Austin Craft Brewers vs COVID-19: Austin Beerworks and Jester King
How local breweries are responding to the pandemic (Part 1)
By Eric Puga,
2:45PM, Fri. Mar. 27, 2020
By now you’ve read everything you need to know about COVID-19. And yet that seems to change almost hourly, and in a way that’s nearly impossible to keep up with:
What services remain available and at what hours; with whom can you socially network and at what distances; is this bug going to make my ass explode like a merciless volcano (why do I need all this toilet paper); and finally, do I own any Zoom shares, any at all?
But something that has remained consistent, reliable, and pretty darn tasty is Austin’s local beer. It’s hardly a studied analysis, of course, but I sincerely doubt you’d expect one at this point. When I went and bought several cases and growlers of to-go beer at a dozen local breweries this past week, I celebrated. And while buying beer is a ludicrously banal thing to be celebrating given the set of circumstances we all find ourselves in, it felt like something of a relief to be doing a job that helps to get things back on the rails, or at least moderately close to being back on the rails.
This particular blog post, and other similar, brewery-specific featurettes you can expect in the future, is intended to shine a spotlight on these small, independently owned, craft breweries in the Austin area that will undoubtedly struggle during the COVID-19 crisis. Due to the (rightful) ban on social gathering spots by city and state leaders, every brewery taproom has been shuttered for an indefinite time period. Those taprooms bolster critical segments to a craft brewery’s overall success beyond an overwhelmingly sizable percentage of profit; they also serve as front-facing brand awareness beacons to the quality of product and serve as community gathering spots.
So, not only do all our Austin-area brewers want you to get out there and buy some beer (legally and distance-responsible, of course), they want you to read their stories and punch a tiger in the face afterwards or something. Whatever choices you make about wild animals, just make sure to pick up a sixer or a crowler of something tasty and local, and I suppose we'll just have to see (hourly) where we go from here.
Michael Graham is one of four co-founders of the soaring ballad known as ABW, and highest ranking Austin-area brewery according to Chronicle’s most recent Power Ranking Index. The Chronicle asked Graham to offer some insight into how sales are going one week into the citywide social buzzkill/shelter-in-place mandate.“Well, our keg sales are at zero since nobody’s ordering kegs for bars and restaurants at the moment. [But] last week off-premise sales at grocery stores and convenience stores was one of our busiest weeks ever. So, delivering cans, good; kegs, not so good. Our on-premise taproom is totally gone, but beer-to-go has been really great, it exceeded our expectations. Traditionally, beer-to-go makes up 20% of our sales volume and last week it tripled. Still, we were down almost 50% in overall sales.”
Graham on the production model ABW is moving to in light of taproom shutdown:
“We have moved from kegging and canning to strictly canning. Soon, we’re going to push a bunch of keg beer back into the tanks and can those as well rather than letting keg beer go to waste. We had a big order get canceled for SXSW and had a surplus inventory (rumor was Bezos had a triple digit order of kegs ordered for their events, but here, have some free Prime, lads!), but we think that will help with using that for beer-to-go.”
Graham on the volume of to-go business it would take to keep ABW viable for the indefinite future:
“We are focused on keeping our employees employed. The margins of selling a case of beer to a consumer are high, so almost any amount of to-go sales helps to keep someone’s job. So, unless we’re forced to stop brewing and selling to-go well keep doing it.”
Graham on what is at stake for ABW, (and small breweries overall) given an indefinite taproom halt:
“The margins on tap rooms are really great, so that became the most functional model for newer breweries to be sustainable. It’s a lot cheaper to open a taproom and be the main source of your beer. But those taproom-only models are probably the most in trouble. We’re at risk of losing these new breweries and ones that don’t really can or bottle their beer, but push out distribution to bars and restaurants; (512) for example. Distributors are also prioritizing their highest volume brands and grocery stores want constant deliveries of beer that moves.”
Parting thoughts to the people of Austin regarding ABW and other small, independent breweries?
