it’s clear breweries in Seattle and across the state will likely look very different after the current crisis is over.
“Every smallish brewery is going to need to evolve, and quickly, whether that means via packaging (like cans), services (delivery, pre-pay, etc.), strategy (distribution footprints, types of wholesale accounts, etc.) and anything in- between,” says Luke. “I don’t think our current tasting room will ever be as crowded as before the pandemic, and honestly, it’s irresponsible on our part if it is.”