Austin Craft Brewers vs. COVID-19: Zilker Brewing and Nomadic Beerworks
How local breweries are responding to the pandemic (Part 3)
By Eric Puga,
3:15PM, Wed. Apr. 8, 2020
Maybe you’re about to pour a big ole mug of beer as I’m about to, because it seems like everything out there from our local breweries are those big ole beers, referred to by professional beer knowers as “crowlers” – a 32 oz. “canned growler.”
I’ve been having a lot of fun with those (as one does when isolated with a dedicated beer fridge). But recently it was revealed that the ONE manufacturer that makes and dispenses crowlers to the entire craft beer industry in the United States was having a supply crisis because every brewery in the country had suddenly moved from a taproom sales model to, well, a distribution one.
That meant that heaped onto a mishmash of rotten luck for small, independently owned breweries in Texas (and countrywide), there would be another problem to solve: which vessels to move their curbside beer during a crowler shortage. While more crowlers are anticipated to be ready for shipment by mid-April, each ounce of missed beer sales might mean the difference between brewery viability and death by aluminum deficiency.
Alas, the craft beer industry is replete with creative minds who all left lucrative guitar pick designing jobs to work in an industry that barely survives during even the best of years, much less in pandemic ones, and so the crisis was overcome by canning into smaller, more weekday-friendly vessels like four-pack tallboys (16 oz.) and traditional sixer cans (12 oz.). This also meant that hypeable taproom rarities that drove customers toward an in-house experience in the brewery’s taproom were now widely available in convenient 12-to-16 oz. vessels, a rare in-house experience, well, in your own house. A good way to think about this was the recent debut of (512) Brewing’s Pecan Porter into bottled packaging after 12 years of elusiveness. For a niche industry like craft beer that relies heavily on the prospect of superfluous emotion to drive brand awareness, this was a big move toward accessing a brewery’s most special beers.
Last weekend, via a mix of curbside visits and parking lot drive-throughs, I was able to connect with those types of beers through touchless online ordering systems and delivered germ-free to my thirsty eyes. It is really an amazing system that these breweries have not only adapted to, but somehow made explicitly exciting and fresh and fun. After all, the user experience is what these breweries are best at, and somehow they’ve met the challenges of taproom bans and crowler shortages and every other damned thing someone might think to throw at them by being completely untroubled. That has an invaluable mental impact during these puzzling times.
In part 3 (read part 1 and part 2) of COVID-19 vs. Austin Breweries, we talked to rising stars Nomadic Beerworks, as well as all-pros Zilker Brewing, about their experiences adapting to COVID-19 and how they see their brewery getting through to the other side of this bastard virus.
Nomadic has been on the Austin scene for fewer than a dozen months, but they cleaned the hell up during the 2019 Austin Beer Guide awards, bagging the unimaginable brace of “Best New Brewery” and “Best Overall Brewery” last December. Pretty impressive. We also called them one of the most overlooked breweries of 2019, which seems absurd now with all that hardware dangling in the taproom somewhere. We reached out to co-founding brothers, Bryce and Dan Tyranski, to discuss how the novel virus has affected the novel brewery.
The Tyranski brothers on how their beer is moving three weeks into the taproom shutdown:
“Sales three weeks into the shutdown has hurt us quite a bit [Note: A recent press release from the Texas Craft Brewers Guild revealed that Texas breweries on average were experiencing a 71% decline in revenue due to the crisis]. Our taproom used to be a place full of energy and fun, but now it sits empty as a makeshift assembly line. We looked at the financials and we’re down about 40-50% in revenue. All the to-go vessels come with their own costs, so those margins are a bit lower as well. But we feel very fortunate to have guests and regulars who care about our brand as much as they do and have been supporting us faithfully. We’re also very thankful to be 10 months into operations instead of one month where we have at least some brand awareness.”
The Tyranskis on the production model Nomadic is moving to in light of the taproom shutdown:
“We have scaled back production and reduced the size of batches. We basically cut everything down to half-batches so that we could keep the beer fresh and still keep a decent number of different styles on tap for our customers. That also helps keep us busy and brewing. We are planning to do four-pack releases of our [mainstay beers]. Maybe we’ll do a bottle release or two — we do have some barrels [of aging beer] — if we can get our hands on the right packaging for them. A lot of [breweries] are trying to do the same things. But we are trying to have some fun with [our situation]. This is our opportunity to make it fun for [our customers] while also trying to keep the morale up for our staff. That’s important here. Sometimes it can get a bit somber around here, but when we are keeping the ideas flowing it keeps things fun and keeps us focused.”
The Tyranskis on the volume of to-go business it would take to keep Nomadic viable for the indefinite future:
“So far we’ve seen a great outpouring from our customers and they’ve been so generous with buying our beer and tipping. Really what we need as things begin to get a bit tighter, is for people to continue supporting local breweries like they have been. [Nomadic] is going to give people good reason to keep coming by.
