There was some snickering and eye-rolling when package stores were deemed “essential” while so many other businesses around the state were forced to close their doors. But there’s no disputing that package stores are essential to most Connecticut breweries still in operation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
These breweries’ taprooms — in addition to the bars and restaurants to which they regularly ship their product — are closed indefinitely. “This is not something anybody ever taught in a business class: If the government forces you to shut down for two months, here’s what you do,” says Back East Brewing CEO and co-founder Tony Karlowicz.
Thanks to wide distribution, a loyal following and strong can sales, the Bloomfield brewery’s production is still at about 90 percent of what it was heading into March. “We can go for a while if nothing else changes,” Karlowicz says. “And that’s a big ‘if’ at this point, because we can see supply-chain issues, like being able to get ingredients or cans or any of the many, many things we use to produce our beer.”
Matt Westfall, owner of Counter Weight Brewing in Hamden, has a different concern. “As a brewery that produces over 10,000 barrels of beer a year, we’re worried about the contracts we’ve signed with certain suppliers that we’re obligated to take,” Westfall says. “Certain hop varieties, we’re obligated to take X amount of pounds per year. And now that we’re brewing so much less during this time, it’s a little bit concerning to know that at the end of the contract we’re required to take that amount and pay that price.”
What’s working in the favor of places like Back East and Counter Weight — neither of which have laid off a single employee — is their established reputations, especially when considering some package stores have relegated themselves to curbside pickup only. When customers call ahead or place an order from outside, it’s an entirely different shopping experience. They order what they know, and they buy based on memory. “If you’re not going into the store you don’t have the luxury of browsing the coolers, looking at stuff and saying, ‘oh, let me try that, that looks cool,’ ” Karlowicz says.
At the other end of the spectrum is Elicit Brewing in Manchester. Open for only four months at the time everything changed, brewmaster Brian Ayers is now one half of a two-employee team. A former personal trainer, Ayers moved his workout equipment and spin bike into the spacious taproom to pass the time between orders. Elicit is a destination brewery with dozens of TVs, arcade games and a substantial food menu. “The first week or two were tough because we weren’t known for takeout food or takeout beer,” Ayers says. Elicit had to pivot in a day and become a to-go place.
But all the luck wasn’t bad luck. Ayers didn’t have any hoppy brews in the tanks in mid-March; instead he had a sour, a saison and imperial stout. Those styles can sit and might actually improve with time, ripe for pouring when we start our slow return to normalcy.
Hartford’s Hanging Hills Brewing was the first brewery to permanently close its doors during the crisis, but almost assuredly won’t be the last. “We know how much it’s hurting ourselves and some of our other friendly breweries around the area that are of similar size,” Counter Weight’s Westfall says. “So it’s really hard to see how some of these small guys make it through. But obviously people get creative and show some strengths they might not necessarily know they have when times get tough.”
Some breweries, like Brewery Legitimus in New Hartford, started doing direct delivery to customers' homes. Others are expanding their traditional offerings. Willimantic Brewing Co. has begun canning beer, due to a shortage of growlers and as a way to offer more takeaway options for its customers. It’s also a story of brewers helping brewers, as Steady Habit Brewing Co., Rapscallion Brewery, Brewery Legitimus, Alvarium Beer Co., and Back East Brewing Co. helped Willibrew source the cans it needed.
As long as liquor stores remain open and supply chains don’t get disrupted, a significant number of breweries will be able to make it through. And while the future is uncertain, that doesn’t mean you can’t plan ahead. “We are still doing work on our new taproom,” Karlowicz says. “We’re hoping to have it ready by June 1, and if we can open it up that’s great. If not, we’ll have it ready to go whenever the world is ready for us.”