It merely took a pandemic for me to finally blend beer with Firestone Walker. For years, I’ve tried attending the brewery’s blending competition for its Anniversary Ale, but Paso Robles, California, felt too far from my Brooklyn home, the time commitment too great. “Maybe next year will be different,” I’d say.
This year was certainly different. COVID-19 nixed the mixing session, a garrulous gathering of local winemakers crowded indoors and drinking. Instead of pausing the tradition, begun in 2005, the brewery invited eight wineries to blend alone, emailing results, a virtual solution to an altered reality. “Even without that social aspect, all the winemakers emailed us back instantly” to participate, says Amy Crook, the quality control manager. Firestone Walker mailed my blending kit, including eight barrel-aged components, to a 1920s farmhouse in New York State’s Catskill Mountains, my August escape. I blended beside a chicken coop, horses clip-clopping past. My blend lost, but even 3,000 miles away, I felt bonded to competitors who used the contest “as a way to connect,” Crook says.
Virally, politically, and economically, these are days of deep disconnection. We’re six feet apart and can’t tap beer’s finest attribute: assembling people and lubricating conversation. Festivals are paused, barstool seating is banned, and taprooms are closed except for grabbing four-packs and heading home to scroll social media. “We’re glued to our phones,” says Bryan Winslow, the head brewer and a founder of St. Elmo Brewing, in Austin, Texas. “People are thirsty for connection and a sense of virtual community.”
Breweries are using arm’s length as an opportunity to reinvent interaction, merging physical liquids and digital initiatives to synergize new kinds of connectivity. There’s no pandemic playbook for operating a brewery, but breweries, industry stakeholders, and festival organizers are writing their own rules and unveiling initiatives on accelerated timelines, propelled by social urgency, ingenuity, and economic survival.
Beer tastings and events have gone virtual, with brewers Zooming to discuss new releases and festival organizers shipping boxes of beer for at-home imbibing alongside online content. Suarez Family Brewery, Bell’s Beer, and Springdale Beer Co. offer Spotify playlists to pipe brewery vibes into your ears. St. Elmo Brewing is embracing contact-free beer collaborations, while Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione installed a souped-up homebrew system at his Maine home; collaborators must pass a COVID-19 test. Breweries are also upping their charity commitments. In honor of its 25th anniversary, Allagash rolled out the 25 Days of Giving campaign, and AleSmith Brewing created the Anvil of Hope nonprofit. “There’s a need to come together as a community, both locally and nationally, to support each other,” says AleSmith president Brandon Richards.
Humanity is a huge factor in craft brewing’s rise. Beer was no longer just light lager produced by faceless workers in far-flung factories. Friends, neighbors, and maybe family members brewed beer locally, the taprooms and brewpubs becoming civic institutions to find a friendly face.
The pandemic short-circuited that community connection. Shuttered taprooms became beer stores offering another masked to-go transaction. In turn, breweries are filling the conversational void on social media, turning to Instagram Live to connect with customers and discuss new beers. Urban South Brewery doubled down on innovation during the pandemic, releasing around 300 unique beers (as of press time) at its New Orleans and Houston locations. They drew buyers to the brewery, occasionally complemented by Instagram Live Q&As with head brewer Alex Flores and owners of local New Orleans businesses. “We’re trying to bring community members together,” says Abby Perkins, Urban South’s on-premise sales and marketing director.
Marketing departments are working in over- drive, deprived of their standard sales tricks. “Tastings are critical to this business,” says Rob Day, the senior director of marketing for Jack’s Abby Craft Lagers and Springdale Beer Co., in Framingham, Massachusetts. In typical times, “you can’t go a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday without walking into a liquor store and finding someone pouring a craft brand. Now, we can’t do that.”
In an alt-universe 2020, the Springdale brand, which focuses on IPAs and experimental beers, would’ve leaned heavily into music and live events. As the brewery grappled with doing business during a pandemic, “we had that heart to heart,” Day says. “Well, we can’t be forgotten about. We need to keep talking to our customers. What are the things we love doing, and how do we keep doing it?”
The connective glue is technology—the phones, apps, and websites that make us feel social while sitting in sweatpants at home.
In addition to Instagram Live tastings, Springdale created playlists for house cleaning, cooking, working from home, and “one that was basically, like, music for that moment when you’re walking around the streets with a beer in your hand because you don’t care anymore,” Day says, laughing. That spurred the Springdale Sessions, an eight-week cycle of free live digital concerts; attendees could drink Springdale beer while catching a show, then tip musicians, too.
