May 29, 2020
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Maine’s craft brewers get creative to keep the beer flowing

Courtesy of Black Bear Brewing
Courtesy of Black Bear Brewing
Customers at Black Bear Brewing in Orono buy growlers from the brewery's new takeout window on Thursday, March 26.

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Restrictions on group gatherings throughout the state and “stay-at-home” orders in Portland, South Portland and Brunswick have temporarily stopped taprooms in Maine’s thriving craft brewing industry.

Breweries are delivering to homes and offering curbside pickup — but they’re in a fight for their lives. The closed taprooms and takeout-only limitations in restaurants are hurting their total business.

Co-owner of Rising Tide Brewing in Portland Heather Sanborn said the business laid off 19 workers and only has six left, including the two owners.

“We’re not just losing money in the taproom. We supply beer to bars and restaurants,” she said. “Our keg beer sales are down to zero. Our revenue is one-third or less of what it had been.”

Orono Brewing Co., which has locations in Orono and Bangor, is seeing a 50 percent decrease in overall revenue, owner Abe Furth said. He had to lay off all but five of his staff of 30 employees.

“We’re not selling draft beer, which was half of our sales. All of our sales are now in cans,” he said.

Orono Brewing started delivering beer last week and today is starting curbside pickup for pre-ordered beer.

“The goal is to create convenience and keep everyone safe,” Furth said. “Everything is week-to-week. We’re looking at what is allowed.”

Before the coronavirus hit, Maine’s craft brewing industry had been growing strongly for the past five years. A 2019 study found that craft breweries and related activities in Maine contributed $260 million to the Maine economy and 2,560 jobs.

Courtesy of Rising Tide Brewing
Courtesy of Rising Tide Brewing
Heather Sanborn, co-owner of Rising Tide Brewing in Portland, brings beer and snacks to a customer last week. Craft brewers have had to adapt with curbside and delivery services as a state mandate forced them to close their taprooms to customers.

But Maine brewers are feeling the impact of the coronavirus spread along with the rest of the hospitality and food and beverage industry, Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild, said.

“So many Maine breweries opened in the past three to five years, and have been reinvesting their profits towards growing their breweries to staff up, meet demand and serve their communities, which means this period of very slow business will be tough to weather,” Sullivan said.

He said the innovation in delivery and beer “to go” creates new opportunities that may strengthen the industry in the long run.

The Maine Brewers’ Guild polled its members about what type of service they will offer and when and has posted information from more than 70 breweries on its website.

Sanborn said she had to get creative with pickup and delivery service.

“We closed our inside space on Wednesday and reconfigured our patio into a drive-thru lane,” she said.

The city of Portland issued an emergency “stay-at-home” order effective at 5 p.m. on Wednesday. That followed the March 18 order by Gov. Janet Mills that limits public gatherings and requires restaurants and bars to stop dine-in service for two weeks.

Rising Tide conducts transactions 6 feet away from another person, including with a machine outside to take credit card payments. A staffer will either put beer in a car trunk or leave the beer outside the taproom door and then close the door so the customer can pick it up. Customers can order online before pickup.

Sanborn said so far fewer people are coming to Rising Tide, but each person is buying more beer because they want to make fewer trips outside. But the normal, casual interactions taprooms are known for are missing.

“I’m standing 6 feet away from the driver and it’s cold out,” she said.

Rising Tide still is brewing beer, but in much smaller quantities.

“We’re brewing summer beers for when the weather gets warm,” she said. “We had planned to release our Maine Island Trail Ale, a session beer with a low 4.3 percent alcohol, on April 1 but we released it on Friday instead,” she said. “We have a lot of pre-orders for it.”

Rising Tide also designed a limited edition T-shirt to go along with the beer that is based on the state’s 1820 flag design to commemorate Maine’s 200th anniversary. Those are being sold online.

“The hardest part is not knowing how long this is going to last and what changes we’ll need to make in the future,” she said. “Beer takes two to three weeks to make, so we have to anticipate what will happen three to four weeks from now.”

 


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