The state’s bustling craft beer industry is facing one of its first major roadblocks as coronavirus-related restrictions stunt sales and threaten summer tourism.
One in five tourists, or 9 million visitors to Maine, stopped at a brewery while in the state in 2017, according to the Maine Brewers’ Association. Maine’s beer industry has a major economic impact on the state, contributing $656 million in 2019, according to data released Friday by the Brewers Association, a national industry group.
Maine ranked 19th among the 50 states with its 133 craft breweries in 2019. The state ranked sixth in beer consumption with each over-21 adult drinking 10.7 gallons per year on average, the Brewers Association said. But numbers this year likely won’t look so lofty and could hinge on when businesses are allowed to reopen, experts said.
“COVID-19 happened at a slow time of year for beer sales,” said Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild. “But it doesn’t look like the busy time of year will be busy this year.”
Gov. Janet Mills said Thursday that she is watching the virus situation closely to see whether a stay-at-home order can be lifted on April 30. The order has particularly hampered restaurants, bars and hotels, which are either closed or operating small curbside businesses to offset losses. Mills has outlined a process for reopening the state gradually, but gave no firm details on timing.
“The tourism industry is at a standstill right now,” said Steve Hewins, president and CEO of Hospitality Maine, an industry group.
Hewins said he hopes to get some idea of a start date early next week. He is awaiting further directives from the governor, particularly about when restaurants can open in-house dining on at least a limited basis and hotels can begin to serve more than just essential workers.
The toll on craft brewers includes their taproom business and sales to bars and restaurants, according to a survey by the Maine Brewers’ Association answered by about one-third of its 152 licensed members.
The majority of respondents said their sales are down 50 percent or more, while a third said sales are down 80 percent or more. Breweries also are brewing less and spending more money on selling canned or bottled beer. Draft beer sales in taprooms are more profitable, Sullivan said. Restaurants and bars also are not buying beer kegs, which have been a major part of sales for some breweries, because they cannot have customers inside.
In 2019, the craft beer industry employed 2,046 people directly, Sullivan said. But two-thirds of Maine’s breweries have had to reduce workers, he said, with about 660 people either laid off or furloughed.
So far, he doesn’t know of any craft breweries that have closed.
“But if this goes on too long, I expect to see some closures,” he said.
Some possible help to sales for the restaurant and bar customers of breweries came on Thursday when the Maine Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations allowed the temporary sale of draft beer in “growlers to go” under certain conditions.
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The goal is to let restaurants and bars that had stocked up for St. Patrick’s Day sell their excess keg inventories by putting the beer into growlers that could be carried out. While the beer normally would sell quickly, this year many communities instituted curfews to keep people separated during the annual celebration.
Shahin Khojastehzad, co-owner and general manager of the Novare Res Bier Cafe in Portland, was one of the people advocating with the state to allow the growler sales. He sells 500 beers from around the world, including Maine brews. He currently has more than 120 kegs that he’s eager to sell.
“Even if I sell it slightly above cost, it’s a win-win,” he said.
Watch: Here’s a look at Maine’s bustling craft beer scene