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Beer in 2020: Adaptation

The extraordinary impact this pandemic’s had on our society has shown that our ability to adapt and overcome any obstacle before us is an innate human trait. Further, the survival of the beer industry amid this chaos is a testament to it’s creative ingenuity and an example of a culture that’s historically put people & collective success over competition and profit.

Regardless, the fear and confusion that immediately struck breweries, taprooms, restaurants, and distributors here in Portland was palpable as Governor Brown mandated the closure of on-site consumption as of March 15th. To immediately have draft taps turned off at 100’s of locations across the Portland-metro required quick thinking and the first of many pivots for businesses.

Many employees were furloughed, with some losing their jobs permanently. A number of businesses closed and others flourished, yet as 2020 comes to an end, we’re not even close to being done with COVID – this is not a past-tense situation.

So here’s a look at some of what happened – the successes, creative adaptations, and what surviving 2020 in the Portland beer industry looked like…

The Big Pivot: Delivery Changes Everything

Courtesy of Baerlic Brewing

If there’s one enduring legacy of COVID-19’s impact on our culture, it’s the delivery of anything to our doorstep. While next-day delivery of malt beverages was technically legal in Oregon prior to March, few utilized it until the onset of the pandemic. Same-day delivery was made temporarily legal during the initial shut-down, then made permanent in September.

Having such measures in place might be a primary reason why Oregon has continued to have one of the lowest infection rates of coronavirus in the nation. And while on-site consumption continues to be restricted for indoor dining/consumption (since mid-November), outdoor service, to-go service, and home delivery have all gone a long way in keeping local businesses open, while limiting potential exposure to the virus.

For instance, four days after the shutdown began, Baerlic Brewing ramped up home delivery by offering the most far-ranging beer delivery service, without fees, which still continues. I can’t think of another business in Portland that’s successfully pivoted more over the past 8 months: from delivery to a new beer garden, creating a Super Secret Beer Club membership, then an indoor beer garden with Ranch Pizza, all while still doing home delivery.

Baerlic’s early success, along with that of Gigantic, Little Beast, and StormBreaker, led most every brewery to begin home delivery, at least until restrictions eased in June.

Most bottle shops and taprooms took on home delivery during the initial shutdown as a necessity to deplete kegs via crowler/growler fills as smaller breweries pivoted to home delivery. Today, most bottle shops no longer offer delivery, opting instead to invest in on-site, outdoor, and to-go services. While home delivery has been convenient, there’s also something to be said for folks needing to occasionally get out of the house for a fresh pint, at a safe distance.

Undercover: The New Patio Life

Once on-site service resumed mid-June (with mask requirements), there was almost a sense of having returned to normalcy. With the exception of the 10+ days of unhealthy air during an unprecedented fire season in September, indoor and outdoor seating became a thing again. Well, at least it did until mid-November when cases spiked even higher, again shutting down any on-site service for two weeks.

As a result, breweries and taprooms with adjoining sidewalk, street, or parking space have now created covered, and often heated, outdoor seating. Locations who’ve created these new spaces include AleFire, BloodBuzz/Prost, Breakside Brewery (3 locations), Brewery 26, Bridgetown Beerhouse, Chill N Fill, Civic Taproom, Culmination Brewing, Ecliptic Brewing, Function PDX, Gigantic Brewing (both locations), Hopworks Urban Brewery, Imperial Bottle Shop & Taproom (both locations), Level Beer (both locations), Little Beast Brewing, NePo 42, Prospect Bottle Shop, Radio Room, Roscoe’s, Saraveza, The BeerMongers, The Sandy Hut, StormBreaker Brewing (both locations), Spirit of 77, Swift Lounge, Threshold Brewing & Blending, Tiny Bubble Room, Tomorrow’s Verse Taproom, Tulip Shop Tavern, Uptown Beer/Binary Brewing, Von Ebert Brewing (both locations), and more to be sure (hit me up if your business isn’t listed!).

We might see outdoor service decline as the weather gets increasingly cold and wet through the winter, though many of these locations show no signs of a slowdown. Before visiting, check your favorite local’s website or social media to ensure they aren’t closed temporarily for the holidays.

Another New Wrinkle: Distribution

Just as everything changed for breweries and taprooms when it came to selling beer, so too were distributors required to adjust. The first change was a quick switch from draft to packaged beer – for no matter the size of the distributor, draft sales evaporated from March until June.

Larger distributors have historically dominated grocery store sales, but with breweries now focused on direct sales and home delivery, they doubled down by filling those now fast depleting grocery shelves with beer, seltzer, and soda.

Smaller distributors, such as the one I work for, turned instead to filling the holes on bottle shop shelves with breweries selling direct-to-customer and large distributors focused on grocery sales. While there has been greater expansion of packaged beer on shelves at regional grocery chains, getting beer on shelves at larger stores became harder than ever.

As a result, our focus has been on expanding our footprint to work with more small retailers throughout the Willamette Valley, on the coast, in Bend, and throughout the Portland-metro area. And while keg sales have ebbed and flowed, then ebbed again, 16 oz cans continue to keep sales steadily strong, as we’ve regularly featured a steady rotation of new (mostly small) breweries from the around country.

In the end, small breweries have survived by retaining their sales margins with direct sales, larger distributors have turned their attention to larger chains and have since returned to smaller retailers, and bottle shops/taprooms have stayed afloat by offering exciting new options, more often from small distributors and small breweries who are less likely to deliver or have ceased their on-site retail.

So, what now then…?

Even with two vaccines slowly being administered in Oregon, while coronavirus cases and deaths continue to reach record highs, I don’t foresee much changing (i.e. a return to indoor anything for consumption) until March.

Last Thursday, Governor Kate Brown announced an extension of Oregon’s State of Emergency due to COVID-19 until March 3rd, 2021. Further, Multnomah County on Thursday also announced an extension of their State of Emergency and Eviction Moratorium until July 2nd 2021.

With forecasts of the vaccine not being fully administered until mid-spring, if not into the summer months, our current retail reality will likely continue as is, or at least until cases decline enough for the state to lift the current restrictions.

In the meantime, I hope all those who are able to can play a part in keeping our local small businesses going, though always done safely, whenever possible. Support your local brewery in any way possible – they’re going to need it more than ever over the next 3-5 months.

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