Beer in the time of Corona What's Brewing

Craft breweries eager to welcome back customers for a pint

It finally happened!

Several local counties were given the OK to move to Phase II as the state recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic (in King County’s case, Phase 1.5). This means a lot of regulations and rules, but also means you now have the option to have a beer on site at your favorite local brewery. 

The reopening comes not a moment too soon for local breweries, who admit the past two months have been a struggle.

“It’s been tough,” said Jen Boyd, who owns Cairn Brewing in Kenmore with her husband Bill. “We’re a neighborhood brewery who focuses on the taproom experience; we really don’t distribute. … Not having that for almost three months hurts. We’ve had some long days but our team has been terrific, really embracing the switch to canning to make sure our customers have the opportunity to enjoy our beer.”

“I am tired,” added Andy Gundel, the owner of Urban Family Brewing in Seattle. “The staff is tired. Overall, we kept all of our jobs, and we figured out ways to make jobs where there were none anymore. Lots of people stepping up to help cross-departmentally. I think the shake-up of the industry will be felt for years to come, but I am humbled by the support of the customers and the beer community. Lots of people looking out for each other. Lots of tips. Lots of well-wishes. It’s not the worst place to be, that’s for sure.”

Local breweries faced several challenges after the government’s stay-at-home order effectively closed their taprooms. However, the beer industry quickly showed its resolve and resourcefulness by pivoting to online ordering and curbside pick-up.

Most breweries expect to-go orders to remain a major part of their businesses. They believe the convenience and infrastructure now set up may encourage more customers to go that route. Owners also understand that some people may not quite be comfortable heading back out into the world to enjoy a pint.

“Some people may not be ready for a pint in a taproom,” Boyd said, “so we’ll continue to offer a broad selection of our 15-plus-beer taplist in 16-ounce cans to go and have dedicated parking spaces for curbside pickup even once we reopen. We call it the #takehometaproom.”

In addition, owners anticipate a strong emphasis on cleaning.

“We talked about letting people inside but the whole thing sounds… complicated. We want the safest environment possible for everyone.”

Andy Gundel, owner of Urban Family Brewing on the brewery only allowing customers outside for now.
Erin Pride-Swaney (and Clementine) enjoys a stein of Irish Dry Stout this past Friday at Chuckanut Brewery in Bellingham. It was the first day that Chuckanut was welcoming back customers since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think everyone can agree that cleaning will be kicked up a notch,” Gundel said.

The reopening of Fremont’s Urban Beer Garden this past weekend saw lines around the block to get in and over two-hour waits. The brewery is operating at a diminished capacity and has switched to hosted seating for the brewery, which has also spread out tables to a minimum of six-feet of space.

According to Zan McColloch-Lussier, Fremont’s Community Engagement Manager, the brewery will keep their online ordering site up and continue delivery of specialty beers through their third-party carrier.

“Voluntarily closing the Urban Beer Garden even before the Governor’s mandatory shut-down was hard for many reasons,” McColloch-Lussier said, “but we realized it was the responsible thing to do for the safety of our staff and customers and we very quickly – like within hours – adapted to curb-side pick-up which has been a lifeline. We haven’t had to lay anyone off and we’ve redeployed team members to keep our facilities sanitary.”

5 Rights Brewing in Marysville weathered the COVID-19 storm, and is now working on welcoming customers back, while also planning an anniversary celebration.

“Like most small businesses it has been very difficult to try and survive, much less thrive when the biggest part of our business (the taproom) has been shut down to help ensure the greater good for public safety,” said R.J. Whitlow, the owner of 5 Rights Brewing. “Thankfully, we were blown away by how our 5 Rights Family and community rallied by supporting our to-go sales far more than we ever anticipated, and kept us from losing what we’ve worked so hard to build. It was music to our hearts to hear laughter in our taproom again as it was built for community and living life together, not just a place to find exceptional beer.”

Enjoying a pint (with Bruce) at Seattle’s Pine Box.

Several breweries plan to expand serving operations into their larger parking lots. Urban Family will be outdoor seating only for a while.

“We talked about letting people inside but the whole thing sounds… complicated,” Gundel said. “We want the safest environment possible for everyone.”

The extended distance, while necessary during these crazy times, bums out at least one owner.

“It’s gonna be (different),” said Randy Embernate, the owner of Seattle’s Hellbent Brewing Company. “A vast majority of our regulars hang at the bar. Lots of camaraderie between the regulars and our bartenders. That is the biggest change. We will see how that plays out. That’s my favorite part about any bar, is the rubbing of elbows with fellow patrons as well as the back and forth with the bartenders.”

Fortunately for Embernate, bumping elbows is still the preferred greeting by government officials.

All of the owners reiterated how tough the past two months have been financially, mentally and logistically. However, every representative reached expressed optimism for the local craft beer industry. 

“We are holding up fine,” Embernate said. “Not great, always can be better, but surviving, for now. At first I didn’t think we had a shot, but we made some adjustments, (online ordering being a huge part of that) and with a huge support from our neighborhood and loyal patrons, we have been doing pretty decently out of the taproom with (to-go ordering).”

“Of course, revenue is way down due primarily to the disappearance of on-premise sales but we’re extremely fortunate that off-premise sales are still strong,” McColloch-Lussier said. “Industry-wise, the future of the vast majority of craft breweries that don’t package is most concerning but the local craft beer scene has been extremely resilient and creative and we’re all trying to help each other out to get to the other side of this crisis.”

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