Summer should be a time for craft beer lovers to soak up the sun and drink summer specials at their favorite bars and breweries. The coronavirus pandemic and associated closure orders have put a damper on this, forcing beer makers throughout the Baltimore region to avoid economic hardship by staying connected with fans in novel ways.
The situation on the ground is changing quickly. According to guidance issued Friday by Gov. Larry Hogan, the state’s breweries are allowed to reopen for outdoor service beginning at 5 p.m. How much that service will affect operations or recoup losses stemming from mandatory taproom closures remains uncertain.
Not every brewery will immediately take advantage of the easing of restrictions. Union Craft Brewing in Hampden, one of the city’s biggest brewing companies, announced that it would not do outdoor seating for the time being. Meanwhile, Diamondback Brewing Company in Locust Point will seat limited numbers of patrons at its patio on Friday night. Checkerspot Brewing Company in the Spring Garden Industrial Area will do the same for its outdoor seats on Saturday.
“Our top priority is always keeping our co-workers and customers safe,” Union Craft Brewing posted on its Facebook page. “Additionally, we want to focus on supporting and supplying our restaurant partners as they reopen.”
Regardless of whether they open outdoor seating Maryland’s craft breweries continue to adjust to evolving circumstances during the pandemic. Many have pivoted to delivery and curbside pickup, as well as partnerships and new brews.
For several breweries, the most obvious adaptation has been to create pandemic-themed beers. For instance, Union, released the now-sold out Quarantime Session IPA in mid-April. The label features drawings of people dancing, doing yoga, playing a musical instrument and other solo activities.
“This one seemed particularly good for a delivery [or] curbside [pickup] special beer," said Jon Zerivitz, Union’s co-founder and creative director. “At that point, we didn’t really know if even putting out new beers was going to be something that we could even really do or have an audience for. But as it turns out, while people are stocking their refrigerators with reliable beer brands ... people are still hungry for — or, I should say, thirsty for — new releases.”
Full Tilt Brewing in Govans partnered with Brooklyn, New York-based Other Half Brewing on All Together, a hazy IPA. All proceeds from the beer will go to Full Tilt employees whose shifts were affected by the pandemic. Halethorpe-based Heavy Seas Beer took a similar step by collaborating with celebrated Fells Point beer bar Max’s Taphouse on Pooch Power, an unfiltered pilsner benefiting the Baltimore Animal Care and Rescue Center.
In Rockville, True Respite Brewing Company plans to release a beer dedicated to essential workers called Hogan’s Heroes—referencing both the governor and television series—in the near future. In addition, Union recently released a double IPA called Somebody to Lean On (a tribute to the late singer-songwriter Bill Withers) that benefits the Baltimore Restaurant Relief Fund.
Mike Batley of Baltimore said he learned about Somebody to Lean On from his wife. “It didn’t disappoint, it was excellent,” he said. “It’s a big beer, it’s about 8 percent [alcohol by volume] but it doesn’t drink that way, which is a little dangerous, we found out. It hides that booziness well, and it’s got that mosaic hop, [which has] more of a lemon angle on it. Really good, really good beer."
For the breweries, the creativity is necessary as they struggle to keep business afloat.
Kevin Atticks of the Brewers Association of Maryland recently surveyed 130 of Maryland’s craft alcohol producers (not just breweries) and found that 63 percent of businesses had to lay people off. Sixty percent said April sales were off by nearly 50 percent compared to last year. On an individual level, Union’s Zerivitz estimated a loss of 70 percent of business, while co-owner Judy Neff of Checkerspot Brewing Company said sales were down about 60 percent.
Atticks said Hogan’s order permitting delivery and curbside pickup of alcohol “has been a lifeline," even if the breweries don’t fully recoup what revenue they would’ve generated in a normal season.
The order also helped biermi, an app and web service that lets you search for breweries nearby that will deliver or offer curbside pickup. Brendan O’Leary of Rockville’s True Respite, who co-founded the app with longtime friend Brian O’Connor, said that the app was developed with input from other brewing industry figures.
“Given the amount of help, advice, assistance and favors that other brewers and breweries had done for us as we were developing this tool, it felt wrong to keep it to ourselves,” O’Leary said. “So we decided to offer it up to anyone who would like to use it within the industry.”
Eventually, the platform expanded beyond breweries to include craft companies making mead, spirits, kombucha and coffee. O’Leary said that the nearly 140 businesses on the platform have seen a total of $2.9 million in sales since the launch in mid-March. About $1.2 million of those sales took place in Maryland.
Still, these circumstances leave breweries vulnerable, especially those that are newer or smaller than those like Union or Heavy Seas, which have widespread distribution.
“Anecdotally, what we’re seeing is that newer and smaller breweries have been disproportionately affected by the closures and the disruptions,” Atticks said. “And that’s, in large part, because they have not built their market to the fullest. There were a number of breweries that launched in January or February and just built their teams, and had to lay everybody off."
Ten Eyck Brewing Company in Queenstown, across the Bay Bridge in Queen Anne’s County, avoided much of the devastation since it’s not yet publicly open. While it plans to open for delivery, curbside pickup and outdoor service in mid-June, its temporary focus is on packaging hand sanitizer for essential workers.
“The little business owners and folks based here on the shore that still have to go into work, they need hand sanitizer, of all things," said Ten Eyck co-founder Nicki Sener. “That was something we could figure out how to get into their hands. ... We’re trying to give away at least as much as we sell.”
Other smaller breweries adapted in a way that their larger counterparts already have: canning or bottling their beers for broader distribution than the take-home crowlers or growlers they already had available. Checkerspot Brewing Company’s Neff said that the coronavirus accelerated canning plans already in motion for summer.
“Before, we were in the crowler-growler section and selling kegs to liquor stores ... basically, all keg sales had stopped," she said. “It’s a way to sort of help offset some of those losses with cans.”
Suspended Brewing Company in Pigtown also pivoted with Double Black Pearl imperial dessert stout, the brewery’s first beer bottled for off-site consumption.
“This absolutely was brewed with the intention of bottling because things are uncertain right now,” said Suspended co-founder Josey Schwartz. “We wanted to kind of hedge our bets by brewing beer that would appreciate with time, rather than something that would be under the gun to move ... a 10 percent [alcohol by volume] imperial stout will hold up very, very, very well.”
Although the exact future of craft brewing in Maryland remains uncertain, some shared hopes emerged. Atticks’ research found that 69 percent of craft alcohol producers want to retain delivery sales options. He now works with the state’s tourism recovery task force on protocol for reopening of these businesses. Regardless of what happens, he believes the industry will recover.
“From a larger perspective, the industry’s going to thrive, and I’m confident in that," he said. “Not just because we’ve got these very nimble entrepreneurs, who are trying new things and being very successful at these new channels and modes. But also: beer is, and will continue to be, a popular product.”