Austin Craft Brewers vs. COVID-19: (512) Brewing and The Brewtorium
How local breweries are responding to the pandemic (Part 4)
By Eric Puga,
12:45PM, Tue. Apr. 14, 2020
I mean, hasn’t this weather been just fantastic? There is platinum-grade beer drinking weather happening right now in this big, beautiful, and circumstantially peaceful city at a time when, well, most of you have nothing but time to drink all day.
It’s the cruelest of ironies that the free-time/perfect-weather/great parking alignment comes during a total taproom/biergarten lockdown, and while, yes, I’m relying purely on a leaky memory bank here, this Austin spring feels more glorious than any of the others I can remember over the last dozen years. It’s a real crime.
But despite this grim satire by Mother Earth, distance-responsible livestream happy hours not only remain a satisfying diversion to boredom, but an unforeseen joy. The absurd simplicity of drinking beers (and for the sake of this story, let’s just assume everyone in ya squad are all milkshake IPA fanbois) in your own living room while connecting with friends from around the globe is such that makes one wonder why the hell we hadn’t thought of being in quarantine before? I don’t have to miss my friends in Seattle. And I don’t have to miss my friends in Arizona. And it doesn’t have to be 10 years between visits with my friends in Europe. Hell, I can even connect with my pals in North Austin who never get a babysitter. You’re all basically RIGHT THERE, RIGHT NOW. So why not grab those milkshake IPAs, virtual people of the world, and let’s get busy screen-sharing all those humiliating photos of Brick’s bachelor party in Juarez?
Still yet, the best part of this whole post-AOL-chatroom dystopia is actually figuring out what splashy online beverage will be accompanying you as the evening’s co-host. The liquid that will be unlocking your wit and 3-by-3-inch online gags. For me, it's been stocking up on beer-to-go from the various local breweries offered by way of sanitary online ordering and touchless curbside pickup. It's the highlight of my entire week, brief as it may be, pulling out of the brewery’s makeshift parking lot workstation under perfectly cloudless 71° skies. Eh, I’ve got a date with Brick and all the other goofs, anyway.
In this fourth edition of Austin Craft Brewers vs. COVID-19 (see parts one, two, and three), we talked to (512)’s owner/brewer Kevin Brand, as well as Whitney Roberts, co-founder and CEO of The Brewtorium, to check in on how quarantine orders have affected their businesses.
The taproom shutdown looks completely different for a brewery like (512) who functioned like a true distribution brewery, hosting very limited Saturday taproom hours (with, let's be honest, barely four walls to call a taproom). Most of the brewery’s iconic Pecan Porter and classic IPA was distributed to bars and restaurants via keg and if (512) was your favorite brewery, that’s how you had to go out and get it. Apart from very limited yearly runs of small-batch beers in 750mL bottles, you never saw it on the shelves of your favorite Austin booze depots. So with almost all keg accounts vanished, the brewery has had to feverishly brainstorm ways in which to again set Austin alight the way it did when their flagship beer, Pecan Porter, debuted back in 2008. Brand takes us through the tribulations and the overall strategy to keep his brewery afloat during the pandemic.
Brand on how sales are going at (512) one month into the temporary taproom/bar shutdown:
“Up until two weeks ago, (512) pretty much exclusively made and sold kegs to bars and restaurants. That’s who we were. In the last two weeks, nearly 95% of that revenue has evaporated, making it pretty challenging to proceed. We already aren’t who we were two weeks ago and I believe after this, we’ll be something altogether new again, so that’s exciting.”
“Luckily, and coincidentally, we launched our flagship beer, Pecan Porter, in bottles on March 2, and that’s provided some revenue to work with. With the package stores still open and beer to-go, we’re running on 15-20% of normal revenue, which is not sustainable without major cuts and basically zero spending. Payroll is the one thing we’re trying desperately to maintain. Employees have been furloughed and our vendors and landlords have been cooperative, which is refreshing. Somewhat funny, in 2008, when I started the company, I was on NPR touting how beer is recession proof. Markets go up and people celebrate with beer. Markets go down and people console with beer. I still believe this, assuming you can serve and drink it! The beer business, at least draft, is not very virus proof.”
“On the bright side, curbside sales have been amazing, although not very lucrative. Mainly, it’s been an uplifting reminder that we’re all in this together and that people, at their core, are supportive and helpful. Knowing we’ll get through this, to-go sales are enabling us to deepen our roots with our fans and community and I’m hopeful this will strengthen us on the other side of this nightmare.”
Brand on how (512) has had to adapt to a different production model than existed for the brewery before the pandemic:
“Production has all but stopped since we were stocked up for our biggest months of the year, March and April. With everything canceled plus bars and restaurants prohibited from pouring draft beer, there’s little need to make beer beyond that needed to support Pecan Porter in bottles. We have taken this opportunity to realize some beers in our barrel program are ready for release. It looks like a couple of exciting beers are ready and that will be fun and provide some much needed work for some of my staff. We’re also working day and night to release more package beer much sooner than originally planned. At our current spot, we can’t support both draft and package of our classic IPA without changing our seasonal draft lineup, but with these market conditions, we’re moving IPA 12 oz. [bottles] up and hope to release that very soon.”
