As bars and taprooms close, many craft brewers have too much aging beer on their hands. But others are finding new ways to package and sell it.
By Joshua M. Bernstein
April 28, 2020
Earlier this month, workers at Bauhaus Brew Labs wondered what to do with the Wheat Sweats, its spring seasonal beer. The Minneapolis brewery had finished the second batch of the beer, a banana-scented hefeweizen, before Minnesota moved to prevent the spread of the coronavirus outbreak by ending on-premises sales at bars, restaurants and taprooms on March 17.
Demand for draft beer dried up, and Bauhaus kegs and cans filled its distributor’s warehouse, with no need for new inventory. On April 21, in a scene reminiscent of Prohibition, the brewery decided to send more than 900 gallons of perfectly good beer down the drain. For Bauhaus and other craft breweries, kegging or canning beer that can’t be sold would be a wasted expense. And the beer is quickly approaching the dates set for peak freshness and quality, which then start to decline.
“It was a painful decision, and not one that we have ever had to make,” said Drew Hurst, the director of operations. But with plenty of beer already on hand, “there was literally nothing that we could do with it.”
Liquor and grocery stores are seeing increased sales of beer in cans and bottles, but shuttered bars and canceled events have created a backlog of draft beer — some of which is being sent to wastewater treatment plants for disposal, freeing up tanks and kegs for breweries to restart future production.
Most small craft breweries don’t sell to grocery stores, and they normally rely on draft beer sales at their high-margin taprooms and brew pubs to bolster bottom lines. Draft beer makes up 10 percent of the average American brewery’s volume, said Bart Watson, the chief economist at the Brewers Association, and almost 40 percent for small brewers.
For nearly 22 years, Barley Brown’s Beer, in Baker City, Ore., sold only draft beer. After Oregon closed the state’s bars and restaurants in March, distributors canceled their orders. Tyler Brown, the owner and general manager, had to decide whether to dump more than 12,000 gallons of his fragrant I.P.A.s., which are most aromatic and flavorful within 90 days.
“That would kill me,” Mr. Brown said.
The brewery quickly pivoted to beat the clock. By the end of March, Barley Brown’s began canning its popular Pallet Jack I.P.A., something Mr. Brown had sworn he would never do. “I would rather eat a lot of crow than send beer to a sewer,” he said.
To get draft beer into customers’ hands, breweries are getting creative with packaging.
Machine House Brewery, in Seattle, now offers its traditional British cask ales in a five-liter bag-in-a-box, typically used to sell wine. “To me, it’s a perfect weird little solution to our particular problem,” said the owner, Bill Arnott.
The brewery has several hundred firkins — small casks full of finished beer — with dispensing devices called “beer engines” for serving on premises. “I can’t bottle the stuff,” Mr. Arnott said.
Many breweries offers crowlers, 32-ounce cans that are hand-filled with tap beer. But doing so requires costly machines to seal them, not to mention cans, which are in short supply. Crank Arm Brewing, in Raleigh, N.C., sells 150 gallons of beer weekly in half- and one-gallon plastic jugs that might typically contain milk.
With the absence of sales at bars and restaurants, beer distributors nationwide are sitting on stacks of unneeded kegs slowly approaching their expiration dates. “Suddenly, 60,000 gallons of beer in my cooler are going out of code,” David J. Farrell, the president and chief executive of Farrell Distributing, wrote in an email.
As a solution, the distributor, based in South Burlington and Rutland, Vt., is sending kegs — Bud Light and local lagers and I.P.A.s alike — to nearby Aqua ViTea Kombucha to decant and distill the beer, which is donated to Caledonia Spirits to become hand sanitizer.
WhistlePig distillery, in Shoreham, Vt., is using Mr. Farrell’s decanted beer to create whiskey, as part of what the chief executive, Jeff Kozak, called “the great beer rescue program.” The beer will be distilled, then put into barrels to age. “I’m intrigued by what the beer will be in four years,” Mr. Kozak said.
Most beer will likely not have a second life. As weeks of shelter-in-place orders stretch into months, brewers’ hard work may increasingly go down the drain.
At its brewery in the Bronx, Torch & Crown Brewing Company has dozens of kegs of hoppy beers that are past the brewery’s freshness window of about 45 days. They’re slated for future disposal. But the brewery is busy transferring kegs of its still-fresh beer to tanks, and then repackaging it in 16-ounce cans — a pint for the bar, now for home.
“I never thought it would be anything I’d do in my brewing career,” said Joe Correia, the head brewer and an owner.
The process takes three to four days, involving constant measurements for damaging exposure to oxygen and bacterial infection, before the brewery cans beers such as its Runner Up pilsner and Heavy Crown imperial stout.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times