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The best craft breweries of today are local or regional businesses that rely on taproom sales and partnerships with local beer bars. Since coronavirus has thrust social distancing upon the U.S. and forced taprooms and bars alike to shutter, that business model has folded like a house of cards. Craft beer has an answer, though, and it’s a long time coming: selling beer online.
Previously only available at shops, bars and in the taproom, much-hyped New York City breweries like Threes Brewing, Grimm Ales and Evil Twin launched online beer shops midway through March and throughout April. Grimm, which also offers deliveries and to-go ordering through Caviar and GrubHub, opened its first-ever webstore for statewide shipping. Threes, who were planning on launching an online portal later in the year before the outbreak, had a short headstart. Joshua Stylman, Threes Brewing founder, says it has allowed the brewery to rehire employees they were forced to lay off. “[We said] let’s try to build an e-commerce business and a proper supply chain in just three days,” Stylman says. If Threes weathers the current situation and returns to some sort of normalcy, Stylman says online ordering is likely here to stay.
Asheville, North Carolina’s Burial Beer Co. launched its online shop in response to its taprooms closing, too. The shop, which ships to more than 30 states, launched in the middle of March. “It’s our taproom to go,” Chris McClure, the brewery’s director of brand, says. “We want people to be able to continue their interpretative journey with our beer in the comfort of their own home.”
Like Threes, Burial was planning to launch an online beer shop later this year, and was forced to fast-track development to stay afloat. McClure says its given the brewery a lifeline. “The support from our customers is amazing. Our staff is overwhelmed. That is the short of it. But it has kept us working, kept jobs secured at Burial, and kept our customers connected to us from their homes in North Carolina and across America.
Breweries adopting proper online shopping years after the online shopping revolution is partly due to consumer behavior, but mostly legal issues. There is an enormously complicated web of laws and red tape surrounding who can and can’t sell alcohol. Because booze makers have rarely needed to trudge through the red tape, drinkers have never become accustomed to going online to buy booze. That is, until the last two months, when online whiskey, wine and beer purchasing exploded.
New York state has relaxed laws and looked the other way on others to allow for direct sales from the brewery. But even breweries in California, a state that’s allowed direct-to-consumer online beer sales for nearly two decades thanks to the wine industry and a huge brewery scene, were slow to adopt online sales portals until recently.
Fabled breweries like Monkish Brewing, Russian River Brewing Company and Alvarado Street Brewery have all gone virtual for ordering since social distancing was enacted. Russian River owner and brewer Vinnie Cilurzo says the brewery used to sell their beer online when they were smaller, about 15 years ago. “With our two restaurants closed right now we were looking for a way to make up some of our retail sales which is why we started again,” Cilurzo says. They’re even selling their iconic Pliney The Elder Double IPA online, where it’s sold out just as quickly as it did in restaurants and bars. “Until now we really didn’t have the beer to ship so we never really even thought about doing it,” Cilurzo admitted.
Whether more breweries will follow, or if breweries will continue to sell beer online when taprooms and bars reopen, is yet to be determined. For now, one thing is clear: supporting your local brewery now could be what ensures its survival.
“Our mission is to try to employ as many of our staff as we can and keep the lights on so if (and when) the world goes back to normal, we have a company. I think that’s the reality of small companies in and out of beer dealing with this right now,” Threes’ Joshua Stylman said. “Necessity is the mother of invention.”