Craft breweries look to uncertain future

Owners are trying new approaches to packaging, seating and product as they try to hang on for 2021.
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City Built Brewing Company hopes to serve customers from a heated outdoor area during winter. Courtesy City Built Brewing Co.

West Michigan’s craft breweries are cautiously optimistic for a better 2021. Even with the hope of a recent COVID-19 vaccine, utilizing outdoor space and running the taproom with a ghost crew are going to be the business strategy for at least the first half of next year.

The setbacks from COVID-19 and subsequent state shutdowns forced City Built Brewing Company, usually known for its funky, experimental approach to brewing, to rein itself in a bit and focus on a core group of beers to attract a reliable customer base.

“Our hope was to draw people in, so we started brewing more hazy IPAs, sours, lactose; beers we saw consumers were chasing,” owner Ed Collazo said. “We weren’t making a whole lot of stouts before this year. Now we have three or four on tap. Before this year, it was pretty well known 60% of the population was drinking IPAs, and we just weren’t making those beers.”

City Built also came to the conclusion that its staff members aren’t just brewers, but also marketers, so 2020 saw creative changes to its can art, courtesy of local artists like Kyle DeGroff and Elliot Chaltry, whose work is featured on the brewery’s Crown series of beers.

The Crown series was inspired by hip-hop duo Run The Jewels’ song “Crown,” and the beers names also were derived from the song’s lyrics. The Crown series proved to be enough of a hit to land City Built on RTJ’s radar, and the brewery was tapped later in the year to be one of 13 breweries across the world teaming up with Run The Jewels to release 12 versions of a craft beer named after the group’s new single, “No Save Point.”

2020 unfortunately wasn’t all fun hip-hop collaborations, however. Collazo said City Built recently applied for four relief grants and was turned down twice. The brewery currently is awaiting approval for a new outdoor seating venue as well.

“I think outdoor seating is going to be long term,” Collazo said. “That’s a big part of our business plan moving forward. Whether we can move people inside or not, people are a still going to be gun shy about sitting inside for a while.”

While the brewery has been taking advantage of a parklet in front of the taproom during the summer, it is awaiting city approval to start serving customers in a heated tent across the street from the brewery, which will be critical during the winter.

City Built’s sales are down 30% over least year, and after the recent state executive order, the brewery is back to running with a skeleton crew.

Sales in the pandemic also were weakened for another staple Grand Rapids brewery. Kris Spaulding, co-founder of Brewery Vivant, reported sales were down 40% year-over-year between both the Vivant taproom and at Broadleaf Local Beer, the brewery’s sister location in Kentwood. On the distribution end, however, Vivant’s sales stayed fairly steady, thanks to large, nine-pack flights of the brewery’s mainstays.

“I think you’ll hear that from everybody,” Spaulding said. “The large packs (sales) were up for most distributing breweries. If you think about it, people didn’t even want to hit the store for so long. They’d rather choose to buy in bulk.”

Like with City Built, customer preferences showed a tendency toward the familiar, Spaulding said. Vivant’s flagship beers got the most retail purchases, but the brewery still got good traffic for its pub-only releases.

Spaulding said she was confident Brewery Vivant will be able to make a strong comeback when the economy truly reopens. News of a COVID-19 vaccine finally being distributed to health care workers adds to the optimism.

“If we’re reopened by February at shortened capacity, that will take us through the next three to six months,” she said. “I assume by fall, things will look more normal.”

Down in Dutton, Railtown Brewing Company is rolling along one day at a time, but sales are down by approximately 40%, and owner Justin Buiter said the brewery had to make some tough decisions with staffing.

“We’re running about a third of our staff,” he said. “We’re running with everybody we need talent-wise to stay open. That doesn’t mean the folks we cut were untalented, but we had to make some tough calls.”

Early in the pandemic, Railtown was able to retain all of its employees through a PPP loan and a disaster loan, but with the most recent lockdown, financial support for employees is no longer available, and the brewery now is living off the disaster loan funds.

Spaulding said Vivant also was helped significantly by local and regional grants, and those dollars are critical to which businesses are going to be able to keep their doors open going into 2021.

“When I tell people, when they ask how the industry is in general, most of us will make it through this because of things like the PPP,” Spaulding said. “For the people who wanted to keep working, but who we didn’t have a lot of work for, we’ll be able to help continuing to pay them.”

Buiter added he’s still optimistic for 2021. Railtown still is able to serve customers at an open bar and a patio area in the taproom, and the brewery shifted from less than 10% of its beer volume packaged to 100%. 

“I think we’re all cautiously optimistic,” Buiter said. “There are still unanswered questions on the vaccine side. There are still a lot of risks out there. With craft beer and restaurants in general, there’s going to be a lot of opportunity in the years (ahead). We’ve lost a lot of businesses, but that does present a lot of opportunities for the rest of us as we take more risks off the table.”

Collazo echoed Buiter’s attitude, saying he’s more hopeful City Built Brewing as a company will weather the storm with its own grit.

“When we can reopen, I have a feeling we’ll do really well,” Collazo said. “It’s just getting there. My hope isn’t in the economic climate. It’s at our core where are we. I’m asking, are we consistent? And I believe we are.”

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