Austin Craft Brewers vs COVID-19: Compadre Brewing and Central District Brewing
How local breweries are responding to the pandemic (Part 7)
By Eric Puga,
5:30PM, Wed. May 6, 2020
Ok sure, Texas is trying to save its economy or whatever, but as very big advocates of not being dead, we will continue to emphasize touchless, safety-minded, curbside beer pickup – and maybe a Detroit-style pizza to-go instead of risking it all for a sit-down lunch of some fucking Subway-quality brisket.
That’s not supposed to be the cost of doing business with COVID-19, man.
Let’s continue to enjoy our take-out meals and drive-thru beers as responsible Texans, sparing the lives of all our nanas over a Shock Top and a bowl of mild restaurant salsa that costs roughly three cents per gallon to make.
Over here, we’re continuing to lay real low, watching The Masked Singer like it’s Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS, and enjoying some of the freshest (and honestly, most creative) beers this city has ever seen, practically coming right off the bright tanks and into the trunks of our Kia Souls like real Texans. So follow our lead, maybe even to the two breweries we’re discussing here today, Compadre Brewing in Pflugerville and Central District Brewing in downtown Austin (which, frankly, is only populated by bats and the base of a burnt up grackle sculpture these days). Anyway, read on to hear how the COVID-19 disaster continues to affect our local breweries. (And check out the other parts of this series, too.)
Since these days you can just barrel down the highway in any direction at any time of the day, now’s your chance to hit up some of the lower-key breweries around town who are fighting just as hard as anyone to earn your friendship and please your discerning palate. Compadre is an industrial-belt brewery with a giant, workmanlike tap list whose first anniversary was May 2 – damn the timing! But that’s even more of a reason to show this Pflugerville brewery a bit more love on your beer runs. We chatted with GM/Brewer Rus Hall and brewer Frazier (“Just Frazier,” he insists), to see how the freshman brewery is doing in light of their temporary taproom shutter during the statewide stay-at-home orders.
Hall and Frazier on how sales are going at Compadre since the temporary order to shut down Austin-area taprooms and how they have adjusted to the changes caused by the pandemic:
“We had just started self-distribution and had about 12 to 15 off-premise accounts. Now only one of those accounts is still buying beer from us, so draught sales took, like, a 99 percent decrease. But to-go sales here have been surprisingly good. We were optimistic, but people have been really supporting us. Of course, we could use even more help because we’re not anywhere near where we were [before the pandemic]. So, overall, we’re about 90% down in sales. It's a precarious position; there's this ongoing shutdown and you just don’t know how long it's gonna last. May 2nd [was] our first anniversary party, and that likely would have been our biggest ever turnout because anniversary parties are good for business, but this is our new reality.”
Hall and Frazier on the production changes and other creative intentions happening at Compadre in light of the taproom shutdown:
“We have a 30 BBL brewhouse and a one BBL pilot system, so typically we did three to five batches per month on the big system and 10 or so every couple weeks on the small system. The schedule definitely decreased and it's been more of an issue keeping our yeast alive while on the other hand, a lot of it has been bought up [by other breweries in the same situation]. We just brewed Pflugerbrau, a citrusy, 4.5% SMASH (Single Malt And Single Hop) light lager, and we brewed our blonde lager last week, which will be ready in a few weeks.”
“We also purchased an Oktober can seamer and we secured a few boxes of 32 oz. and 25 oz. crowlers. We are doing 12 oz crowlers, too, which we can also set up for tall boys. We can fill 64 oz growlers too. Fortunately, getting a can seamer was actually on our list of things to get before all this. We’re working on some new t-shirt designs and hats but we’re not opposed to doing other creative things as well. Not being all that well known is kind of a downside to the merch thing.”
Hall and Frazier on the volume of to-go business it would take to keep Compadre viable for the indefinite future:
"We need to see a 20 to 30 percent increase in sales right now to just kind of float us. Last weekend we did great, and we anticipate a good weekend this weekend because of the weather. But we’re also on an island out here in Pflugerville and we have to really rely on our neighbors. There’s really no signage out here and you either have to be purposely looking for us or have been here before, so that’s a bit of a challenge for us. I think one of the upsides to being so new is that we don’t have a lot of staff who is required to help juggle all the balls, and [a smaller staff] has helped with mitigating the loss. Our taproom staff is furloughed, and our production guys are on limited hours right now. It's what we have to do right now.”
Hall and Frazier on what is at stake for Compadre (and small breweries overall) given an indefinite taproom halt:“We’ve already kind of seen the beginning of the fall out from this with [the cancellation of] SXSW and that has a direct impact on us just with places that just serve our beer. I don’t know what it will look like on the other side of this, but it will change everything. You can already see how it's changed other things, like how kids are being taught and how we buy groceries. As far as the [beer] industry goes, I think it will be okay, and it’ll just be another test for us. God knows there’s never a shortage of [tests]. Being a small brewery, it’s always one step forward two steps back.”
“The benefit of this business is that you can’t get complacent. If this will push smaller breweries to start packaging much sooner than they anticipated so that they can sign with a distributor much quicker, that might be a good thing because it turns out being a draught-only, taproom centric brewery is a very hard business model all of the sudden. Every day is a struggle and a fight but even though it’s not always easy, it usually always fun.”
Parting thoughts to the people of Austin regarding Compadre and other small independent breweries?
