In a New York Minute:
How Everything Changed for NYC Breweries During the Pandemic
By Dave Chase
The coronavirus has dominated every aspect of American life this year, with efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19 upending the ways people work, travel, and socialize.
New York City emerged this Spring as the epicenter of the pandemic, and while breweries were deemed an essential business from the start, the resulting restrictions have completely changed the way breweries in the city do business. From supply chain to distribution, New York breweries have had to quickly adapt to accommodate the new realities of pandemic life.
City-Wide ‘Last Call’ Forces Breweries to Think Outside the Keg
In mid-March, as predictions of the virus’ inevitable course through New York became increasingly dire, Governor Andrew Cuomo mandated the closure of all non-essential businesses to help stop the spread. Breweries were deemed essential, as were all food and beverage manufacturers, and were able to continue operating. However, breweries were no longer permitted to sell beer for on-premise consumption, erasing a major pillar of revenue.
“Smaller breweries with a sole focus on taproom sales suffered the most,” said Paul Leone, executive director of the New York State Brewers Association. Paying some of the highest rents in the country, craft breweries in New York City rely on high-margin taproom sales to defray operating costs.
Since indoor dining was on indefinite hiatus, breweries could no longer count on revenue from keg sales to restaurants and bars across the city. “Larger packaging breweries suffered a big hit with their kegged beer sales, many of which are now out of code and will most likely have to be dumped,” said Leone in April. A NYSBA survey from April found that New York City breweries were especially hard hit by the pandemic, with 55 percent of city breweries halting operations during the city-wide shut down.
The same survey found that 63 percent of full-time brewery staff were furloughed or let go when lockdown restrictions went into effect. According to Time Out NY, Threes Brewing Company furloughed nearly all of its staff across three locations in Gowanus, Greenpoint, and Governor’s Island even before the lockdown went into effect.
Some businesses never reopened. The Brooklyn Cider House permanently closed its Bushwick location in June, unable to keep up with high operating expenses without revenue from taproom sales or private events. The company relocated its operations upstate and its offerings are available for delivery.
Breweries that remained in operation had to adapt to the new regulations – and fast. With taproom sales kaput and no one to sell kegs to, many breweries adopted a twofold business approach in the early lockdown months: getting their beer into cans, and then getting those cans safely to their customers.
“At the start of the pandemic, like most small and independent breweries, we quickly needed to adjust our existing business model, which for us meant pivoting almost entirely to packaging in 16-ounce cans,” said Basil Lee, a founder of Finback Brewery in Glendale, Queens.
Many smaller breweries, without the resources to can their beers, invested in crowler machines (crowlers are large cans that are filled from a keg, akin to a growler). According to Bart Watson, chief economist of the Brewers Association, sales in April at a leading crowler machine supplier were up 12-fold from the norm.
Breweries with the capacity to can their offerings made them available for socially distanced curbside pickup and, in a first for New York, direct delivery to customers’ residences. The catch: Delivery customers had to order a food item along with their beer, in order to comply with the State Liquor Authority’s March 17th ordinance allowing to-go alcohol and delivery sales.
Other Half Brewing Co., in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, satisfied this policy with a $1 bag of chips tacked onto all delivery orders.
App-y Hour for NYC as Brewery Sales Go Digital
New York City breweries harnessed the magic of online to navigate the upturned craft beer market. While breweries continued to use social media to keep customers abreast of new releases, they now directed patrons to digital storefronts where they could place an order for pickup or schedule a beer delivery to their door. Industry software providers such as Craftpeak worked with local luminaries Evil Twin in Ridgewood, Queens and Other Half to overhaul their websites into functioning points of sale.
Several other breweries, including Brooklyn Brewery and Grimm Artisanal Ales (both located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn), have made their beers available through delivery apps like Caviar and GrubHub to expand direct distribution during the lockdown.
Along with online delivery, breweries found new ways to reach customers not willing or able to travel to the brewery. Breweries like Other Half ramped up the amount of canned beer sent out to retailers across the five boroughs, allowing them to reach more New Yorkers as well as support local brew shops struggling through the pandemic.
Furthermore, New York State temporarily allowed breweries to ship their beer to customers living anywhere in New York State. “That changed everything,” said Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø, founder of Evil Twin, in June. “We went from selling no beer to selling out.”
The quick shift to web-based shipping and delivery sales established crucial streams of revenue for breweries across the city. Many were able to rehire some of their furloughed workers to fill new roles in the restructured operation. “Our bartenders [were] now delivery drivers and servers [were] now packing for shipping,” said Stylman. To stay afloat during lockdown, the team at Threes worked “to reinvent the whole supply chain in under a week”.
