Brewing in the Time of COVID: To ensure their survival, Minnesota breweries have had to get creative

Photo by Tj Turner

In the time since March 16, when it was announced that Minnesota’s bars and restaurants would only be allowing takeout service, breweries across the state have been in a constant state of flux. Though some breweries saw the storm approaching and started ramping down production in the weeks leading up to the state’s lockdown, the total uncertainty has been universally felt across the industry. 

“We didn’t feel alone in it—it certainly felt like everybody made the same realizations at the same time, which was great but also was terrifying,” says Hillary Lewis, general manager at Venn Brewing. “We did not feel like we were the only ones wearing tin foil hats—we looked around and went ‘oh, that’s the new fashion trend, okay. Everybody realizes how bad this might be and everybody’s going to take the same steps.’”

At Venn in South Minneapolis, Lewis describes their experience with realizing the magnitude of the situation as “like watching somebody go through stages of grief.” She still has a written timeline from March 15: “Every two hours, I took a note of what we’re talking about doing right now—at 9am, it was ‘we should make some plans around what’s going on with this pandemic thing that seems like it’s about to get to our part of the country.’ And it progressed from ‘we should make plans,’ to ‘close the doors’ by 9pm.”

In the middle of lockdown, Lewis describes the brewhouse as a “giant storage unit,” as the brewery quickly pivoted to solely distribution and on-site pickup.

Working with a staff of just six people, Lewis says the constant state of change has been taxing on their small team, to say the least. From getting an online store up and running in just three days to coordinating taproom pickups and at-home drop-offs, to now working on reopening the taproom itself—-all while ensuring the safety of the staff and Venn’s customers—the learning curve has been near-vertical. “I think more than anything, we are very grateful for our ability—based on the company’s format and the company’s size—to be able to pivot quickly, but we’re also intensely grateful for the people that we have on staff to have the bandwidth to do it,” she says. “And don’t get me wrong, we’re exhausted. But we know that we can, and we know that we have to, and so we do.” 

Venn Brewing’s staff during COVID-19 // Photo by Tj Turner

Venn’s two brewers, Ben Michaels and Kyle Sisco, have continued their practice of brewing small-batch beers throughout the lockdown—as a result, the brewery hasn’t yet had to dump any beer. “It of course affected our production schedule as far as what are we going to brew next, but we didn’t have anything that we decided to dump because we couldn’t move it,” says Lewis.

With an online store allowing for curbside pickup and home delivery, and now taproom and patio service returning, Lewis is constantly trying to find answers for new questions. “There’s an element of: what does good service look like anymore? How can we do that efficiently and safely? How does that work? And […] does any of this matter in six months?,” she asks. “It’s so hard to have any idea even what next week is going to be.”

While smaller breweries have perhaps been forced to be lighter on their feet with their strategies moving forward, bigger operations with established distribution footholds have equally felt the impact. Bryon Tonnis, co-founder and CEO at Bent Paddle Brewing, says receiving PPP money definitely helped keep them steady and fully staffed when things took a turn for the worse. On the production side, he says the most challenging part has been striking a perfect balance.

“The hardest thing is trying to get the proper mix of kegs in package,” he explains. “Based on production scheduling, trying to make sure that we get enough kegs off of each batch that comes out, but not too much that we end up having beer that goes out of code… it’s a very fuzzy science.”

Bent Paddle's pilot brewery // Photo by JaneCane Photography

Bent Paddle’s pilot brewery // Photo by JaneCane Photography

While there wasn’t nearly as much normal work to be done in lockdown, Tonnis says the staff managed to stay busy throughout. “We accomplished a lot of special projects,” he laughs. “A lot of equipment maintenance, a lot of cleaning, a lot of just little fix-it things around the brewery and at the taproom.

“We were able to brew a couple beers over at the pilot brewery as well, so we were able to get a couple brewers over to spend a little time on the small system,” he continues. “I actually got into the brewhouse on the pilot brewery and brewed a batch with my family, as well. The first time in two years that I was able to get into the brewery and brew.”

Indeed Brewing CEO Thomas Whisenand says that while the brewery did receive some PPP money, it had to reduce hours and compensation for some of its staff. And in order to keep the staff safe in the height of lockdown, the amount of people working back in the brewhouse was scaled down from around six people to two people at a time. “It was just odd to walk back there and know that we were still producing the amount of beer that we were producing, and only have maybe two people running that whole brewhouse,” he says. “We had to prioritize what work we were doing. And brewers can multitask really well—it’s kind of part of their job, is to be cleaning a tank and brewing at the same time, or running a separator, things like that. They definitely doubled down on their multitasking, and were able to probably do a little more than normal.”

Being a self-distributing brewery worked to their advantage, as they were able to communicate directly with liquor stores and accounts that they’ve built strong relationships with over the years. “We were super up-front with our accounts, like ‘What do you want from us? What are your rules going through this? Do you need us to come in at a certain time, or leave the beer at the back door?’ Being able to be in control of that ourselves, those conversations, I think helped us in the Twin Cities to actually do better than we expected,” says Whisenand. As a result, the brewery is just around 25% below where they expected to be this year, a major victory for a small business in the midst of a pandemic.

Whisenand also credits their relative success to their meticulous attention to quality control. “This sounds really strange, but we’ve always been really passionate about dumping beer,” he says. “While maybe some of the volume is a little greater in this case, we were super aggressive early on about both preparing for the situation, to divert beer away from kegs, but then also pulling that beer out of the marketplace, which is a process that continues today as bars and restaurants reopen.”

As for what comes next for breweries, it’s anyone’s guess. As patios and taprooms continue to slowly reopen, breweries are still working endlessly to ensure the safety and health of both their staff and patrons, while making efforts to provide the same level of service. After partly reopening Bent Paddle’s patio, Tonnis says he felt cautiously optimistic. “It definitely warmed the place up,” he says. “For a few small moments, I kind of felt like things were normal.”

Now that they’ve had to map these uncharted waters, learning some invaluable lessons in the process, returning to another potential lockdown won’t be as daunting as the first time around. “We are doing everything we can to make sure that we are otherwise prepared to weather that storm again,” says Lewis. But while she’s hopeful for the future, she does admit a bit of apprehension: “Now we’re just waiting for the locusts. Or what was it… murder hornets?”

Correction: The original story stated that Indeed Brewing furloughed some of its staff—the brewery temporarily cut back some hours and compensation, but no one was furloughed.