“I really just want to say thank you for the amount of support we’ve received over the last week. It’s been both inspiring and shocking. It’s gone a long way for our staff, the amount of support we’ve received. If any of you have a local business you like, try to support them if you can. The dollar spent there goes a long way. [As for ABW] We have a web store where you can order online and we’ll have it ready for you in five minutes. It’s updated pretty regularly as new things go on and off [our menu]. We’re working on exclusive taproom can releases and also some ‘virtual collabs’ with other breweries where we write the recipes online and FaceTime the brewing process.”
Beer-to-Go Hours: 12-8pm; Beer and Merch Website: https://austinbeerworks.square.site
Jeffrey Stuffings is the founder and owner of the globally revered Jester King brewery that shines bright out in the Hill Country. The brewery is a reliable inhabitant of several Top 10 Brewery lists, like Craft Beer & Brewing Magazines and RateBeer.com’s Best Of Awards, as well as holding the #2 Austin-area Brewery Power Ranking in our own opinion. Stuffings talked to the Chronicle about his perspective on the crisis facing small independent breweries.
“So far, we have gotten zero help [from the government]. The extended tax day helps, but not [on the matter of] sales tax, or excise tax relief, or bank relief. We applied for the SBA disaster relief loan, which frankly, we are going to need. But it's been a lot quieter around here. It’s weird having Jester King be a ghost town. [Last] Saturday was crickets. First time in a decade. We did have a steady stream of cars every couple of minutes and that was nice. It is quieter on the weekdays. The numbers are as expected, this took a massive cut into our business, about ¾ into our sales. I thought it was helpful what the governor said in his [recent] address that restaurants play a vital role in food supply and grocery stores can’t do it alone. Jester King is a business predicated on the overall brewery experience. I feel like this was the perfect storm as far as having a negative impact on our business, economically speaking.”
Stuffings on the production model Jester King is moving to in light of taproom shutdown:
“We did start releasing beers in cans, and [one of the most anticipated recent releases] Black Metal [going to cans instead of JK’s traditional large format bottling] was just a coincidence. We just put out Dark Matter Imperial Coffee Stout in cans and that is a collaboration with our friends Dark Matter Coffee in Chicago. So, our to-go sales are important, but I can also see that beer that would traditionally [sell out] at our brewery will probably hit distribution (sent to stores) too. For now, we’ll slow down the normal production schedule [of Jester King’s rotational beers] because we’ll run out of space. We’ll be focusing largely on special releases for the foreseeable future.”
Stuffings on the volume of to-go business it would take to keep Jester King viable for the indefinite future:“My impression is that it's gonna be months before we see normalcy again so I’d ask people to support small, local, and independent businesses like you never have before. Yeah, I [would] shop at big box stores from time to time, but now is not the time. I implore people to go out of their way to buy from small, local, independent breweries and other businesses. Please go out and support them as much as you can while being safe. Jester King bought a farm and opened a restaurant. We opened an inn and just debuted our private events hall, so we’re gonna need help. Our banks are gonna need to give us a break. I’ll also say that I’m jealous of the 35 other states (but not Texas, no) who are able to ship and deliver beer [to their instate and out-of-state customers]. Some breweries in Texas just said ‘fuck it’ and did it, but we want to stay within the law, of course. That would make a huge difference."
Stuffings on what is at stake for Jester King, (and small breweries overall) given an indefinite taproom halt:“The Jester King experience is all in on the taproom model. Our strategy was that we didn’t want to fight the whole rat-race of heavy distribution, but create a place where people can come visit and hang out under a live oak tree. We’re not heavily supported by the distribution of our beer, you don’t see us often at grocery stores. We set out to throw a small beer fest every weekend, and over the course of the last four or five years we did that with 2,000 visitors a weekend.”
Parting thoughts to the people of Austin regarding Jester King and other small, independent breweries?“Number one, ask the Governor to support a temporary allowance for delivery and shipping for brewpubs and production breweries in Texas. Number two, buy our beer and the beer of other small independent brewers whether at the [brewery’s] drive-thru or at stores. (It’s much better to buy direct as 100% of the profits go straight to the brewery as opposed to about 50% through a retailer).” Beer-to-Go Hours: 12-8pm; Beer and Merch Website: https://www.toasttab.com/jesterkingbrewery