Breweries centered their new business models on connecting directly with consumers. “We went from selling maybe 20 percent direct-to-customer to 90 percent plus,” said Jarnit-Bjergsø.
The new ways New York craft beer lovers could support their local brewery were cataloged by NYC on Tap, a website created by beer writer Courtney Iseman. The site detailed each brewery’s to-go and delivery policies with links to their social media and web stores. “I just want all these businesses to get as much support as possible during this scary time,” Iseman told Thrillist in March.
New York’s tight-knit craft beer community looked to support brewers and hospitality workers nationwide that had been furloughed or laid off due to the pandemic. In March, Other Half launched a worldwide collaborative beer called All Together, inviting breweries around the globe to brew their own version and donate proceeds to the Restaurant Workers Community Foundation.
The web portal for the project, created by Craftpeak, allowed breweries to access the recipe and design and print labels for their own iterations. The project received a massive response, with 855 breweries across 53 countries participating.
Open Container Laws? Fuhgeddaboudit: Phase 2 Brings the Taproom Outside
As the lockdown months of Spring turned to Summer and rates of infection flattened, a small semblance of normalcy returned. On June 22nd, New York entered Phase 2 of the city’s reopening plan, allowing breweries to serve beer to patrons at socially distanced outdoor tables.
Evil Twin, Finback, and Strong Rope Brewery in Gowanus, among others, quickly welcomed back customers for open air service, either in spacious backyards or makeshift street side tables. Other breweries, like Threes and Grimm, delayed their outdoor reopening until later in the summer, either due to the logistics of creating a safety compliant outdoor space or a desire to wait and see if infection rates stayed low amid reopening.
In lieu of outdoor seating at their taprooms, some New York breweries found creative new ways to serve summer sippers. Starting in July, Other Half parked a pop-up beer truck at Rockefeller Center each weekend, offering cans to-go or to crack and enjoy. Brooklyn Brewery hosted several pop-up events at its Williamsburg brewery over the summer. Grimm even added 20-liter to-go kegs to their curbside pickup menu for those hosting socially distanced backyard barbecues.
NYC Breweries Define ‘New Normal’ Differently, But Find Strength in Community
With Summer in the rearview and city officials bracing for a second wave of infection, the coming Winter months have cast a pall of uncertainty over New York. Recent spikes around the city have caused Gov. Cuomo to shutter non-essential businesses in several neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. It remains to be seen if or when the second wave will hit New York, and this uncertainty is reflected in the varying approaches breweries around the city have taken towards reopening their taprooms.
When indoor dining returned to the city in September, several breweries with in-house food service, like Greenpoint Beer & Ale Co. and Bronx-based Gun Hill Brewing Company, quickly opened for indoor seating to accommodate the 25% capacity allowed by the state.
Others, like Threes and Keg & Lantern Brewing in Greenpoint, have yet to reopen for indoor service, continuing to offer outdoor seating or curbside pickup only. Meanwhile, Other Half does not offer any on-site consumption at their Brooklyn taproom.
Despite the unpredictability of the moment, some New York breweries are forging ahead with expansion plans. Other Half debuted a new brewery in Washington, D.C. earlier this month and is set to open a second Brooklyn location at the Domino Park waterfront development in Williamsburg later this fall. Strong Rope has a new brewery in the works in Red Hook, Brooklyn and recently opened a weekend pop-up taproom outside the construction site. Big Alice Brewing in Long Island City, Queens recently announced plans to open their second brewery in upstate New York, while Evil Twin will be opening an outpost in DUMBO, Brooklyn early next year.
While breweries around the city have taken different approaches to reopening, they continue to come together to support the local community and connect with beer lovers far and wide.
Case in point: the NYC Brewers Guild, a consortium of 38 New York breweries, hosts an event called Blocktoberfest each year to highlight the local beer scene. With large in-person gatherings out of the question, the guild reinvented Blocktoberfest as a series of beer shipments, each containing an assortment of cans from member breweries. Four different boxes showcasing the best beer New York City has to offer were available for delivery in 31 states, with proceeds benefiting the guild.
The unique problems caused by the coronavirus have rocked The Big Apple to its core, and many of the city’s defining features continue to hang in limbo. Despite the surreality of empty Broadway theaters during the holidays and open subway seats during rush hour, New Yorkers have adapted to redefine a new sense of normalcy amid the pandemic.
Thankfully, craft breweries in the city have found a way to continue making world-class beer through it all. Because at this point we could all use a drink.