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Americans buying more alcohol during the coronavirus pandemic, but craft brewers are struggling

Closed bars and taprooms have dried up sales for thousands of brewing companies even as supermarket sales soar.
Image: Fort Point Brewery Operations As Small Business Aid Runs Out
A worker pushes a pallet of beer kegs that couldn't be sold to restaurants and bars because of closures related to the coronavirus pandemic at the Fort Point Beer Co. brewery in San Francisco on April 17. Michael Short / Bloomberg via Getty Images

John Dantzler knew he would have to be creative.

Dantzler, co-founder of the Torch & Crown Brewing Company in Manhattan, was facing a crisis in mid-March. New York City had just ordered all bars and restaurants closed in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and his company lost its primary sales channel.

"We had to change our entire operations overnight," Dantzler said.

The company pivoted to online sales and delivery in an effort to stay afloat, ramping up production of canned beers, repurposing salespeople as delivery drivers and promising same-day delivery across a swath of the city.

But even with enthusiastic customer support — Dantzler said the company has made 1,400 deliveries in the past month — Torch & Crown's revenues are not even half where they were before the shutdowns. The company's future is in jeopardy.

Torch & Crown's story is similar to that of thousands of craft brewers, who say they are facing an existential threat during the coronavirus shutdown. Starved of customers and lacking the resources and store distribution deals of larger beer makers, many say layoffs and closures are inevitable.

"This is about the survival of our company," said Gary Fish, founder of Deschutes Brewery in Oregon. Deschutes lost more than a quarter of its business since Oregon issued its stay-at-home order, and Fish said the company has had to lay off two-thirds of its close-to 500-person staff.

"There were some pretty gut-wrenching decisions we had to make," Fish said. "These people are our friends, our family."

Americans are still buying beer. A Nielsen analysis of sales through grocery markets, shops and stores between March 29 and April 4 found that beer and cider sales were approximately one-fifth higher than what they were last year. Broader alcohol sales were up by a quarter, driven by an even higher spike in wine and liquor sales.

Alcohol beverage industry analyst Bump Williams said store sales are up because customers are stocking up on economy-size cases from the biggest brands, such as Budweiser and Coors.

But experts say most of the 8,000-plus craft brewers nationwide don't sell in grocery stores and can't afford to produce large cases. Their revenue comes from sales of kegs to bars and restaurants or from their own tasting rooms and brewery sales.

"Before this all started, 85 percent of our sales were in kegs sent to bars and restaurants," Dantzler said. "That has gone completely to zero."

According to industry trade group Brewers Association, craft beer makers represent about 1 out of 3 beers poured in the country. With that gone, brewers are in trouble.

A Brewers Association poll of more than 500 breweries found that more than half believed they would close within three months if social distancing guidelines remained in effect, and a survey by the California Craft Brewers Association found that breweries in California have seen sales fall by almost half since social distancing measures went into effect in the state.

"It's the smallest breweries that are in the most trouble," said Brewers Association chief economist Bart Watson. "They've got the fewest places to pivot."

Larger brewers aren't immune to the fallout. Larry Bell, founder of Bell's Brewery in Michigan, said that two-fifths of its business was from restaurants and bars. And though the company has seen an increase in sales through stores, it still has to figure out what to do with the 50,000 kegs — about 6.2 million pints — of its Oberon summer beer that were shipped to bars and restaurants around the country and must now be either returned or disposed of.

"No one's ever had to deal with this before," he said. The company has survived by ramping up production of 12-pack bottles. But even if he wanted to produce the value packs that are currently selling, Bell said it's difficult to compete against larger companies to acquire aluminum.

"You can't get extra cans at the drop of a hat," he said.

But it's not just the shutdowns that brewers say they'll have to contend with. California Craft Brewers Association Associate Executive Director Leia Bailey said that even after social distancing ends, brewers will have to contend with a future in which customers are nervous about going to restaurants and gathering in large crowds.

"There isn't a magic bullet of if you do this, you will survive," Bailey said. "There's a lot of pain right now in this industry. It's likely going to continue past the lifting of stay-at-home orders."

CORRECTION (April 28, 2020, 4:41 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated Leia Bailey’s position with the California Craft Brewers Association. She's the associate executive director, not the executive director.