“We’ve been workshopping ideas; apart from our beer, we still have cider cans from Argus because we want to support them and keep seeing them succeed. We have an espresso program where we’re selling bulk beans from Little City and bottles of wines. Our idea is if we can save someone a trip to the store, and they only need beer, wine, and coffee then we’ve got you. We’re trying to beef up merchandise as well, we were excited to see our hats come in (I saw them too, top class).
The Tyranskis on what is at stake for Nomadic (and small breweries overall) given an indefinite taproom halt:
“We thought we were going to have to close our doors because we were running out of crowlers and so we posted on social media that we were low and Jake [Maddux] from The Brewer’s Table reached out and asked how many we needed? We said, “60,” and he brought them right over. Shortly after that, our crowler shipment came in so we called [Maddux] back and said we’ll bring crowlers back over to him. When we got to The Brewer’s Table, Josh Hare from Hops & Grain was there needing some because they were low too, so [Maddux] just hands them right over from us to [Hare]. We also dropped off a case of 120 crowlers to St. Elmo because they said they were down to their last three crowlers. This is the spirit of the craft beer industry and definitely something we’ve seen across the industry; making sure the industry survives and is pulling together. Nobody in the industry wants to see anyone close. I think that [trait] is unique to craft breweries in some ways.”
Parting thoughts to the people of Austin regarding Nomadic and other small, independent breweries?
“Well first, we want everyone to know that they can access an up-to-date tap list on our website and call ahead for orders. You can also walk up to order and we’ll be adding an option to order online soon. But something cool about us is that we were launched as a community-focused taproom where the idea was for people to exchange experiences and places where they’ve been to and gone to, [so] we’re all about creating a warm, welcoming place which is why we don’t have TVs in our taproom. Instead we wanted people chatting and sharing stories which this quarantine makes impossible to do. So, we launched a program called “Three and One For” where you can buy three crowlers for $25 and that also buys a pint for a friend once this is all over. When this is all over they can all get together and get their pint from a friend. We’ve already given away 190 pints!”
Beer-to-Go Hours: noon-8pm, daily; To-go orders: 512/587-9669; Updated tap list available at www.nomadicbeerworks.com/beer
Zilker, the brewery, hardly even seems distracted by all this crazy shit going down. Each time I pull up for curbside beer, the staff is cheerful and busily doing brewery-type things, like making some of the finest small-batch beer in all of Texas. When something new pops up on their menu, or something returns to their lineup in four-pack tallboys, it all feels exciting and cool and distinctly one-of-our-own, the way people in this town go gaga whenever they see McConaughey do a promo for UT or whatever. The No. 6 Power-Ranked brewery according to our November 2019 list, Team Zilker responded to our questions via email regarding the effects COVID-19 has had on Zilker Brewing, even while looking totally unstressed.
Team Zilker on how their beer is moving over two weeks into the taproom shutdown:
“We’ve been humbled by the amount of support we’ve seen from the community and to-go sales numbers are much higher than expected but still not close to what it was before in the taproom.”
Team Zilker on the production model Zilker Brewing is moving to in light of taproom shutdown:
“Our new canning line has only been up and running for a few months but has been a game changer for us. Two new year-round canned beers already in the works are rolling out to grocery stores and bottle shops over the next few weeks: Icy Boys Lager and Heavenly Daze IPA. We are also increasing the number of cases of small-batch, taproom-only releases by four times because we’ve been selling through those much faster than anticipated. Our model right now is to can as much beer as people want to drink from us!
“Also not forgotten are the many on-premise draft accounts that are shut down right now. When things open back up we will be ready to help them get up and running again. We are launching a new beer this weekend called Stir Crazy Hazy. A collaboration with local designer Sam O'Brien, Malteurop Malting, Hollingbery Hops, and R/GA. A portion of the sales will go directly to help people in the service industry impacted by COVID-19.”
Team Zilker on the volume of to-go business it would take to keep Zilker Brewing viable for the indefinite future:
“With the increased canning for distribution and strong to-go sales we can survive indefinitely. Our self-distribution network and new state-of-the-art canning line allow us great flexibility and quality in all the beer we are bringing to market right now, whether it is to-go or distribution.”
Team Zilker on what is at stake for Zilker Brewing, (and small breweries overall) given an indefinite taproom halt:
“We plan to keep releasing new and interesting beers and creative merchandise like we’ve always done, just increasing the amount of canning we are doing.”
Parting thoughts to the people of Austin regarding Zilker Brewing and other small, independent breweries?
“We are launching the taproom-exclusive Stir Crazy Hazy on Saturday, April 11, with a presale starting online Friday, April 10.” [Note: This past week Zilker continued beer fridge domination by debuting a 196 oz. (5L) mini-keg of their hazy IPA Heavenly Daze and their rice lager Icy Boys, a collaboration with their property mates Spicy Boys Asian fried chicken, which also remains open and delicious. Though the kegs are currently sold out, it is anticipated that they will return to the online store.]
Beer-to-Go Hours: noon-8pm, Mon.-Sun.; Online beer, coffee, and merch ordering: www.toasttab.com/zilker-brewing-company/v3