Craft beer: Like cider doughnuts and pumpkin spice, it’s what we do in October.
But if you are COVID cautious and prefer to quaff your brew outdoors instead of indoors, you better bundle up. This fall, you might be drinking a smooth porter while wearing a parka or hoisting that pint of butt-kicking IPA while wrapped in wool and fleece.
During the summer, local craft breweries expanded their outdoor spaces and added picnic tables and outdoor chairs. Now, they’re putting up tents and putting out portable heaters.
“The majority of them allow for outdoor seating now,” says Dan Kravitz, president of the Capital Craft Beverage Trail. “There are a couple that just don’t have it based on their capacity or their zoning or their location.”
It was “a weird summer,” Kravitz says, and not all breweries handled it the same. “Unfortunately, some of us suffered greatly and some of us excelled, based on different business models and such. We did what we had to do to survive, and a lot of us got pretty creative with it.”
The Capital Craft Beverage Trail’s 2020 Passport, which launched in July, has been a boost, even though the pandemic delayed its debut by a couple of months.
The free Passport, which is available at www.craftbeveragetrail.com and valid through June 2021, lists 52 producers of beer, wine, spirits, cider and kombucha across eight counties, and a map of where to find them. When you visit and get it stamped, you win prizes.
“It does continue to help a great deal with bringing people to businesses that they might not have gone to, or even know about,” says Kravitz. “They are basically exposed to some of the finest producers in all of the Capital District and upstate New York. And we are all independently owned.”
At Frog Alley Brewing on State Street in downtown Schenectady, one of the region’s biggest craft breweries both space-wise and by the volume of beer produced, there are three patios that can seat hundreds of people.
Business has been pretty good, says Jessica Leavitt, director of marketing and events.
“It’s not the capacity that we are used to, just because normally we can fit a lot more people inside and outside, but people have been very understanding of the rules and regulations. Once they adjusted to the mask thing, people were fine.”
The big change was not the outdoor space, which was designed to be flexible, but how customers were served.
“We used to be a big entertainment venue, so there weren’t many tables or chairs. We didn’t do table service. It was all bar service. And because we have liquor, too, we have to serve food. It’s all table service right now. It was really a big adjustment for us.”
Live entertainment has been put on hold.
“There’s nothing coming up in the near future. Just great beer and a good time,” Leavitt says.
Kravitz, who works as director of sales and distribution for Artisanal Brew Works in Saratoga Springs, says those months when they could not allow people in their taproom “kind of put a damper on things but a lot of packaged to-go can sales mitigated that.”
Artisanal transformed a large outside area into a beer garden with tables and chairs. The taproom is also open with limited capacity, as the state rules for tasting rooms are less strict than for bars. “The whole having to serve a meal thing is more for bars and not necessarily for the breweries,” he says.
“We specifically aren’t allowed to have food at all because of our zoning. I can’t have a food truck. I don’t have a kitchen. I’m not allowed to sell pizza. And that’s all because the city of Saratoga decided they wanted to change the way they interpreted our zoning.”
Artisanal has begun the process of moving to a new site on Route 9 in Wilton, where they will set up a taproom and outdoor seating sometime this fall, then close down the taproom and beer garden on Geyser Road in Saratoga Springs. “We’re going to have a tent with space heaters,” Kravitz says.
And what happens when the weather turns brutally cold?
“Unfortunately, that’s a problem,” says Kravitz. “It’s what everyone in the entire service industry is thinking about now because people aren’t going to want to sit outside. We’re just hoping that things are more relaxed so that maybe capacity can increase slightly. I’m hoping for the spring.”
At Artisanal, they will continue to package and sell to-go cans of beer, which breweries that are smaller do not do. “Those are the people that I worry about. They are the ones that are going to suffer the most,” he says.
At Frog Alley, where socially distanced indoor seating is available and reservations are required for indoors and outdoors, they plan to add heaters on the patios very soon, Leavitt says.
“If people don’t mind sitting outside, we’re going to make it so they can do that as long as they can. We’re trying to keep that experience going as long as possible.”