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‘It’s been a year.’ Craft breweries get creative to survive the pandemic.

‘It’s been a year.’ Craft breweries get creative to survive the pandemic.

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WATERLOO — In April, Tammy and Chris Rahn ordered a $26,000 canning machine. Fewer sit-down customers were visiting their Stubborn German Brewing here. Kegged beer wasn’t selling quickly enough. The new canner would work six times as fast and, they hoped, give a shot in the arm to struggling revenues.

“We definitely had to do something,” said Tammy Rahn. “It saved the day.”

Operating a craft brewery has never been easy work. The marketplace is competitive. The days are long. The job is labor-intensive.

The coronavirus pandemic has magnified those challenges. But breweries are surviving, so far, through a combination of heavy lifting and creative thinking. They have sunk time and money into converting parking lots into patios and reconfiguring tasting rooms to meet capacity limits. Owners have added delivery routes, invested in equipment and experimented with new techniques, all in an unceasing battle to keep the fires burning under their brew kettles.

“We work twice as hard for the same amount of money,” Rahn said.

Revenue at independent breweries dropped about 7% last year, according to the Brewers Association, a national trade group. Smaller breweries were squeezed even tighter. Closures, however, held steady — though the association warned that that number could rise sharply this year.

One beacon of hope: People are still drinking. Alcohol sales were up more than 50% last year from 2019. But the way people are drinking has shifted. Grocery and liquor store purchases dominate. At craft breweries, it’s cans over pint glasses, tents over taprooms and date nights over raucous crowds.

Alpha Brewing owner Derrick Langeneckert misses the special events he used to host before the pandemic, but he has held onto his live-music nights — solo acts only. In November, Langeneckert welcomed a piano into his Tower Grove South bar.

“It fell into my lap one day,” he said.

Jackson Pianos, a Central West End store, donated the instrument through its Keys to the Community program. Alpha now holds weekly piano happy hours.

A new canning machine, which arrived in December after a three-month delay, has helped boost packaged sales of Alpha’s signature barrel-aged sours. But overall revenue was down slightly from 2019.

“The next two months will probably be pretty bad,” Langeneckert said. Winter is slow even in normal years.

A consumer-driven market

With festivals and sampling events on hold, brewers have had to find new ways to connect with customers. Some have tweaked their beer styles, partnered with other breweries on collaborations or amped up their social media presence.

A quiet Saturday at 2nd Shift Brewing on the Hill inspired a Facebook raffle — one ticket for every $10 spent — to win a Zoom tasting session with co-owner Steve Crider.

“To make things kind of limited is definitely a draw,” said his wife, Libby Crider.

Early in the pandemic, 2nd Shift began experimenting with sweeter recipes, like pastry stouts and milkshake IPAs.

“It used to be, ‘This is what we’ve produced. Drink it if you like it,’” said Libby Crider. “It’s changed from a brewery-dictated market to a consumer-driven market.”

So far, 2nd Shift has poured $10,000 into upgrading and expanding what was once a tiny outdoor patio. Its tasting room has been shuttered since March, but the Criders hope to reopen it this spring, with a new HVAC system for better ventilation.

Earthbound Beer‘s taproom on Cherokee Street also remains closed. Owners Stuart Keating and Jeff Siddons don’t feel comfortable scheduling a reopening yet, even though 80% of their sales hinge on bar service. Instead of the thousand-barrel year Earthbound was expecting in 2020, they didn’t even hit 400, Keating said.

To adapt, they’ve purchased two small fermenters to make smaller batches more often and in more variety. They also expanded their merchandise lines, and added flowers, lights and walls to their patio. Still, they’ve had to reduce staff by three to five. Keating stopped taking a paycheck in September.

It’s not just the financial loss that stings. Walking into an empty bar each day takes a toll.

“It’s about money and morale,” Keating said. “You can run out of one, but not both.”

Brand loyalty

Bigger breweries are on better footing. They have more outlets to absorb on-site losses, more space to social distance and better name recognition.

In a typical year, Schlafly brews about 30,000 barrels and ships its ales, meads and lagers to retailers in 12 states.

“Our brand seems to be growing,” said CEO Fran Caradonna. “People don’t want to fiddle with something they’ve never heard of.”

Schlafly had just taken over a third location, at the former Trailhead in St. Charles, when the pandemic temporarily shuttered that space, as well as Bottleworks in Maplewood and the Tap Room, west of downtown.

A big reopening celebration for Trailhead, rechristened Bankside, didn’t happen as planned. But since May, off-premise sales in St. Charles have increased by 40%, which Caradonna credits to increased awareness of the Schlafly name.

The past 11 months haven’t been painless, though. A few office workers had to be furloughed or laid off. Restaurant staff had their hours cut. Juggling COVID-19 regulations in three different jurisdictions — St. Charles County, St. Louis and St. Louis County — has been complicated. And even with a spike in store business, Schlafly made and sold less beer.

“We did whatever we could to get by,” said Caradonna. “It’s been a year.”

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