Add local breweries to the list of industries feeling the effects of COVID-19. The steep decline in restaurant and bar business has led to a similar decline in on-site beer sales, leaving kegs of unsold beer stacked in brewery coolers. Taproom sales — the lifeblood of many breweries — have been severely impacted by capacity restrictions and hesitant consumers.
Many breweries have offset this by expanding outdoor seating. But like a finger in the dike, this delayed the flood but was hardly enough to sustain them indefinitely.
The onset of winter threatens to make an already difficult situation even worse. “The winter has historically been the hardest time of year for the taproom.” said Kian Dziak, taproom manager at Broken Clock Brewing Cooperative in Minneapolis. “With capacity restrictions we have to hope that people who come out have bigger tabs, since we can’t fit everyone in for just a beer or two.”
Daniel Justesen, founder of Utepils Brewing in Minneapolis, puts the matter succinctly: “This winter is going to be a game of survivor. We want to be a survivor.”
Breweries are responding by finding ways to maximize resources and develop creative strategies to draw in drinkers.
Embracing the cold
One approach is to simply accept winter for what it is by modifying outdoor spaces to make them tolerable in the cold. “We can’t do anything about the cold. It’s going to be here,” Justesen said. “So, I just said, ‘We’re going to embrace winter.’ ”
Utepils has a large taproom that allows for ample indoor seating even with restrictions. But a major component of its winter plan revolves around their outdoor beer garden. Justesen is counting on the willingness of cold-hardy Minnesotans to dress warmly and venture out. Three large, wind-blocking tents will wrap around the beer garden with a massive firepit anchoring the inside space. Straw bales along one edge will provide semiprivate seating for small groups, with personal firepits available for rental.
Three themed, heated igloos will provide socially distanced patio seating at Broken Clock Brewing Cooperative in Minneapolis. Small groups can rent one for $20 an hour. Reservations will be required to comply with state and city regulations, but walk-ups may be available space-permitting.
Forgotten Star Brewing Co. in Fridley is turning its large yard into an outdoor ice rink. Starting Jan. 3, the brewery will host boot hockey and curling leagues, with 75% of the $400 dues donated to Fridley Youth Athletics. The rink will also be open for family free skating and private parties.
Reimagining existing space
Other breweries are staying indoors, shifting and moving things around to eke out every available nook and cranny for increased taproom capacity.
Beerland at Indeed Brewing Co. is perhaps the most ambitious example. In addition to keeping its patio open, Indeed is converting every inch of space — including in the brewery itself — into themed rooms for maximum socially distanced drinking.
Indoors, the main taproom will continue to operate with tables spilling out into the hallways. The loading dock will be cleared out and deep-cleaned to create the Den, a space they described as being like “the basement den of your cool friend’s parents’ house, except with really good beer.”
Quincy Corner, located in the former event space, has become the center of Indeed’s to-go operation. It’ll have a corner-convenience-store feel with freezer cases containing pizza and items from Broders’ Cucina Italiana.
In the Milling Room, long, beer hall-style tables will be set up in the space where grain is delivered and milled for making beer. New lighting will make it feel less industrial.
The Chow Girls’ third-floor event space will be converted to Up Top at Indeed, tripling the brewery’s indoor capacity. Cozy conversation areas will be separated by wooden dividers, and food offerings will include a custom menu from Centro.
Bent Brewstillery in Roseville will also be expanding into the brewery on Fridays and Saturdays. Tables by the brewhouse and fermentation tanks will have guests literally drinking beer in the place where it is made. Patio heaters will keep that area available for more socially distanced seating.
Steel Toe Brewing in St. Louis Park leased an off-site facility to warehouse cans and other supplies normally housed at the brewery. Expanding the taproom into these storage spaces has given them room for 16 additional tables.
Staying the course
Some breweries are forgoing the incentives to bring drinkers to their taproom, betting instead on increased to-go and delivery sales. For Pete Rifakes at Town Hall Brewery in Minneapolis, it’s a question of throwing good money after bad. While a gimmick may bring customers in once, he said he doesn’t believe the draw would be consistent enough to sustain the brewpub.
Since the start of pandemic, to-go sales have been Town Hall’s bread and butter. They are updating their website to allow for online ordering and are making to-go 750ml crowlers available from their other locations — Town Hall Tap and Town Hall Lanes in Minneapolis and Town Hall Station in Edina, all of which will be open for indoor seating.
This is just a sampling of what’s afoot. Check with your favorite brewery to find out how it plans to deal with the impending cold weather.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at email@example.com.