Washington Breweries Struggle to Survive During Coronavirus Pandemic

All across the Evergreen State, taprooms have gone silent. Keg washers stand idle. Planned beer releases have been postponed or canceled. Brewers delay purchases of new tanks and equipment. And employees are sent home to wait for an unemployment check and the eventual return of something resembling business as usual. 

Even before Washington governor Jay Inslee issued his first emergency proclamation about COVID-19 on February 29, the novel coronavirus had already spread far and wide. As of this week, the Centers for Disease Control has confirmed cases in 173 countries. The pandemic has challenged governments and businesses of all sizes, and isn’t finished claiming lives or beating up the global economy. No industry has been spared from the recession brought on by this infectious disease, but necessary social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders have hit tourism and hospitality particularly hard. In other words, for the more than 400 breweries across the state, from Aberdeen to Walla Walla and from Bellingham to Vancouver, the going has gotten very tough. 

Making every effort to adapt and persevere, Washington breweries have invested in 32-ounce Crowlers, pleaded for help from local and federal government, and pivoted to mail order and home delivery, but for many, doing business during the era of COVID-19 has become a very real struggle for survival. 

Well 80 Brewhouse
Well 80 Brewhouse – Olympia, WA

“Like a lot of breweries our size we have seen our sales drop dramatically because of the shutdown,” says Paul Pearson, head brewer at Olympia’s Well 80 Brewhouse. “Production continues for now. I am assuming the shutdown will last at least a month so [I] am brewing some lagers that will benefit from extended aging. I have also moved some barrel-aged beer into kegs so I can fill the barrels back up with beer to free up brite tank space. I will only be able to produce beer for another week or two before all my tanks and kegs are full.”

Talking about access to ingredients and packaging materials, Pearson says he hasn’t experienced any disruption in his supply chain so far, but adds that Well 80 is inadequately prepared if the shutdown lasts more than two months. Most of the employees on the restaurant side have already been laid off, and at a time when the two-year-old company was ready to invest in a new brite tank, it’s forced to wait. Aside from his own fortunes, Pearson also fears for the overall brewing industry in Washington. 

“I do get the feeling that a lot of business, breweries included, will be closing [their] doors permanently because of this,” he says. “The only way a lot of breweries will survive will be through grants and bill forgiveness.”

Aslan Brewing CEO Jack Lamb
Aslan Brewing CEO Jack Lamb

Jack Lamb, CEO of Bellingham’s Aslan Brewing shares Pearson’s concern. “The only thing that would really help would be free money. A grant of some sort,” he says. “I appreciate the effort for low interest loans, but I can’t afford to go further and further into debt. If things get really bad, many of us would only really benefit from bail out.”

Aslan Brewing canning line cans

Lamb says that Aslan, the state’s 14th largest brewer, has shifted nearly all production from kegs to cans. And the company has essentially cut all new beer production aside from flagship brands. Nevertheless, it went ahead with previously planned small batch releases like Timber Cruiser, a mixed culture saison brewed to celebrate the anniversary of Elizabeth Station, a local bottle shop. And on the horizon is this year’s run of the hazy, hoppy Cosmic Dreams, which will be widely distributed for the first time. Despite the expected demand for a New England-style IPA, Aslan’s CEO says the decision to package it wasn’t an easy one. “Investing in a truckload of cans at this time is scary AF.” 

In Seattle, breweries are trying to roll with the punches, adjusting operations according to the latest guidance from public health officials. After postponing its annual sour beer day event scheduled for March 7, Lucky Envelope announced a week later that it would temporarily close its tasting room before quickly revising its messaging the following day to announce a full closure. As of April 1, the company had shifted to a beer-to-go model, offering online ordering for pickup at the tasting room. 

“Things have been difficult,” says co-founder and brewmaster Barry Chan. “We definitely didn’t have a ‘global epidemic-related slowdown lasting more than 3 months’ scenario in our disaster planning exercises when we were starting our brewery. Outside of long-term projects like our sour program, our beer production has effectively stopped.”

Lucky Envelope Brewing’s Barry Chan. Photo by Ben Keene.

Joining the ranks of other breweries with upcoming birthdays—as well the organizers of Bellingham Beer Week and Seattle Beer Week—Lucky Envelope put its fifth anniversary plans on hold. Chan also pushed pause on a number of upcoming collaborations. But he describes the current situation as manageable and says small businesses like his are used to overcoming adversity on a daily basis. Chan hasn’t stopped thinking about the future though, and says he’s found a sense of solidarity in the knowledge that everyone is facing the challenges posed by COVID-19 together. 

“We continue to look long term and are continuing to plan growth for the next 2–5 years. However, to say those plans aren’t affected by today’s predicament is lying.”

Engine House No. 9 E9

Tacoma’s E9 Brewing had hoped to celebrate both the first anniversary of its Fawcett Avenue taproom as well as a bigger milestone for the company itself the first weekend of May. Now those parties are up in the air. And without draft accounts or taproom sales to rely on, E9, like many of its peers, is scraping by while waiting for lagers to condition. According to sales and marketing manager Donovan Stewart, the brewery is down to just two employees, and they’re both focused on canning as much beer as humanly possible.   “We are hoping to celebrate our 25th this year at some point,” he says. “Obviously, we are all in the dark [about] how long this situation will continue. Unfortunately, the only way to really help this situation, is for the general public to battle the spread of this virus. We wish good health to everyone and thank everyone that has helped us so far. It will be interesting to see how large crowded events are going to be once the limits are relaxed.”

Ben Keene
Ben Keene

Author of The Great Northeast Brewery Tour and a contributor to The Oxford Companion to Beer, Ben Keene has judged beer competitions across the United States and frequently speaks at industry conferences and conventions. He lives in Seattle.

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