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84 Days Later, Part I: Starting Phase 1

Enjoying a Pilsner at Bent Shovel Brewing’s Beer Garden on Saturday

This week’s update requires two parts, simply because so much has transpired, thus two different stories must be told. I’m starting with a post that focuses on the reopening of retail taproom locations during the pandemic, but will also be posting a second article on Monday.

On Saturday I headed out to Clackamas County, which, along with every other county in Oregon (other than Portland’s Multnomah County), has entered Phase 1 of reopening. If you take a look at that link, you’ll also notice that only 10 remain at Baseline (Multnomah) or are in Phase 1, with the rest now in Phase 2.

My main goal here is to see how these locations are doing, business-wise, and to see if they’re up to the task. The results definitely varied because each location is quite different. Also keep in mind that Multnomah County is tentatively scheduled, if approved, to begin Phase 1 on June 12th, so I figured it’d be instructive for Portland businesses to see what the early results look like.

My first stop was to Bent Shovel Brewing, now operating taps and a beer garden on the northern edge of Estacada. The brewery had been hosting guests at their rural Oregon City location, which continues as it’s production brewery, though the taproom was shut down by the county in October because of the traffic it was causing. This was my first visit to their new location and it was impressive.

I got the chance to speak with co-owners Rick and Shelly Strauss while I sipped on a One Wagon Pilsner. Both were masked up, with Shelly working the taps and Rick chatting with customers in the beer garden. I was impressed with their attention to detail, signage on-site, as well as the location being organized in such a way that they’d be prepared for an onslaught of customers, if necessary.

It was a cold and rainy day, so there were only 10-15 people on premise. I felt completely safe being there due to the space and number of tables available, and while the campfire burning in the middle of the space was a bit crowded for my comfort, as long as those around it are comfortable being in close proximity to each other, it’s all above board. On the whole, this is an ideal space for socially distanced beers and community.

Be sure to keep an eye out for Bent Shovel’s first cans that they just began distributing around Portland. Their beer garden will be open Friday through Sunday, 12-8pm.

Tasting some new beers at Coin Toss Brewing

The second location I visited was Coin Toss Brewing, situated in a business park in the Southeast region of Oregon City. While there I spoke at length with owner Tim Hohl about how they’ve been doing throughout the pandemic and how things have been going since reopening their retail operations a week ago.

Much Like Bent Shovel, Coin Toss had historically focused on selling kegs, but have now been packaging 12oz cans for 18 months now. They’re also delivering beer 6 days a week to the local area, including Oregon City, Gladstone, Lake Oswego, Canby, Beavercreek, Redland, as well as to West Lynn on Wednesdays.

Of all the locations I visited, theirs had the smallest footprint, which includes a small taproom that could normally handle maybe 20 people – far too narrow and not distanced enough for Tim to reopen the bar or the limited interior table seating. So they cleverly installed a serving window in the west wall and blocked off the front entryway with a table.

The location now provides for more limited outdoor seating, a food truck a few times a week, and distancing for those who need it. I visited just as they were closing a bit early (likely slow due to the rain), so I didn’t really get a chance to see exactly how things are going during regular hours

A central topic of discussion with Tim was how to find a balance between delivery and retail. I’ve had a number of discussions with various breweries over the past few weeks and this seemed the number one conundrum for everyone. Though it seems like the short-term solution is to continue delivery/to-go orders Monday-Thursday, then open retail Friday-Sunday. Then likely scale back delivery and increase retail operations as Phase 2 happens.

While visiting I enjoyed a six-taster tray featuring a number of new beers I’ve never tried before. One I tried, Pale It Forward, is one of two “Thank You” beers being brewed in appreciation of the customer support they’ve received during the pandemic. The other new Thank You beer, available June 26th, is Recovery Kölsch – both of which are only $5 a pint!

Every time I return to Coin Toss I notice a continued improvement in their beers, a testament to the hard work being put in by Head Brewer Chip Conlan. I was especially impressed with their Hot Coffee Cakes Stout – a Coffee Stout with prominent chocolate malt, locally roasted coffee and Habanero chili, all in balance.

On my way home, the third and final location I visited, which will remain unnamed, was definitely not operating in a fashion that made me feel comfortable. Regardless, I have reached out to the establishment to let them know my feelings and where they’re coming up short.

When walking up I noticed picnic tables and social distancing outside on their small patio, so it all appeared above board. Though once I went inside, not much appeared to have changed vs. what a normal operating day would look like, pre-covid.

Yes, bar stools were removed and a large sliding door was opened for increased ventilation, though tables and the distance between them and passing customers did not allow for 6 feet of space, multiple households were seated at the same table or conversing standing up in close-proximity to each other (according to state protocol this is allowed, as long as all parties involved are comfortable with it), and the bartender was not wearing mask.

Further, there was no evident signage regarding distancing (as seen at Bent shovel), no monitoring of capacity, no attempt to keep customers from drinking at the bar, and no apparent markers on the floor for distancing. Of Note: I’ve since spoken with the ownership, who made me aware that there was signage and markings on the floor via the usual front entrance, though entering through the sliding door, it wasn’t readily apparent.

So then the question becomes why? Is it the result of fewer cases in this outlying county? Is it the ownership believing that how they’ve set things up is compliant with the state’s guidance for Phase 1? Is it a deliberate disregard for the state mandates to operate safely, or is it more a politically informed belief that the coronavirus is no worse than the flu?

It could be all of the above, but it honestly made me feel uncomfortable, especially as cases have increased with us now having reached 2 weeks after Memorial Day when many started gathering in a less-than-safe fashion again.

The lesson here is that this is an imperfect situation for businesses, and those who wish to reopen need to do so responsibly, not only for the safety of themselves and their employees, but also for their customers.

Tomorrow I’ll be posting Part II of this weekly update, addressing the more pressing issues of social justice that are reshaping our country and the world as we know it.

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