After 15 months of survival mode, Maryland’s breweries are seeing a skyrocketing resurgence in popularity and sales.
“Customer volume has drastically increased and we’re busier than normal,” said Ty Kreis, director of sales and marketing at Hysteria Brewing Company in Columbia. He credited vaccinations and cabin fever as the primary catalysts driving people to celebrate their newfound freedom at local watering holes.
“Friday evenings tend toward a mix of long-time regulars and first-time visitors but Saturday and Sunday afternoons are mostly people visiting us for the first time,” said Corey Mull, chief marketing officer at Manor Hill Brewing in Ellicott City.
It’s requiring breweries to rapidly pivot back to their pre-pandemic footing.
“The toughest part is figuring out allocations now,” said Kreis.
During capacity restrictions, Hysteria packaged every ounce of product it could and filled only a few kegs for its taproom.
“Now bars expect you to have kegs ready ASAP because they want to get people in the door and make money,” he said. “We’re brewing around the clock to make sure we have enough of both package and draft.”
With other breweries adjusting to the same demand, raw supplies are starting to become an issue.
“We use Chesapeake Malting for our base malt and they absolutely can’t keep up so we have to [source from] other places temporarily,” Kreis said. “We’re lucky enough to make our own tap handles. Other local breweries I’ve talked to are weeks and weeks out because of demand again.”
Navigating COVID restrictions was difficult enough but two local breweries actually opened in the middle of the pandemic.
Pherm Brewing Co. of Gambrills opened in late 2020, established by Billy Abbott and Henry Jager as a venture highlighting their shared love of art, craft beer and live music.
With mask and capacity restrictions now lifted, yoga classes and live music events are in full swing at Pherm and drawing enthusiastic crowds.
In Jessup, Bay Life Brewing started operations in May as a production facility for Brookville Beer Farm in Montgomery County. With a 30-barrel capacity, it also produces its own product line and brews under contract for several other Maryland breweries.
“We’re just getting started and learning as we go,” said co-owner Phil Muth, who was also one of the co-founders of Coastal Sunbelt Produce in Howard County.
Occupying an industrial location inside the Maryland Food Center Authority complex, Bay Life does not have a taproom but does offer curbside pickup and is hosting a lineup of live music festivals with food trucks in its parking lot throughout the summer.
“Our initial Jessup Jamboree was a smashing success,” Muth said, acknowledging that the curbside pickup model has slowed down tremendously. “I think we’re all getting back to the familiar pre-pandemic model now, because people want to be on-premises and sharing an experience more than ever.”
Although breweries are coming out of their involuntary slump, there are still a few lingering challenges that they were dealing with long before the pandemic struck.
“Aluminum cans are still in short supply,” Mull said. “We’re managing it closely and communicating with our supplier often to make sure we don’t run out.”
Keg demand in restaurants and bars is bringing some much-needed relief.
Some general numbers shared on Sapwood Cellars’ website in March illustrate just how drastically things changed for brewers during the pandemic.
According to co-owners Scott Janish and Mike Tonsmeire, their Columbia-based brewery canned or bottled 14,911 gallons of beer in 2020 compared to only 3,092 gallons in 2019.
Meanwhile, their kegged beer volume dropped from 15,762 gallons in 2019 to 6,201 gallons in 2020, while draft pours dwindled from 100,103 in 2019 to only 32,547 in 2020.
“[T]he biggest challenge was how we packaged and served beer rather than how much we brewed,” they wrote.
Before March 2020, they added, Sapwood Cellars had only canned four batches and three of those had been contract brewed elsewhere.
Since April 2020, the team has canned more than 35 different beers using a mobile canning line.
Curbside pickup is tapering off but will likely remain part of the distribution mix now that customers have gotten used to buying packaged product directly from producers.
Kreis, however, thinks off-premises sales in general might remain stronger post-pandemic than they were pre-pandemic, which is welcome news for craft brewers and craft consumers alike.
“Craft consumers wanted the beer they were used to getting from us, and local liquor stores had to sell what people wanted to stay in business,” he said, resulting in more retail shelf space dedicated to craft beer than ever before. “Now that store owners know it sells – and at a really good profit margin – they should be keeping a majority of those beers and brands on the shelf.”
By George Berkheimer | Senior Writer | The Business Monthly | July 2021 Issue