March is finally here, but Massachusetts craft brewers are still struggling to reach the end of this long, cruel, pandemic winter. We reached out to a few brewpubs, tap rooms and breweries to find out how creativity, community and a getting a lot more beer into cans is helping them survive.
Our first stop was Brato Brewhouse and Kitchen in Brighton where the clinking, whooshing sounds of aluminum vessels being filled with sudsy beer rang in a momentous day.
“Last night I didn't sleep because it was like Christmas morning,” brewer and owner Alex Corona said with a chuckle. He also acknowledged his last name used to be a fun one. “Not so much these days.”
On this afternoon, though, the brewer was elated and relieved that a mobile canning company crew was running a heavy but compact packaging machine at Brato for the first time. It fit snugly between Corona's brew kettle and bubbling fermentation tanks.
“We just finished 50 cases of the Munich Helles,” Corona said, “and now we're off to do some Barleywine.”
Corona started brewing beer on premise this past November. Until now his staff has only been able to sell bulky, 32-ounce glass growlers for takeout – about 50 to 70 a week. The new four-packs, Corona said, should give Brato's bottom-line a much-needed boost.
“With the pandemic and not having nearly as many people in the seats in the pub, sales are obviously down – as they are everywhere,” Corona explained. “This will help us hopefully move twice as much beer right off the bat.”
Mobile canning companies like this one — called State 64 — are helping New England breweries that don't have the space or capital to buy their own expensive, complicated machines. More than once owner Tim Little jumped in to dislodge a wayward or dented can from the Rube Goldberg-like mechanisms. He said the ability to can has been critical for breweries of all sizes this winter, and his team has been working seven days a week to meet demand.
“When you can't fill up your taproom with people and pour pints for them then you have to figure out another way to do it – for most that's figuring how to get your product into the can,” Little said. “We've had breweries tell us that if it weren't for the service we provide that they would have had to close.”
Breweries are also experimenting with some novel survival strategies, including home delivery which wasn't legal before the pandemic, erecting domes outside and offering boxes of fresh produce. Brato chef and co-owner Jonathan Gilman says 40 to 50% of the brewpub's winter revenue is being generated by themed meal kits often paired with interactive events like virtual “Hell Nights.”
In February he led about three dozen people down a fiery path on Zoom. First they picked up their box of food at Brato: fried chicken wings, tenders or cauliflower along with a half-dozen loaded buffalo sauces. Then Gilman walked them through a progressively hotter tasting at home.
“At this point I have good back-tongue tingles,” Gilman told the virtual crowd at one point. “Definitely hot, starting to get the increased heart rate, you can feel a little bit of the head high from this one...”
Gilman said people have plenty of options for food and beer this winter, but believes, “what's most in-demand, and what people are missing the most, is that shared social experience.” Now "Hell Night" participants will be able to wash their hot wings down with cans of Brato beer.
Creative hustling like this is helping drive traffic to taprooms and brands, according to Massachusetts Brewers Association executive director Katie Stinchon.
“What I love, too, is that they're partnering with other breweries across the state that don't have kitchens,” she said of Brato's food and beer collaborations with peers including Exhibit A in Framingham and Lamplighter in Cambridge.
Stinchon has spent her previous winters planning for beer festivals. This January the guild helped get a beer distribution reform bill passed and she's been hosting weekly resource webinars for the 210 craft breweries her organization supports.
“We had 12 closures in 2020 – and obviously one closure is too many for our association,” Stinchon said. “We want every brewery to survive and thrive. We think some of those breweries were struggling pre-COVID and Covid was too difficult for them to overcome. But we also saw 27 openings in 2020."
Cape Ann Brewing in Gloucester was the one brewery to close in 2021, but Stinchon added 20 new taprooms are slated to debut by the end of this year.
Through this winter some brewers opted to put their taprooms into hibernation to keep staff and customers safe, and because they couldn't make the numbers work. Bone Up Brewing Company in Everett is one of them.
Jared and Liz Kiraly opened their nano-brewery four years ago. They said PPP loans and small business grants have been lifelines this winter.
“It's just about treading water for us and waiting for the sun to come back out,” Liz Kiraly explained. “We're looking forward to everyone here getting vaccinated as well, hopefully within the next couple of months.”
Bone Up was conceived as a small, local taproom that brewed beer for pints on site and kegs at restaurants. Now the couple is canning 100% of their product for curbside pickup and distribution. They even purchased their own canning machine.
“We've gotten consistently better since the first time we turned it on,” Jared Kiraly said. “We're starting to hit the sweet spot where things are working well. We'll ride that out until we hit the sweet spot where things start breaking.”
Bone Up will keep hosting virtual beer tasting events — including local cheese and even donut pairings — while selling as many cans as they can until spring and beer garden season return.
“I mean, this might be wishful thinking,” Jared said, “but I feel like people are already kind of starting to get cabin fever. We had people come drink on our patio yesterday because it got up to 36 degrees.”
The Kiralys don't foresee reopening their cozy, indoor space until the fall.
In Springfield Ray Berry moved forward with building a long-planned taproom this winter at White Lion, one of seven Black-owned breweries in Massachusetts that opened in October. He wants customers walk through and notice the up-and-coming taproom as they pick up their to-go four-packs.
“It's important for the general consumer, for the city of Springfield and the surrounding communities to know that we're operational, that we're in business, and that we're a local brewery that they can support,” he said.
Brewers have been supporting each other throughout the pandemic, Berry added, by sharing supplies including cans, which have been challenging to find. Folks in the beverage industry have referred to the ongoing, national shortage as the “candemic.”
White Lion self-distributes its cans to retailers and Berry has been helping three tiny artisan breweries that don't have the boots on the ground to get their beer out to more people.
When asked about idea of competition between Massachusetts breweries Berry said, “When you look at craft against the big behemoths of the world – the Anheuser-Busch the MillerCoors, we all, without question, are in the same space and look to help each other and move that needle forward.”
“We are competitors, but we all want to see each other get through this,” Chris Lohring said. He owns Notch Brewing in Salem and said while alcohol sales have surged during the pandemic that's not the case for the microbreweries.
“This message has been given from the media that everyone's up – it's just not true,” Lohring explained. "Craft brewers are down, and so they do need some help.”
The new round of PPP loans is helping sustain his Salem operation, Loring said, because breweries with taprooms are getting more money this time around.
The promise of warmer weather has lifted his spirits this winter because Notch is getting ready to open a new outpost brewery in Brighton with a 288-seat outdoor beer garden and a stage for live music. It's part of a historic preservation project dubbed the Speedway that's been in the works since 2018 but was delayed because of the pandemic.
“The timing wasn't great,” Lohring said, “but we feel really good about opening because I think there's a pent up demand for this that people want to go out and they want to experience things like this again.”
At least that's the hope.
To help ride out the end of a winter like no other the Massachusetts Brewer's Guild is hosting Mass Beer Week to shine a spotlight on local craft beer. It kicks off Sat., March 6.
This segment aired on March 3, 2021.