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The State of DC’s Brewpubs during Covid-19

For years I’d been told the brewpub was a fortress. It was a castle built to withstand any ransacking or small brewery closures. “People gotta eat” was the narrative and so the brewpub-as-restaurant would be safe from volatile market swings. In the time it took me to write this, DC’s oldest brewpub closed for good during the covid-19 shutdown, leaving the future of nut brown ale and light lager from our longest-tenured brewer in question, while the fate of the other brewpubs hangs in the balance.

In the last several years I’d heard observational data like, “Sure, beer market share is dwindling but every time I go to [insert your favorite brewpub] on a Friday night they’re always packed.” Data showed the public was drinking less beer as whiskey and wine gained consumers. The pie was shrinking for beer, but the brewpubs would be fine. Until they weren’t.

Bob Pease discusses the impact on brewpubs during the covid-19 pandemic.

Last week, Brewers Association President Bob Pease discussed the CARES act and how it will hopefully affect breweries on the DCBeer show. He said:

In our world, the Brewers Association world, we look at the business models like this: we look at breweries we considered packaging breweries that put their beer in bottles, cans, or kegs, we look at breweries that are brewpubs that are restaurant breweries that are selling 75% or more of their beer on site but also have a meaningful kitchen operation and then we have taproom breweries… all three of those categories have been hit tremendously hard but brewpubs and taprooms are really taking it on the chin because they generate a good portion of their revenue and generate a good portion of their profits from beer sales direct to the drinker over the bar…those breweries have been crushed.

Bob Pease, President & CEO, The Brewers Association

Brewpubs React

Not long ago the balance of DC’s of brick and mortar breweries swung towards the brewpub model. This is different from the production or packaging brewery model. Out of 13 DC breweries, 5 were production brewers and the rest followed the brewpub model.

The 13 brick and mortar breweries at the start of the year were 3 Stars, Atlas, Bardo, Gordon Biersch Navy Yard, Bluejacket, DC Brau, District ChopHouse, Hellbender, Public Option, Red Bear, Right Proper Brewpub Shaw, Right Proper Brookland, and Valor Brewpub. Out of these 13 breweries, I could buy 5 of them in cans at my grocer: 3 Stars, Atlas, DC Brau, Hellbender, and Right Proper Brookland cans. Obviously Gordon Biersch, Bluejacket, ChopHouse, Public Option, Red Bear, Right Proper Shaw, and Valor are not brewpubs just because they’re not sold in a grocery store but it is a good indicator of their business model.

Other options are available from producers outside of DC proper like Port City and Denizens, and then there are fermentables that are not beer like ANXO’s ciders. ANXO could be counted as a brewpub, as they make their own cider and make their own food and follow that model. Like Right Proper, ANXO has a restaurant and production facility outside of its pub. Like many brewpubs, they have had significant layoffs.

Of the 13 DC breweries making beer in January 2020, seven had kitchens: Bluejacket, District ChopHouse, Gordon Biersch, Red Bear, Right Proper Shaw, The Public Option, and Valor. Of course the kitchens were quite different ranging from tiny with one chef or cook, to massive with multiple cooks, prep chefs, runners and executive chefs. Some of these chefs have rightfully garnered critical acclaim.

The kitchens at The Public Option and Bluejacket couldn’t be more different. Yet to beer culture lovers, they both provided unique experiences. I can recall an evening at the Public Option ordering a hotdog but a neighbor who lived off Rhode Island Avenue would bring in his homemade ceviche. Forbidden today, these memories sustain us through these difficult times and provide hope to return to a thriving beer scene once enjoyed in the District. Hope remains, despite all the uncertainties in not knowing if this scene will ever return.

I’d be remiss not mentioning the work of past Bluejacket/Arsenal head chefs Marcelle Afram and Kyle Bailey. Who they are and what they stand for is still of vital importance. These chefs remind us of what makes our scene strong.

In the sentiments of Julie Veratti, Chief Brand Officer / Founder of Denizens Brewing Company, and in the words of Black Narrows founder Josh Chapman, “SMALL BUSINESS IS THE KEYSTONE SPECIES OF THE AMERICAN ECONOMY[.] Without us, this whole system falls apart.”

It seems some falling apart has already begun. The Public Option has closed until further notice. The District ChopHouse, DC’s longest active brewery, has closed for good (they started brewing in 1996) and their parent company CratWorks has laid off 18,000 employees. Bluejacket has pivoted hard to sell cans and be a vital part of the model for NRG Provisions. The firm ground of brewpub-as-fortress is a wee bit wobbly in these trying times. Out of the 13 breweries selling beer in January, currently only 9 are still selling: 3 Stars, Atlas, Bluejacket, DC Brau, Hellbender, Red Bear, Right Proper Brewpub Shaw, Right Proper Brookland, and Valor Brewpub.

So buy beer from the breweries you can. It’s unclear if the brewpub is dead or just dormant; if dormant, it will only be brought back once this pandemic has ended. The only way for it to survive is to stay in business. The hard pivot from buying beer at the brewpub to buying delivery beer has wiped out food sales. It’s long been established that food sales with beer makes customers stay longer. But if you don’t package beer and sell it you won’t last as a brewpub.

Now it’s time to sustain those who have sustained our scene for so long. See if your local is delivering or using a delivery service and if you have the means, buy, tip well, and repeat.

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