When New York state shut down last year, Max Oswald’s mind flashed to all the people he’s worked with in the brewery business.
“I was hanging out in my house and I was like, ‘I’m going to go have a beer’ and I realized I couldn’t because everybody was closed,” said Oswald, the general manager of Northway Brewing Co. “Then I thought about the owner and the staff.”
After realizing just how devastating an impact the pandemic would have on people in the hospitality industry, Oswald knew he needed to do something about it. He immediately got in touch with a few other breweries in Warren and Saratoga counties.
“We got together and did this beer called Negative Input, sold it and donated all the proceeds from that into a fund called Brewnited, and then took applications and did direct payments to hospitality workers who were affected by COVID,” Oswald said.
The lager, whose name is based on a Twiddle song called “White Light,” sold well among the local breweries involved, including Northway, Common Roots, Bolton Landing, Adirondack, Druthers and Artisanal.
At that point, Oswald knew some people in the industry couldn’t yet receive unemployment assistance and were financially struggling, without any relief programs in sight. Brewnited was meant to help bridge that gap.
“We set the website up so it could take donations, so we were getting money through the sale of the beer and people were stoked, [and] they were making donations. It just had this organic growth,” Oswald said.
Things snowballed from there with help from the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce.
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“The mission really just struck me because [at] the chamber, we had been sort of hyperfocused on helping the hospitality business and here was Max walking in going, ‘Yeah, that’s nice, but we’ve also got to take care of the employees.’ So it resonated,” said Todd Shimkus, president of the chamber.
Ball Corporation approached Shimkus in the spring with news that the company wanted to donate to help employees in the hospitality industry. He pointed them to Brewnited and Ball which has a branch in Saratoga, donated $10,000.
Around that same time, Death Wish Coffee began raising thousands of dollars to put toward the fund. As these larger donations poured in, Oswald established 501(c)(3) status and Brewnited turned into the nonprofit We Are Brewnited.
In the late fall, they rolled out phase two of fundraising and giving back, called Help for the Holidays.
“We’d now opened it up to the entire Capital Region, for anybody that just needed a little something, and there were no strings attached, no nothing,” Oswald said.
Many of the requests came from people who simply needed help paying a bill or getting gifts for their kids for the holidays. “ … Some of it was down to the penny. Like, ‘I need to pay this bill,’ ” Oswald said. “It was kinda neat how everybody seemed to feel it for what it was. There were no ‘I want $1,000’ or ‘I need $5,000.’ It was, ‘I haven’t been able to get unemployment but my application’s pending; $300 would be the best.’ ”
“I’ve seen the thank-you notes that Max got from people that literally just got a check in the mail for something really specific of need. I don’t know of anybody else that was doing that kind of work,” Shimkus said. “[There were] no questions asked. We’re all just trusting each other and making sure that we’re stronger together in those situations.”
Most recently, with another donation from Ball, Brewnited has opened up an additional round of funding, this time for anyone from hospitality workers to health care workers and first responders. People can nominate someone they know has done something kind in the community and helped others.
“ … Everybody knows somebody who did something nice for somebody. So why don’t we just say thanks to them in the form of a gift certificate to their favorite restaurant or bar?” Oswald said.
The benefits are twofold, providing people a night off from cooking as well as supporting local eateries and bars.
“At least for our business, we’ve weathered this thing very well, not like our partners,” Oswald said. “If small breweries didn’t have all those bars and restaurants, we wouldn’t have our business. They’re the ones that gave us the opportunity to get our product out and build our customer base, and that’s why I thought it was so important to try to do something to help those guys out when we could.”
Brewnited has been accepting nominations since March 24, and each one comes with a story.
“These stories … you forget, especially now, the real wear and tear some of these families had to go through. That’s what we got a lot of this time, a lot of co-workers and husbands and wives just saw the strength in somebody, but it’s been exactly what I would have hoped for. Hopefully, they’ll go out and have a great time, and it just lightens everybody’s mood,” Oswald said.
So far they’ve been able to assist more than 300 people and have raised roughly $60,000, according to Oswald. While contributions from the breweries and corporations have helped, most of the people donating are community members giving what they can.
In one such instance, he noticed several donations come in right around the same time in February, which had been a slower month for donations. He was surprised and couldn’t figure out why they’d started coming in again, until he was out and about having a beer and a woman introduced herself and said that for her birthday, she’d asked her friends and family to donate to Brewnited instead of buying her gifts.
Experiences like that, as well as reading nominations for community members who have lifted others up during the pandemic, have been rewarding.
“This isn’t what we do [at Northway] but it’s just something that felt like it was the right thing to do,” Oswald said.
For information or to donate, visit wearebrewnited.com.
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