“The biggest influx of revenue right now is through our website. [As a customer] you can order beer and merch online and help get our name out there. You’ll see that in a lot of articles written about breweries [in the Austin-area], Pflugerville doesn’t get mentioned. There is beer here and we’re making good beer. We’d love to get the word out that we haven’t gone anywhere. Our customers have been the biggest inspiration for us because despite all their own hardships, they're still here buying beer from us and they don’t have to do that. To me, that’s inspirational, these people trying to support us. That’s pretty cool.”
Beer-to-Go Hours: Daily 10am - 6pm; To-go orders and updated beer menu: www.toasttab.com/compadre-brewing/v3
Central District Brewing
You’d think Central District started a revolution being the only brewery in the craft-deserted locale of downtown proper, but the reality is that they are carrying the burdensome torch for a once-capable lineup of legendary, but now extinct, beerhouses like The Bitter End, Waterloo, Coppertank, and Lovejoy’s. If for nothing else, they deserve to survive because of their fearlessness in tackling large groups of red-shorted tech bros heading for some Kamikazes on Rainey St, bro, and yet, their beers are pretty damned spectacular as well. Winner of a Great American Beer Festival GOLD MEDAL in only their first year of production with witbier Wit-tington, this whip-smart 5BBL brewhouse keeps pumping out a parchment scroll worth of solid beer choices. We communicated with Central District Brewing co-founders Julie Ballato and Angela Duley via email about the effects the pandemic has had on their downtown brewery so far.
Ballato on how sales are going at Central District almost seven weeks into the temporary order to shut down Austin-area taprooms and how the brewery has adjusted to the changes caused by the pandemic:
“Our taproom was designed to be community centered and we love the interaction with guests as they experience our craft. Our sales were a combination of taproom customers, partnerships with event groups, and venue bookings. We opened in March of last year and had been steadily growing our business. February was our best month yet and we felt like the pieces were coming together for us. We now only have our beer-to-go sales, which is about 10-15% of the overall business we had before.”
Duley on the production changes and revenue model shifts happening at Central District in light of the taproom shutdown:
“For our taproom, the most exciting change for us was getting our beer into 16 oz. cans. We were planning on doing this for our anniversary party in May but it’s been wonderful to have our beer canned for curbside purchases. We cannot thank American Canning enough for their support. They have been an amazing partner as we have pivoted our business to new canned products.”
“For our brewing operations, we halted our brewing schedule completely when this hit. Luckily, we had just filled up all our tanks with large batches of beer (we have three 10 BBL fermenters) and were able to release two beers while the taproom has been closed. Our hazy session IPA, Be a Lady, They Said, was made with the Pink Boots Society hop blend and is sitting at 4.7% ABV so it is a really great beer for the coming Texas heat. And we brought back our Blind Alibi Kveik juicy IPA with more of a tropical punch than the previous version. The third beer is a German-style Pilsner conditioning in our fermenter and it’ll be released for Mother’s Day weekend. This will be our first pilsner and another upside to this situation was that we didn’t rush its release. I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to achieve as long of a conditioning period in the future, so this will be a really special beer for us.”
“We are currently gearing back up to start brewing again. We went in on a shipment of grain from New Zealand that Blue Owl Brewing coordinated so we are excited to brew a beer with grains that we will probably never get again. We ran out of some of our customer favorites so we’ll start with some of those as well. It’ll feel like turning a page in this odd chapter of our business when we get in there and steam up the brewery again.”
Ballato on the volume of to-go business it would take to keep Central District viable for the indefinite future and being in the unique position of being downtown’s only brewery:
“Downtown has been quiet in a time that would have been some of our busiest weeks of the year. We have gotten to see more of our downtown neighbors as they stop by for curbside. We have also had customers drive downtown from all parts of Austin to support us. Every purchase is really meaningful, and we are so grateful. It will take that continued community support, along with programs like the SBA Loan forgiveness, to sustain us until the vibrancy of downtown is restored.”
Ballato on what is at stake for Central District (and small breweries overall) given an indefinite taproom halt:
“In the last year, we feel like we carved out a cool spot downtown for people to come hang out with friends and enjoy great craft beer. We are proud to look at our plans for Central District and realize we are succeeding at what we set out to accomplish. But we anticipate challenging market conditions will continue for months after we are able to our doors again. We look forward to reopening our taproom when the time is right. As Texas starts to re-open under Gov. Abbott's orders, be sure to check our website and social media to see our plans in the coming months. With our new online store and products in place, we plan to continue our curbside service in the transition back to an open taproom. We hope things like beer delivery will be made available to us soon as well.”
Duley with parting thoughts to the people of Austin regarding Central District and other small independent breweries:
“[One] important thing that readers can do is recognize that breweries/brewpubs are not [currently] allowed to deliver or ship beer even though many other businesses are able to deliver beer, wine, and spirits to customers. For those who have been following this series, this has been a common message from all the breweries/brewpubs. We invite everyone to please go to texascraftbrewersguild.org to read more about what you can do to help, including buying some of the guild’s merchandise to support all craft beer across the state.”
“As a young business, we are still getting our name out into the public and building our presence. When our name gets included in local lists of places, we see new customers stop by which is fun for us. We went into the beer business to build durable friendships with our community. In a time when we cannot sit and have a conversation with people in our taproom, we know our to-go beers are creating those bonds with people outside our space now. It means so much to us when we hear people say that they cannot wait to come back to our taproom one day. If our A-Frames are outside, it means we are open [for to-go beer]. Thank you, Austin, for helping businesses like us get to the other side of the curve.”
Beer-to-Go Hours: Sun-Thurs: 12pm-4pm, Fri & Sat: Noon-7pm (walk-ups welcome) To-go orders and updated beer menu & merch: centraldistrictbrewing.com/shop