Brand on the volume of to-go business it would take to keep (512) viable for the indefinite future:
“To stay viable, to-go sales is important, but not likely to keep us going. What will keep us viable during this is sales of packaged beer in the stores and some assistance, unfortunately. We love beer to-go, but we were selling something like the equivalent of 500 cases per day in kegs and a busy beer to-go day for us is closer to 10 right now.”
Brand on the brewery’s plans to keep customers interested in supporting (512):
“Yes! IPA six-packs are on the way and we’re going to continue to offer all the beer styles we have on hand through our growler fill and refill program. We’re toying with the idea of filling mini-kegs for the fridge, but likely won’t resort to that unless this issue stretches into the fall (fingers crossed).”
Parting thoughts to the people of Austin regarding (512) and other small, independent breweries?
“Mostly, my message is a request that we all take a moment to consider where the money we are spending ends up and to try to direct it to the local economy whenever possible. It’s not always easy, but it may make the difference needed to keep our local beer scene top notch. Have online happy hours with a local beer. Most importantly, I’d like people to know that we’re working very hard to weather this storm and looking forward to the other side, when beer can begin to safely flow again. We’re not going anywhere! We’re cautiously working to keep as many people employed as possible while providing our products through new and unfamiliar channels. Rest assured we’ll be back at bars as soon as it’s safe. We love and appreciate the support!”
Beer-to-Go Hours: noon-6pm, daily. To-Go orders: www.512brewingshop.com
Full disclosure here: The Brewtorium is my local, so it's all mine to cherish anytime I want. I like to think of it as a little brewery with a giant heart, being that the 15BBL brewing program is now maturing into its powerhouse form with smash hits like Juicy Randy NEIPA and Biscuit Eater ESB, filling out its big boy trousers that is the quarter-billion-square-foot warehouse it was born into. It really is a fantastic brewery that relies foremost on lunch and dinner guests to eat and drink and maybe stick around for third and fourth rounds. The Chronicle discussed the taproom and biergarten closure with co-founder and CEO Whitney Roberts to see how the pandemic is affecting The Brewtorium.
Roberts on how sales are going at The Brewtorium since the temporary taproom shutdown went into effect:
“Over the last three weeks, we've seen sales down an average of 72% compared to the same three weeks last year. While the numbers are pretty discouraging, we're thankful we're able to stay open at all and continue operating on some level. The community has been extremely supportive and we love seeing friends' and regulars' names pop up for online orders.”
Roberts on the beer production aspect of The Brewtorium since the shutdown:
“Right now we are just working through the beers we currently have on tap. We haven't needed to brew anything new because we are obviously selling beer much more slowly. Given that all our beer sales are now to-go, we are selling crowlers six times faster than before. We were down to our last few 32 oz. crowler cans last week when American Canning was able to supply us with an adapter that allowed us to fill 25 oz. crowler cans, so we quickly pivoted to the 25 oz. cans and we're flying through those too! We've sold out of our own growlers, but we are offering 15% growler fills for folks who bring their own growler (We promise we are sanitizing everything SO MUCH).”
Roberts on the level of to-go business The Brewtorium would need in order to bridge the “Social Distancing” gap:
“It would be ideal to have a lot more to-go sales, but we also understand that many people are living on limited funds right now, so the number of people who can afford take-out several times a week are also limited. We're just taking it day by day. As it stands, this is not a sustainable model, but with extremely decreased expenses and a very small skeleton crew, we are making it work for the time being. If and when we are approved for the PPP & SBA loans, we'll have a lot more resources and be able to breathe a little easier.”
“If it were legal for us to deliver beer along with our food, that would open up a whole new revenue stream and allow us to employ more of our staff right now, but as it stands that option still remains illegal.” [Author’s note: The Texas Craft Brewers Guild has circulated a petition to Gov. Abbott asking for temporary permission to deliver beer directly to their local customers as well as direct-to-customer beer shipments.]
Roberts on The Brewtorium’s plans to boost customer interested during the taproom ban:
“We have started offering some grocery staples like toilet paper, eggs, butter, and flour in our online pantry and we hope to add more items as they become available through our suppliers. We are also planning on adding some of our house-made items from the kitchen in the pantry soon. We have a lot of other ideas we are noodling around with that we'll be rolling out as we can. [Also], we will be releasing our new Pink Boots IPA in six packs to-go in a few weeks. We are planning on brewing a lager soon as well. It'll have plenty of time to get nice and clear while we wait this thing out. Once there's a light at the end of the tunnel, we'll ramp up the production schedule to make sure we have enough beer for all those 30 folks coming back to the beer hall when this is all over.”
Parting thoughts to the people of Austin regarding The Brewtorium?
“We are still open six days a week with online and call-in ordering available. We are still offering our entire food & beverage menu except for the few specialty items we used to offer on our Friday lunch menu. You can schedule an order for curbside pick-up and we are delivering food through UberEats. [Author’s note: The Straight Shooter Burger I ordered for curbside take-out last week held up very well in transport and was damned tasty by the time it hit my dinnerware. My kids have been crazy about their soft pretzel and beer cheese for years and nothing’s changed as I missed out yet again on dad’s-rights leftovers of that delicious dough. Doh!]
Beer-to-Go Hours: Tue.-Thu., 4-8:30pm; Fri., 11am-8:30pm; Sat., noon-8:30pm; Sun., noon-8:30pm; closed Monday. To-go orders: ORDER ONLINE