Oxygen is beer's enemy. Carbon dioxide is its protector. Brewers rely on CO2 to keep oxidation from ruining batches of beer. But a growing shortage of this critical gas is beginning to impact production at some Massachusetts craft breweries.
Many U.S. breweries have struggled to find CO2 because of pandemic-related supply chain issues, but Mass. Brewers Guild executive director Katie Stinchon said the scarcity hadn't really touched this state until now.
A major natural source of food-grade CO2 in the Jackson Dome area of Mississippi has been facing contamination issues, Stinchon said. “It's created a ripple effect to our breweries here in Massachusetts.”
Last week, Night Shift Brewing in Everett learned its local supplier, American Gas Products, can't deliver CO2 for potentially more than a year.
Night Shift co-founder Michael Oxton said that sent his team scrambling. CO2 allows brewers to move beer between tanks to kegs and canning lines. They also inject it into the liquid to create carbonation for shelf stability and frothy heads. On Wednesday, Oxton worried Night Shift's remaining supply would run out in the middle of a canning run.
The CO2 issue compounded other challenges at the brewery, he said, namely that its facility cannot sustain large-scale beer manufacturing. “We've known this for many years and have tried to solve problem,” he continued, “investing millions in equipment, adjusting schedules and operations to make it more efficient.” Plans to build a new brewery in Philadelphia were scrapped after the pandemic hit.
The CO2 shortage was something of a last straw for Night Shift. On Tuesday, the brewery announced it is moving production from its Everett facility to contract brewing at Jack's Abby in Framingham and Isle Brewers Guild in Rhode Island.
Night Shift expects beer output will not be disrupted, and its tap rooms and beer gardens will continue to operate. However, curtailing operations in Everett means jobs will likely be cut — about 50-75% of its 12-person production staff — Oxton said. But he added, “Everyone will get a paycheck through Oct. 1, so there's security for the next two months. I feel for every single person that could be impacted.”
Oxton said Night Shift will try to find other jobs for laid off workers within the company, or place them in other breweries. Future plans for the Everett site are still fluid, he said, but the space will likely be used to develop new recipes.
Night Shift sells around 40,000 barrels of beer annually. In recent years about 50% has been brewed at other companies, including Jack's Abby, where Sam Hendler is co-founder and CEO. He said earlier this summer, his CO2 supplier wasn't sure it could fulfill its contracts. But this week Hendler received word the supplier would be able to meet the order.
“However, they would not be able to serve any current customers beyond contractual demand, nor will they be able to sell any CO2 to anybody who is not a contractual customer," he explained. "Luckily, we have a contract in place that is sufficient, and we're going to be able to skate through this.”
Hendler said Jack's Abby will cut a few of its batches to accommodate Night Shift's increased production. “We're just like plowing forward and making room in the schedule so they don't actually run out of beer. I've known about this for less than a week now, so, it's chaos. But we're making it work.”
The brewing industry has also been experiencing a can shortage for more than two years. Prices are high for supplies including cardboard and graphics wrappers, according to Hendler. “It's just across the board," he said. "It feels like you're getting punched in the gut every week."
The Brewers Association, a national organization, said it's receiving reports about the CO2 crisis from producers across the country. Persistent delivery truck driver shortages are also complicating the issue, the association said in an email, adding, "It is worth noting that summer is peak demand season for CO2, so supply disruptions have a greater potential to turn into shortages during the summer.”
Stinchon, of the Mass. Brewers Guild that represents over 200 breweries, said she's received a flood of panicky calls and emails from other breweries.
“They're receiving notices from their suppliers that either they don't have enough products to fulfill their contract,” Stinchon said, “or they can fulfill their order this time, but future orders might be in jeopardy.”
She's been reaching out to the state's supply network, trying to make connections with vendors to see if they can support brewers until the supply chain stabilizes. “This is just yet another thing that our brewing community will have to survive and ride out during an already difficult time.”