Welcome to 2021

A look at what 2021 holds for our breweries in Maryland, and a look back at how they survived 2020.

Snoopy and Woodstock with Happy New Year signs
Snoopy and Woodstock “Happy New Year”

Well 2020 is in the books and it has been one for the ages! The pandemic indelibly altered an already fluid landscape forcing breweries, wineries and distilleries to make wholesale (pun intended) adjustments to their fundamental operational practices. As closures mounted, business owners scrambled to stay alive amid constantly changing regulations and requirements…

No indoor dining; only 25% capacity indoor dining; 50% capacity indoor dining; outdoor dining only; no outdoor dining; bars that serve food can be open but not bars that don’t serve food, and of course no masks needed (March)… to wear the damn mask (April).

Sometimes it was a local jurisdictional directive- sometimes it was state mandated. Either way this was exhausting and costly.

Added to this mishmash was a growing aluminum shortage and Maryland alcohol manufacturers were in a bit of a pickle to put it mildly. Necessity is the mother of invention, and one thing our craft producers know how to do is innovate. They learned to bend like reeds in a tornado to witness another sunrise, but it wasn’t easy. 

The adaptations manifested almost immediately in the form of delivery apps (like Biermi), transitions to primarily wholesale manufacturing, and of course the varied conversion of any available outdoor space for seating to accommodate patrons. For some parking areas worked, for others a spot of grass or sidewalk sufficed, but each space was unique, creative, and socially distanced. More importantly, it helped keep the business alive. Some relief arrived in the form of the Federal Cares Act, small business loans and grants from the state of Maryland, along with a tax forbearance. Local credit unions and banks stepped up to offer favorable grants, loans and forbearances as well to keep the doors open for so many. Most thought it would only be a few months, but it turned into several.

Some manufacturers were able to not only survive the challenge of 2020 and COVID, but thrive- turning adversity into opportunity. Silver Branch was open only a year when the pandemic hit, upending their first anniversary party and forcing them to invest more quickly in a larger wholesale production operation than anticipated, along with an abundant delivery service.  Mully’s Brewery not only endured the pandemic, they thrived even though limited to outdoor only seating. A 1500 sf taproom expansion is now underway at the brewery, offering a hopeful reminder that once vaccines are rolled out people will be back in the taproom once again!

Checkerspot Brewing not only weathered the storm, they soared above it, much like a butterfly. Limited to outdoor seating only (although at the time of this writing Mayor Scott has removed that option) they improvised, and with a little help from the landlord, under the over became the go-to place for socially distanced outdoor seating, complete with big screen televisions to watch the Orioles and Ravens play while sipping on your favorite brew. With demand on the rise, the brewery also invested in a canning line for carryout, wholesale, and delivery. As of winter 2020/2021 they too are in the process of expanding the brewery to accommodate the shift from primarily taproom focused to wholesale operations. 

Patuxent Brewing in Charles has also worked tirelessly to meet the demand for their signature brews. Patuxent opened in 2019 as Maryland’s first 100% minority owned brewery. Since that time they have seen such a demand for their beer, it has been a challenge to keep up! Through collaborations and tourism (prior to COVID) they were getting some pretty serious name recognition. COVID has not slowed them down and they have hit the ground running- taking home a few fairly significant awards. In October 2020 they were named the Regional Manufacturing Institutes (RMI) Champion of Manufacturing and the People’s Choice Award winner for Diversity and Inclusion. Accolades did not stop there as the ever tenacious Tranice Watts, along with co-owners Davie Feaster and Gene Lott were not only finalists in the Brewbound Pitch Slam this year, they won  $25k as the 8 Trill Pils Minor Craft Beer Business Award winners! This is a must visit brewery folks!

In addition to the savvy business moves made by our Maryland breweries a few new ones were able to open in 2020, including TenEyck, Pherm, Forward, Hopkins and more. Check out the New Breweries page to see who is open.   

More good news came in the form of the passed Craft Beverage Modernization Tax Reform Act that was passed by congress in December. This was the next step for fair excise taxes for small craft alcohol producers, and it also came with COVID relief package for these same manufacturers who have suffered under the weight of pandemic restrictions. President Trump signed the bill into law in the waning days of December, securing the future of these industries.

