On Sunday, the bay door facing the parking lot was rolled up at Flounder Brewing Co. in Hillsborough, giving the trickle of customers a wide berth to step inside, pick up beer orders that had been placed online, and quickly get back to their car.
There was no tour, no samples poured, no socializing with friends or brewers. With the current coronavirus pandemic requiring us to socially isolate, beer—the most social of beverages—has moved to our homes. The brewery taprooms, which have grown to well over 120 in the Garden State over the last few years, have fallen silent.
“Every day is different and every day you need to figure out something new that you didn’t have to before,” says Jeremy Lees, founder of Flounder Brewing Co. In recent weeks, as COVID-19 has caused shutdowns and upended everyday life, he, like many other brewers in the state, has laid off or furloughed employees as business has dropped off.
Although the taprooms are closed, the state has deemed breweries “essential” and that has allowed the small businesses to keep their doors open for production and to-go sales. This means that cans and bottles filled at breweries can go directly to customers as well as keeping distributors or liquor stores well stocked.
Some breweries, like Flounder, are filling “crowlers”, 32-ounce aluminum cans, from their draft lines, or glass growlers from brewery stock. Outside packages from customers are not available for fills.
“It helps us keep better controls on our sanitary procedures,” Lees says.
When the shutdowns began in March, the state also gave breweries the ability to deliver beer direct to consumers. In Jersey City, Brian Kulbacki of Departed Soles Brewing Co. delivered beer on a bike to anywhere within three miles of his brewery. Carton Brewing in Atlantic Highlands had vans voyaging in a 10-mile radius. It was an unexpected lifeline that allowed breweries to keep staff on and paid.
Then Governor Murphy took the delivery option away, only to reinstate the practice nearly a week later after a new deal was reached. Two separate advocacy groups that represent New Jersey brewers say delivery will continue through the crisis and then specific legislation could be introduced to make it permanent.
Those allowances only go so far in a world of restrictions.
Breweries in the state “are struggling, as you can imagine, but the brewer motto is ‘improvise, adapt, and overcome’ so everyone is doing something different but doing what they need to do,” says Alexis Degan, the executive director of the New Jersey Brewers Association (NJBA).
“It’s a crisis an hour,” says Eric Orlando, the executive director of the Brewers Guild of New Jersey. “Everyone is working together through this.”
New Jersey is currently the only state that has two separate brewers groups representing state-wide interests, according to the Brewers Association, a national group.
Beer festivals have been postponed or canceled and some breweries, like Kane Brewing in Ocean, have sent out cans of IPA originally designed for a brewery-only release to its distribution network. Other breweries have also been streaming live music out of their empty taprooms to online audiences or hosted virtual happy hours.
Other brewers are supplying raw materials to local distilleries to help them increase production of hand sanitizer.
In the days leading up to the restrictions, brewers quickly moved to set up online shops to receive online orders, or handle processing of gift cards. They also set up virtual tip jars to let customers personally assist bartenders that have been affected by the shutdowns.
At Bolero Snort Brewing Co. in Carlstadt, one customer took that to the next level.
“A customer placed an [online] beer order and added a $25 gift card. When he got [to the brewery] to pick it up he told us to keep it and use it for a raffle for first responders,” says Scott Wells, a co-owner of the brewery. “So we did and we put up a post and added some swag. Our hat vendor saw the post and called and bought a $25 gift card to double down. Someone yesterday saw it and called and bought a $50 gift card. So, it has just taken on a thing of its own and it’s actually been really cool all because of one dude adding to his order.”
Still, talking to brewers around the state there is an overall sense of worry. Bills are still due and despite customer support and possible government subsidie, it might not be enough for some breweries to keep their doors open and business running long-term.
“It’s going to be difficult for everyone to come out of this okay,” says NJBA’s Degan.