Breweries look at downtime as opportunity to refine strategies
UPDATE: Autumn Arch Beer Project announced it will close, starting March 24 until further notice.
Brad Lee spent the past three years getting Hangman Brewing Company to open in time for St. Patrick’s Day. He was in business for only three days when Gov. John Carney cut off all restaurants and bars to slow the coronavirus.
“I swear, we must be cursed,” Lee joked to Delaware Business Times. “My first landlord fell through, and then my second landlord died so that left the project in limbo. I’ve never seen so much bad luck in my life.”
Ironically, Hangman Brewing Company opened Friday the 13th. But by that next Monday, Carney issued a state of emergency that limited gatherings and restricted restaurants to take-out options only.
That left Delaware brewers to think about how to market themselves and push their product out. Some craft beers, like Blue Earl Brewing Company in Smyrna and Fordham & Dominion have bottled some beers for a while. Dogfish Head, which closed down voluntarily before the state of emergency, can be found in liquor stores.
But for fledgling start-ups like Hangman Brewing Company in Claymont, it could be a problem. But right now, Lee’s not sweating it. He’s viewing it as time to perfect the product and revisit his business model.
“We have 24 taps and there were only 12 beers for the grand opening. The goal is to have them all filled so people have a much better selection,” he said. “I’m also tweaking some things, because the grand opening taught me a lot about how many employees and glasses we’ll need.”
In his past career as a scientist with Johnson & Johnson, he opted to close down the business entirely instead of trying to-go sales.
“We’re not taking any chances with people’s health,” he said. “I’m taking it in stride. But call me in July if this is still going on, and I’ll probably be very nervous.”
Up in Newark, Midnight Oil Brewing Company hosted its trivia night via Facebook, and it’s still keeping its rotating food truck schedule.
“The food trucks have a following, and they absolutely still want to come to serve people. If we pull out now, that’s just going to hurt them,” said T.J. McGrath, one of the owners of Midnight Oil. “We also have a pretty serious trivia crew that we don’t want to disappoint, so we’re trying it out. We’re trying to maintain business as much as possible.
But it’s also forcing some new add-ons for the brewery as well. McGrath said he’s looking into opening the merchandise store online so people can buy hoodies and T-shirts.
Nearby at Autumn Arch Beer Project that opened up last spring, Jimmy Vennard also opted to close down the tap room for sit-down service. But that doesn’t mean they can’t sell beer by the can.
“We did have plans to can beer once a quarter, so we already had it planned for St. Patrick’s Day, which I guess was lucky,” Vennard told DBT. “Now we’re going to increase that frequency since it’s going to be our main revenue source here on out. It’s a very strange and uncertain time, for sure.”
Autumn Arch started to can three beers, but now that’s going to grow, Vennard added. He’s not the only one looking at canning as a revenue source right now. Blue Earl Brewing Company and Big Oyster Brewing Company in Rehoboth Beach opted to do curbside take-out orders on beer.
With uncertainty looming due to coronavirus, brewers are trying to take a long-view of the situation and keep things in perspective. What heartens them is strong support from customers and their vendors.
“Customers have a lot of different opinions about [what the government did] but they want to support us,” McGrath said. “Our point-of-order system company Toast is offering to send us gift cards free of charge, so that lets us sell even more gift cards.”
On the bright side, beer has a great shelf life. Whatever is in the fermenters can keep for a while, not forever. However, what’s in the beer kegs and on tap can be maintained at the right temperature.
“That’s the nature of beer,” Vennard said. “Although a hoppy IPA is better fresh. Sales and growlers will sustain us for a while, and I’m sure we will weather this.”
By Katie Tabeling