Now, all our producers need is Maryland to come on board to secure the future of Maryland’s craft alcohol manufacturers by making some of the state of emergency changes permanent. Since Governor Hogan declared a state of emergency, breweries, wineries and distilleries have seen a suspension of enforcement on carryout limits, home delivery, shipping and off-premise consumption. These have no doubt helped keep alcohol manufacturers, bars and restaurants in business. With the transition to wholesale local retailers are carrying MORE local craft beer than ever before, which for some package store owners came as a surprise. It was a lesson learned for many that even with a change to more favorable regulations for these manufacturers (or lack of enforcement more appropriately) everyone is still coming out ahead. So why move back to those arbitrary restrictions once COVID has passed?

What will happen after the state of emergency is lifted? There was talk of making these changes permanent through legislation in the upcoming session (2021). Governor Hogan introduced a COVID relief bill in January that does nothing to extend these limits. Was this just a moment in the sun in a year marred by darkness? Or will someone actually go to bat for the craft alcohol manufacturers? After all didn’t they step up when we needed them the most by converting their businesses to manufacture PPE and hand sanitizer to protect us?

If you recall back in summer I likened our breweries to a champion squirrel named Acorn. Suffering terrible injuries from a falling branch he should have perished. Instead I am happy to say he is healed and thriving- not just surviving! A lesson in luck? Perhaps, or just sheer determination winning out against the odds.

Beer for thought…

Be Like Acorn: Part 2

The update on our hero squirrel Acorn, and how he inspires and emulates our craft alcohol producers during this pandemic.

When I last took pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard as it is in the modern world, I shared the inspirational story of Acorn- a wee squirrel who overcame insurmountable odds to survive a harrowing injury. I equated it to our craft alcohol producers during this pandemic and their fight to come out the other side financially viable. An Acorn update was requested, and I am overjoyed to comply.

I am happy to report that although it was a bit touch and go at points since that posting, Acorn has improved tremendously and is on the mend from the worst aspects of his trauma. The featured Acorn image (above) was taken April 23rd, and if you look closely you will see not only the healing- but the faintest hint of a sweet smile. Make no mistake, he still has some healing to do before calling him 100%. For those of you wondering- yes medical experts have been consulted, and they are pleasantly surprised and equally inspired by this wee hero!

Inspired Squirrel Acorn, overcoming injury to thrive
Acorn on April 19th when things were not looking so good. Fortunately, it was just
another stage of healing.

Again, I will draw parallels to our craft alcohol industry in Maryland. It has been a rollercoaster, most notably when the first round of Federal SBA loans were dispersed and Maryland received less than 1% of those monies. Watching small business loans being handed out to publicly-traded multimillion dollar corporations was a slap in the face of our hardworking entrepreneurs. Some of these companies- Shake Shack and Ruth’s Chris to name two- returned the funds after gaining notoriety with a side of public shaming. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin stated that there will be a “clawing back” of the funds from those large companies that received monies intended to save small businesses. Round two of federal SBA funding is underway currently. We shall see how this turns out, and whether or not those promises will be kept.

The upside to all of this is the innovation and fight we continue to see from our Maryland small businesses- and yes I am pointing in large part to the craft alcohol manufacturers. I have watched companies completely overhaul their business plans to survive this pandemic. A prime example of this is Checkerspot Brewing Company. They just added a canning line and are now distributing to retail stores in the Baltimore region. This is a drastic shift from the taproom sales (and select bars/restaurants) centric plan they opened with nearly 2 years ago. They have also begun to sell masks alongside produce baskets, fabulous beer (canned and crowled) and delicious farm fresh cuisine.

Checkerspot Brewing Company’s new canning line.

As mentioned previously Biermi, the beer delivery app created by the brilliant True Respite team, has catapulted in popularity and use across Maryland and the nation. Over 120 breweries nationwide are using the app to deliver fresh local beer at a time when folks are prohibited or unable (or both) to leave their homes.

In Hagerstown Stone House Urban Winery has become a bit of a social distance tourist destination of sorts. How? Soda Pup- the curbside wine delivery dog! Place your order, indicate what car you will be arriving in, drive up to the winery (don’t exit your vehicle of course) and Soda Pup trots out with wine filled saddle bags to deliver your order. Genuis!

Soda Pup delivering wine and reminding folks to obey social distancing guidelines!

New releases along with collaborations are also still happening (with social distancing in place) between breweries, distilleries and wineries, continuing to temp our taste buds and delight our palates- leaving us yearning for what comes next. Virtual Happy Hours- many hosted by the Brewers Association of Maryland in coordination with the breweries have introduced us to these new brews in an intimate yet social distanced setting, setting a trend that should continue even after the pandemic fades. Hopefully- so many of these innovations we once believed unnecessary will stick around- they are pretty fantastic!

