SCHENECTADY — Local craft brewing relies heavily on local craft beer fans.
So local craft brewers are left hoping that the pandemic shutdown, as disruptive as it has been, isn’t followed by a new normal that leaves a long-lasting crimp in their industry.
Crowded taprooms, comfort foods eaten elbow-to-elbow with the people on either side, sports on the big screen or live music on a small stage — all the things that bring people out to their local brewer instead of making a beer run to the local store read like a checklist of what not to do in the era of COVID-19.
Keeping consumers and employees safe while slaking thirst and making money is a balance brewers will need to strike.
Wolf Hollow Brewing Company in Glenville has seen its wholesale business evaporate as the restaurants and bars that serve its beer shut down. Its Route 5 taproom is a quiet place these days. Masked customers duck in, pick up their beer and leave without a chance to create the beer hall atmosphere that prevails in happier times.
But that’s been the saving grace, said co-owner Peter Bednarek — people are making the drive to buy beer and support a place they like while it’s struggling.
“I’ve been so grateful to our customers, our Wolf Hollow family,” he said. “I think people talked about local and a certain percentage [did buy local for sake of local]. But during this crisis it has never been more evident to me. It’s been so tangible to see people making conscious decisions to buy local.”
The brewery’s small full-time staff scrambled in March to completely rework the business model.
“We shifted to a delivery model, we shifted to an online store almost overnight,” Bednarek said. “We are still getting very steady business.”
One bright spot: Demand has doubled for its canned beer. The brewery doesn’t have its own canning line but uses a mobile service that stops by more often since the pandemic set in.
J.T. Pollard, owner of Frog Alley Brewing in Schenectady, said it breaks down like this for the young brewery:
There are three revenue streams in his business model.
Distribution of kegged beer to 150 bars and restaurants has a smaller profit margin but is important for visibility and brand; it has all but stopped as those venues are closed.
Wholesale distribution of canned beer to supermarkets and beverage stores has a bigger profit margin, and has actually seen an increase in sales during the shutdown. Frog Alley has its own canning line, which is a big boost.
The taproom is normally the biggest source of revenue but has been reduced to filling growler jugs with beer for aficionados.
“Our taproom with the live music is a vibrant place,” Pollard said, and can pull in $25,000 on a Friday or Saturday.
The taproom is part of a multifaceted complex nearing completion on lower State Street that will include brewing production, education and experimentation. Frog Alley has a second, smaller taproom ready to go and will produce a series of limited-edition beers to serve there.
But not until the state says it can reopen.
“We’d like to get this thing going,” Pollard said.
Great Flats Brewing has a series of rollup glass doors across the front of its Lafayette Street facility, which makes for ideal takeout orders.
“We’re doing OK,” said owner Harry Whalen. “Obviously it's not great but we do to-go sales and we’re lucky we're in a position to do that. That’s sort of keeping us afloat through this."
The 3-year-old brewery can fill customers' growlers with assorted beers or it can fill and seal its own 32-ounce cans, called crowlers.
“Most of our sales are in crowlers,” Whalen said. “We just open one of those overhead doors. It’s very low-touch and quick. We did it a few days when it was snowing.”
Great Flats has cut back on its brewing amid the crisis. Demand is down, and one of the main selling points of local craft beer is freshness, so it’s better not to brew too much.
“We’re sort of easing into that,” Whalen said. He restarted brewing again last week after a hiatus of more than a month.
To varying degrees, the experiences of these three Schenectady County craft brewers mirror the situation statewide, said Paul Leone, executive director of the New York State Brewers Association.
“The majority of them have been able to hang in there because of the temporary privileges given to them by the state Liquor Authority,” he said, referring to delivery and curbside pickup.
"The great unknown right now is what opening that taproom will look like."
The regions of upstate New York are in Phase 1 of reopening the economy. Taprooms would be in Phase 3, four weeks away at a minimum if the pandemic doesn't show any resurgence. What sort of restrictions are imposed on gathering in those taprooms will determine how closely they resemble their pre-COVID selves, Leone said.
Brewers are working now to figure out how to protect their taproom staff and customers while retaining the taprooms' function and some of their atmosphere, he added. Social distancing will likely play a big role in that, as it's hard to drink a beer through a mask.