“Make or break” summer for craft breweries

“Make or break” summer for craft breweries
Although only one craft brewery has closed in Washington state since the COVID-19 outbreak, the industry has still taken a financial hit. Photo: freepik.com

Although only one of the 420 craft breweries in Washington state has closed since businesses were shuttered due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the next four months could be critical for many breweries that are struggling with an enormous drop in revenue and are largely dependent on summer business. Whether sales improve will depend on how comfortable Washingtonians are with the idea of returning to their favorite local breweries.

Washington Beer Commission Executive Director Eric Radovich told Lens “this’ll be a make or break summer, and I’m hopeful that we won’t make one step forward and two steps back.”

That said, he remains optimistic. “A lot of folks are looking forward to returning to their neighborhood watering hole. I think we’ll see people come back to the breweries. This is really beer drinking season. Hopefully getting some people back in their tasting rooms will start to see the tide turn.”

The initial response by Washington beer enthusiasts so far in areas allowed to reopen appears to be positive. The Seattle Times reports that Backwoods Brewing located in Skamania County had its biggest weekend in its eight years of operation despite scaling back to a 50-percent capacity in its beer garden due to implementing social distancing requirements.

It’s an outcome 192 Brewing Owner Derek Wychoff hopes to see repeated with his establishment on “Brew Row” in Kenmore along the Burke-Gilman Trail once he’s allowed to reopen. Like Backwoods Brewing, his brewery features a beer garden that is popular during the summer and helps make up for lower sales during the winter.

“We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” Wychoff said. “The people we get that are coming in are very encouraging. They tell us they can’t wait to come in and have a beer, but we don’t know about the rest of them. I think the question that we’re all holding our breath for is what does public feel is appropriate right now? Just because restaurants can get to 50-percent capacity doesn’t mean the public is comfortable.”

A recent survey by the Washington Beer Blog of 1,100 people found that more than 50 percent of respondents were likely or very likely to visit a brewery or taproom once the establishments reopen. Roughly 17 percent weren’t sure, and 21 percent were very unlikely to do so. That apprehension by some was also reflected in a survey by Reuben’s Brew in Seattle, which found 42 percent of 1,452 people were hesitant to attend large gatherings or events at that brewery. Only 13 percent of respondents said they would attend and stay as long as they would have normally.

The survey also found that 77 percent said they were concerned “about the behavior of other guests” when planning a visit to the brewery. During a May 26 podcast discussing the survey results, Reuben’s Brew cofounder Adam Robbings said the health concern reveals “the importance of table service – to be able to manage the space in a more proactive way. I think that’s important.”

It may also help keep the steady flow of customers coming in that breweries will need to make up for the decline in sales over the past three months. Radovich says breweries right now are getting around 25 percent of their normal sales. Though they’ve received personal payment protection (PPP) loans and small business loans, he said some have had to lay off or furlough employees. “They’re able to tread water to this point. If this had happened in the fall and moving into the winter, it would have been a totally different scenario.”

Like other craft breweries, Wychoff said he’s turned to curbside service, to-go purchases and deliveries in order to continue operating. However, “it’s been a fraction of what we’re used to and a fraction of what we need to be financially sustainable. It’s like a squirrel. In summertime, we’re grabbing all the nuts and hiding them, and this year we don’t have any.”

Even if he’s allowed to reopen soon and sees strong sales throughout the summer, Wychoff said he’s looking at ways to increase winter business. “We’ve got to figure out new places for revenue.”

Incidentally, both Radovich and Wychoff say the situation has strengthened the ties between the industry and their respective communities.

“I’ve been impressed that folks don’t want to lose their local brewery,” Radovich said. “Around the state, people have stepped up and found ways to help these small businesses and their employees.”

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