Brewers striving to survive pandemic despite uncertainty

Wisconsin craft brewers are demonstrating a strong will to survive the pandemic, despite their uncertainty about Wisconsin’s economy coming out of COVID-19.

“Our brewers are entrepreneurs by nature, so they’ve been able to come up with some creative ways to just keep things going as best they can,” said Mark Garthwaite, president of the Wisconsin Brewers Guild.

“Circumstances are different for everyone depending on size and what their business model looks like, so I would say brew pubs that are also restaurants are in a more difficult position than most production breweries,” said Garthwaite. “Breweries that package in bottles and cans at least are still able to maintain some level of product and sales, but that’s obviously not great. But they’re hanging on the best they can just like everyone else has.”

Before Gov. Tony Evers’ “Safer at Home” order, New Glarus Brewing had already broken up shifts into rotations to start physical distancing, measures that “impacted our ability to make beer,” said Deb Carey, founder and president.

She said New Glarus Brewing will hold on as long as it takes, even if the pandemic and stay-at-home orders continue for the next few years. 

“I started the brewery from nothing… and we’ll stay here and fight and we’ll figure it out,” she said. 

According to Carey, New Glarus Brewing’s largest priority is to get masks so employees can work closer together. She’s also looking to state elected officials to work together. 

“I’m very appreciative of Gov. Evers leadership and his calm and thoughtful response to not only the closure but how he lined out how he would reopen,” she said. “I’m really disappointed that he’s had to deal with several Supreme Court challenges while he’s doing that; it doesn’t seem very cooperative to me. That’s the big thing that I would hope for is a little less politics and a little more cooperation.”

With its largest buyer segment closed down, New Glarus Brewing will collect close to 10,000 partial kegs from closed-down bars and restaurants and will trade them in with full, fresh kegs for reopening, “so people aren’t out any money for their partial kegs.” 

Additionally, New Glarus has closed its gift shop and its beer depot.

And while beer sales are steady in grocery and liquor stores, “it’s certainly not making up for having to be closed and losing all of our draft business,” said Carey.

“It’s expensive, but I think at a certain point you have to make a choice of ‘where does your heart lie,’ and for us, it’s the people that are most important,” Carey said.

In Eau Claire, William Glass, president of The Brewing Projekt says it too can keep going, perhaps indefinitely, as the brewery finds ways to make up for losses of about $25,000 a week as a result of closing its taproom. 

Glass said one way it made up for the deficit in retail was by exporting beer to diversified wholesale markets and other states such as Georgia — “whose stay-home order doesn’t really exist” and Oregon — “where they’re on the tail end of the curve due to early rates of infection.” The Brewing Projekt also transitioned to putting all its beer in cans.  

“While we won’t see the same growth we expected for 2020, I don’t believe we’re in any jeopardy,” said Glass. 

But like New Glarus Brewing, beer production has been impacted by limiting the amount of staff in the building at the same time by half in order to follow social distancing recommendations. 

In order to get products to consumers more effectively during the pandemic, Glass is looking to the state government for short-term relief by adjusting current statutes. 

“The market has changed so much over the last five years that current statutes are holding back entrepreneurs from success,” said Glass. “Now with stay-home orders and concerns about the virus we’re just all a little on edge and asking for some common sense to be applied to how our industry is regulated (and) governed.”

He suggested legislators consider “modernizing” Wisconsin’s alcohol laws to make it easier for beer to be delivered, ordered online or directly shipped to consumers.  

Garthwaite also noted the regulations on alcohol beverages present unique challenges such as that sales for beer have to be face-to-face.

“We’ve had to figure out ways to be compliant with that statute that requires that face-to-face transaction, but also make sure that we are doing it in a way that is safe for customers, he said. “It took us a while, but we figured out a way to be compliant and do those transactions safely.”

Meanwhile, Carey is optimistic that regardless of relief, Wisconsin breweries will come out of the pandemic ahead. 

“By and large, we are small breweries, we are located in areas where we know our community and we’re good employers,” she said. “I think that this will really push consumers back to being aware of the importance of supporting small local businesses, farmers, dairies and breweries. While we are suffering now, I am optimistic that Wisconsin will return to their roots and support small brewers.” 

–By Stephanie Hoff