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Small Breweries Struggle To Survive During Coronavirus Lockdowns

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So if you're a beer drinker, maybe you're picking up a six-pack when you run to the grocery store. But local bars and tap rooms are not seeing much traffic these days. That shift could spell doom for thousands of small breweries. But as Frank Morris from member station KCUR reports, the industry is putting up a fight.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: The good news for brewers is that Americans are still drinking lots of beer. At Boulevard Brewing in Kansas City, cans and bottles of ale, IPAs, stout and pilsner are flying off the line at 850 per minute.

JEFF KRUM: Staying pretty busy, yep. Sells of bottled and canned beers are up.

MORRIS: Boulevard president Jeff Krum says that, like other big craft brewers, his company sells most of its beer in stores but still relies heavily on bar and restaurant sales.

KRUM: And of course, almost overnight in mid-March, that 36% of our business went to very nearly zero and remains there today.

MORRIS: But while that drop-off wounded bigger craft breweries, it's killing some small ones. At Border Brewing in Kansas City, owner Eric Martens made virtually all of his money selling beer by the glass to customers packed into his small tap room.

ERIC MARTENS: Such a whirlwind. But it was like one day we thought, well, maybe we'll have to close. And then next day we were ordering cans and pushing tables aside and closing. We're closed. And we're totally changing the way that we're doing our business.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANKING)

MORRIS: Now, with the tap room closed, Martens is canning all his beer by hand - not 850 cans per minute, but more like one can per minute. And after he fills, seals and rinses a can, he hands it over to Jessica Bloom, waiting with stickers and a sharpie, to label it. This goes on for 12 hours at a stretch just to keep a trickle of revenue.

JESSICA BLOOM: To be honest, the first week or so after we switched over to just doing carry-out and delivery, I had some regulars coming in to pick up beer. And it made me cry. It was just so sweet. You know, they still want to be here for us and support us.

MORRIS: Devotion, small breweries practically bank on it. But these days, it's not paying the bills.

DAN WATSON: It wasn't enough for us to be able to sustain ourselves.

MORRIS: Dan Watson closed Cleophus Quealy Beer Company in the Bay Area this March after five years of watching the competition mushroom.

WATSON: There's so many other breweries also selling beer these days.

MORRIS: More than 8,000 U.S. breweries, most have sprung up in the last five years. Brewers Association economist Bart Watson says the pandemic wrecked far and away the most profitable part of their businesses, selling beer by the glass to crowds of people.

BART WATSON: The six-foot economy is going to be something that on-premise hospitality businesses struggle with. If the social distancing measures extend or if, you know, after they relax, consumers just don't come back to the on-premise right away, you could see a significant percentage of the nation's smallest brewers close.

MORRIS: So breweries are getting creative.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANKING)

MORRIS: At Crane Brewing Company in Raytown, Miss., owner Chris Meyers is using his equipment to can beer for a competing brewery. That brewery, in turn, is hosting big weekend drive-through sales events, with dozens of local beer makers offering fresh brew that's not sold in stores. Some brewers are also making hand sanitizers. Others, like Chris Beier at Strange Days Brewing, are marketing stuff produced by other local merchants.

CHRIS BEIER: Our customers love it. They can get a meal that's for two people. They get a four-pack or more if they want. They can get a pint of ice cream or two if they want that and a board game as well and take it home with them.

MORRIS: Brewers hope these new business models built to survive now will outlast the pandemic. It's just that many small breweries probably won't. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.

(SOUNDBITE OF DINOSAUR JR SONG, "ALMOST FARE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.