The connective glue is technology—the phones, apps, and websites that make us feel social while sitting in sweatpants at home. “We already feel like we’re on an island,” says Lindsey VanDenBoom, Perrin Brewing’s senior marketing manager. “Without the technology and capabilities, the world would be so different.”
This spring, Perrin brought quarantined customers inside its Comstock Park, Michigan, brewhouse with the six-week Interactive Brew Project. Fans voted on a beer style, adjuncts, and the name, then watched online as brewers made the beer: a marshmallow, vanilla, and chocolate Russian imperial stout called Self S’more-antine. (Homebrewers also received the recipe.) “You can only do so many Zoom happy hours,” VanDenBoom says. “We looked at it as a way to engage with [fans] and give them a voice.”
NOT IN A FESTIVAL MOOD Beer festivals are a communal celebration of fermentation. At their best, they assemble diverse humans to sip diverse beers, swapping stories, high-fives, and samples too. “You’ve got to try this!” I’d say, passing friends my fruited double IPA. Nowadays, those simple gestures could start a super-spreader outbreak. This has forced festival organizers to weigh risks versus revelry, leading to a cascade of cancellations. Officials iced Oktoberfest in Munich, Great American Beer Festival in Denver (which went virtual), and Portland’s Oregon Brewers Festival, among innumerable gatherings. Beer festivals and events are not sports played without spectators. Human interaction is essential.
Craft’d Company in Boston is built around live events, including Massachusetts festivals and Beers with the Brewers, a rotating brewery tour and tasting for around 20 to 30 people. With large gatherings limited, founder and CEO Christine Healy embraced this moment’s signature word: pivot. She created Virtual Beers with the Brewers, which became a weekly guided tasting streamed on Instagram Live and uploaded to Facebook, often featuring regional breweries, such as Harpoon and Smuttynose. Several times, brewers have recognized regulars’ Instagram handles. “The first time they’re really reconnecting is through a virtual event,” Healy says.
Matt Leff is also foregoing festivals. “We’ve come to the unfortunate assumption and conclusion that we’re not going to do a live event this year,” says Leff, the founder of Rhizome Productions, in Nashville, Tennessee, where he runs numerous beer fests. As the world churns through uncertainty, he’s launched the Rhiz(H)ome Virtual Beer Experience series. “We’re not calling them virtual festivals, because we’re intentionally keeping them on the small side,” he says. The company curates 24 to 48 packages of beer, cheese, charcuterie, and chocolate, enough for two to four people, then programs a two-hour interactive session featuring brewers and even a live musical intermission. The intimacy “helps heighten the experience,” says Leff, who plans to run twice-monthly events throughout 2020. “The concept of getting everybody together, separately, can work and create some sense of a community.”
Digital beer magazine Hop Culture brought its robust slate of beer festivals online in August. It partnered with Virginia’s Oozlefinch Beers & Blending on the FML 2020 Festival, shipping attendees 18 canned beers to drink while doing yoga, learning about flavored stouts and spontaneous fermentation, and “touring” Vermont brewery The Alchemist with founders John and Jen Kimmich. “That’s an opportunity that very few people get to have,” says Hop Culture founder Kenny Gould. “Digital offers so many opportunities for accessibility and education.”
GET IT TOGETHER Camaraderie is intrinsic to the brewing industry. Brewers visit each other’s facilities to trade tips, gossip, and collaborate. Teaming up IRL is tougher to pull off during a pandemic. COVID-19 began impacting Texas in mid-March, “and we were in the throes of serious depression and freaking out,” says Winslow of St. Elmo. To buoy spirits, St. Elmo collaborated with Austin Beerworks on hazy pale ale Air Five, emailing recipes and FaceTiming. “It felt so good to hang with them, in a way,” Winslow says.
Given the brewing industry’s pun love, it’s probably no surprise that Fair State Brewing Cooperative, in Minneapolis, also released Air Five—the same day. Instead of litigation, the like-minded breweries collaborated on Jinx, an “electrolyte lager” made with powdered Gatorade. “Because we’re doing it virtually, both of us can brew it,” Winslow says. In an economically challenged moment, “we both get to capitalize financially.”