As difficult as times may be right now, remember to to draw on inspiration and keep fighting.

Be Like Acorn!

Sláinte

Be Like Acorn!

Strange times we find ourselves in this year- unprecedented in fact.  Coronavirus, COVID-19, global pandemic or whatever your personal choice of names, we have breached the unknown, and Lord knows we are all trying to survive and adjust.

For many, figuring out how to stay financially afloat is second only to remaining healthy and virus free. When a proliferation of businesses are closed and deemed non-essential it becomes a daunting task.

Meet Acorn- a mighty warrior squirrel that lives in my yard. Wee Acorn has had a rough go of it. A little over three weeks ago- yes back when things were somewhat normal comparatively- I came home from work to find a maple branch had snapped from our tree and landed on poor, unaware Acorn. Needless to say he was completely confused- dazed in fact, just sitting up on his hind legs trying to grasp what had happened. Not wanting to startle him, I observed him before attempting to whisk him off to the vet. He regained some semblance of himself in a few minutes and began searching the ground for food. I thought, “OK, maybe he isn’t as injured as he appears.”

I proceeded to cut up an apple and gently toss cubes in his direction. Initially, fear sent him hobbling straight up the tree before realizing delicious Honey Crisp awaited him (after my departure of course). I fretted over this poor quadruped, but was delighted to see him out and about six days later, eating scattered birdseed.

It was also the time I finally saw the left side of his head and face fully, and it was gut wrenching. He clearly had a fractured skull, missing ear, and wound on his back from where a jutting section of branch made contact. No I am not a vet but apparently I play one on the internet. It was unbelievable that he survived, and frankly I wasn’t sure he was long for this world.

A few days ago I caught sight of Acorn, much healed compared to my previous sightings. He was actively eating at a tree feeder. What was more interesting were the three squirrels Acorn shares a nest with readily giving him a wide berth so he could eat his fill. I was gobsmacked. What a pivotal moment. Each day since, I have witnessed his munching heartily at the feeder, regaining strength.

Acorn recovering day by day. March 28, 2020 M. O’Prey

Why am I sharing Acorn’s story? Because Marylanders need to be like Acorn- resilient against overwhelming odds!

We are all facing an uncertain future. This virus and its fallout present not only life threatening dangers, but the potential destruction of livelihoods, and financial security. That is really scary- particularly for business owners and for those they employ.

Many provisions, exceptions, and strategies have been put in place to try and help consumers and businesses survive this pandemic. Importantly, federal and state tax filing and payment deadlines have been extended. In Maryland, enforcement was suspended on taproom sales, distribution, delivery and carryout of craft alcohol for manufacturers, bars and restaurants.  Licenses of all types will not expires until 30 days after the state of emergency has lifted.

Loans, grants, and incentives were made available at the state level from the Department of Commerce. At the Federal level the $2 trillion stimulus package offered aid to businesses small and large in the form of forgivable loans, tax credits, deferrals, and other programs, along with a stipend for individual taxpayers.

This is a great start, but ultimately is it enough? As we have already witnessed- operationally things have to change for many businesses to survive. Innovation is the key and companies have responded.

Clothing manufacturers like Under Armour are making protective gear known as PPE Personal Protective Equipment. Distilleries like McClintock and Patapsco (and so many more) have converted to making much needed hand sanitizers to supply to hospitals and first responders.

Brandon O’Leary, co-founder of True Respite worked in concert with web developer Brian O’Connor to create biermi– a beer delivery app.

In only two weeks it is becoming a nationwide phenomenon and the go-to for breweries trying to stay alive long enough to come out the other side of social distancing. Beer tenders and your favorite brewery personnel are your smiling beer messengers- so tip well!

Your beloved pubs and restaurants, that might never have delivered are now offering curbside pickup and delivery of not only your favorite foods- but your favorite drinks. If it is a fully-loaded Bloody Mary you crave, it is just one click away.

This new era of marketing and remote service specialization has emerged and crafty, clever entrepreneurs are finding ways through this decidedly difficult time.

It is also up to us to help one another. Together we can find a way to the other side. Buy local, pick up or get delivery, and know that every dollar spent keeps a business open, staff employed, and families fed.

If you have a great idea- don’t sit on it- make it happen. If ever there was a time- it is now!

Defy the odds!

Be resilient!

Overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges…

Be like Acorn!