During lockdown, folks tackled quarantine projects such as sourdough baking and gardening. (I became a focaccia obsessive.) For Dogfish Head’s 25th anniversary, founder Calagione installed a wood-fired pizza oven and one-barrel brewing system at his Maine summer home. The Calagione Home Brewery welcomes COVID-tested brewers for R&D fun, no expectations of commercialization. (The five annual collaborations will adhere to Maine’s homebrew cap of 200 gallons.)
This summer, Tim Adams, founder of Maine farm brewery Oxbow, brought sumac and yarrow from his woods, while the Calagione family contributed foraged beach driftwood, smoked and sterilized in the pizza oven. “A certain other brewery makes a beer aged on beechwood,” Calagione says, laughing. (It’s Budweiser.) The finished beer, named Field & Stream and made with Maine-grown wheat, was a creative exercise and emotional balm. “Nothing heals your soul in troubling times more than reconnecting in person with like- minded people,” Calagione says, adding that the brewing industry should be “community first.”
The pandemic is amplifying that ethos, borne out by a surge of charitable beer projects. Participants in the Black Is Beautiful initiative, led by Weathered Souls head brewer and co-founder Marcus Baskerville, brew an imperial stout and send proceeds to social justice and police-reform organizations. Other Half created All Together, a global collaborative IPA that raised more than $1 million for hospitality workers.
Peter Zien, the CEO and owner of AleSmith Brewing, and his wife, Vicky, launched Anvil of Hope in August. The nonprofit’s first release was the AleSmith for Hope hazy IPA; proceeds are earmarked for the coronavirus- impacted San Diego community. “We’re going through what I call our finest moment in our darkest time,” Zien says, emphasizing beer’s intimate ability to reach thousands of people. “Going into homes gives us the ability to promote good.”
The pandemic will one day be a blip, a shared story to recount together over many, many beers.
Allagash Brewing planned to “surprise and delight” brewery visitors with prizes, free beer, and appreciative toasts for its 25th anniversary, says Jill Perry, the senior manager of retail operations and merchandise. But with the brewery closed to visitors and the world off its axis, “it didn’t feel right to celebrate,” Perry says. “Let’s just give back.” Throughout July, the Portland, Maine, brewery’s 25 Days of Giving program featured charitable raffles, a silent auction, employee volunteer days, and donation drives for snacks and cleaning supplies, supporting 14 Maine nonprofits. Allagash didn’t just cut a check and call it a day. “We have more value that we can share with the community than just money,” Perry says.
This summer, former lifestyle brand Beer Kulture transitioned into a nonprofit organization. Its aims are increasing diversity and equity in the beer industry, as well as bonding breweries and communities through programs including Kulture 4 Da Kids. The virtual drive asked breweries to become drop-off and pick- up centers for school supplies, civic hubs for hoppy beers and helping people. “It doesn’t start with these grandiose initiatives,” says Latiesha Cook, the co- founder, CEO, and president. “Everybody can be doing something.”
During these trying times, it’s normal to feel powerless and panicked, isolated and overwhelmed, as unplugged as a broken TV. Taprooms and bars might still serve cold beer, but warm embraces are hard to pull off when you’re standing six feet apart. Virtual events can seem like wan replacements for the real thing, Tofurky when you want roast turkey. And in a fast-changing world, what works today might be rendered irrelevant tomorrow. Day, of Jack’s Abby and Springdale, is sanguine about the constant uncertainty, making new marketing plans “with eyes wide open that I might have to tear everything up again,” he says.
On the flip side, breweries and event producers might be hitting fast-forward on the future of engagement. Firestone Walker discovered that winemakers dug the isolated approach to blending and the ability to focus. “Many expressed how awesome it was,” says Crook of Firestone Walker. Also, consider the coming holidays. They’re jam-packed with family time, but eventually dads, daughters, uncles, and grandparents will pull out phones, together alone. “People love their family, but they’re also bored,” says Connor Klopcic, the director of brewery operations for Perrin, which is planning a second interactive brew around the holidays. Rhizome Productions’ Leff is considering a Christmas Day beer festival. “People are going to be at home,” he says.
Humans are social creatures. Fermented beverages, beer included, have helped us coalesce for millennia. The pandemic will one day be a blip, a shared story to recount together over many, many beers. Until then, beer will bring us together, the context different but the sentiment similar. “Just because we have to social distance doesn’t mean we have to give up socializing together,” Calagione says. He’s taken to sharing campfire beers with guests at Delaware’s Dogfish Inn, the 16 rooms adjacent to the inn’s fire pit. “It’s an opportunity to say that the world has given us lemons, so let’s make lemonade and find creative ways to get together.”