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Craft breweries lean on community to weather COVID-19 storm

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a daunting challenge for breweries across the lakes area, but they're not alone in this fight.

A couple has a brew at a table at Jack Pine Brewery in Baxter.
John and Karen Eull enjoy a drink Thursday, March 4, at Jack Pine Brewery in Baxter. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Craft breweries, much like any industry founded on or tied to hospitality and kicking back with friends, have taken a beating during COVID-19.

But their answer to the pandemic is a microcosm of how small businesses, great and small, are finding ways to hang on.

Judging by the brewery operators in the Brainerd lakes area, this is, in no small part, due to the loyalty of local communities: a veritable army of customers, regulars and out-of-towners alike, who have rallied around their neighbors during one of the most troubled and unusual periods in modern American history.

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“I wasn’t expecting how much support the community gave us, because a lot of people showed up for us, just like we’ve showed up for them in the past. People really care about their little community that we have here,” said Jeremy Hodges, the lead bartender at Big Axe Brewing Co. in Nisswa. “Yeah, we had our ups, and we had our downs, but we’re still here and we’re feeling really blessed about that.”

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“It’s not only the public support for the business, but compliance has been really high,” observed Patrick Sundberg, owner of Jack Pine Brewery in Baxter. “People have really been gracious to us and that’s been wonderful for our staff. That’s my biggest thing, if I could give a big public thank you to the people coming into the tap room.”

“It’s just been one of those things where you get a really good gauge for the group of people that are around you,” said Suli Furman, the taproom manager at Roundhouse Brewery in Nisswa. “I think the community has been super. You see people, even over the holidays, supporting local business. They come together. I think it has been really, really a unique experience.”

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Adapting during roughly a year of COVID-19 restrictions has been something of an art of taking chances and snatching opportunities when and where they come, Furman said. Roundhouse Brewery had to reorient itself, from a face-to-face business grounded in the ambiance and sociability of a taproom, to a brewery comfortable in the digital cybersphere where the bulk of hospitality, orders and transactions now take place.

“It catapulted us into the digital side of things,” Furman said with a chuckle. “We’ve had to think outside of the box, for sure.”

Hodges said operating Big Axe Brewing Co. has been a roller coaster experience, where the brewery had to ride the highs to make up for the lows, eeking out sales whenever or however they may materialize, even if that’s by setting up heaters and bonfire pits during single-digit temperatures to snag a few ice anglers or a couple snowmobilers.

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A group of friends relaxes around a fire at an outdoor dining area set up outside Big Axe Brewing Company Saturday, Dec. 19, in Nisswa. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

“We’ve had to adjust multiple times over the past year. There were six months with indoor dining not being available,” Hodges said. “Every week it seemed like we were adjusting to something different. It’s up and down, but it’s stronger now, becoming more stable, because people are more willing to go out and people are getting more comfortable being inside with the restrictions getting lifted. We have some struggles here and there, we’re anxious, but we are definitely still holding on.”

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Sundberg noted so long as these restrictions are necessary or in place, there’s only so much breweries can do to make up for the losses of 2020 rolling into 2021.

“I’d like to say we’re back to normal, but we’re definitely not,” Sundberg said. “We’ve been able to manage pretty well at Jack Pine considering the restrictions. … But, that’s our limiting factor as far as how many people we can have in the building.”

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The growler cap

Speaking of restrictions, the coronavirus pandemic highlighted a limitation on Minnesota breweries that long predated 2020, though the matter gained considerable urgency as the state scrambles to prop up its slumping local economies.

The primary issue is a cap on growlers imposed on any Minnesota brewery that surpasses 20,000 barrels a year in production — of which, there are six currently. These breweries are barred from selling growlers and it represents the only law of its kind in the Upper Midwest. Larger breweries in the Dakotas or Wisconsin, for example, are not restricted from selling growlers.

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It’s been a long-standing sore spot for breweries represented by the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild, which supported efforts by lawmakers to pass legislation to lift this cap. This cap doesn’t make practical sense, they argue, and now the growler cap is hamstringing a potential source of revenue for Minnesota breweries during a period of economic upheaval. It also hampers their ability to compete with craft breweries in neighboring states, or larger, more corporate entities like Samuel Adams, which produces 4 million barrels a year, bipartisan advocates for repealing the cap argued.

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Dave and Penny Hogberg enjoy a beer outdoors on the patio by a fire Thursday, March 4, at Jack Pine Brewery in Baxter. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

According to proponents, like the Teamsters Union of delivery drivers, the growler cap protects local restaurants and liquor stores.

“The pandemic has highlighted the need, even more, to allow breweries in our state to sell growlers,” state Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, stated in a February news release. “Breweries that have been allowed to sell growlers were able to keep their business from going under amid all the pandemic-related closures. These breweries that were open for pick-up orders kept workers employed, kept revenue up, and moved product off their brewery floor. The growler is the perfect opportunity to help these small businesses remain afloat during these hard times.”

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Sundberg said the growler cap on breweries that produce 20,000 barrels or more isn’t likely to affect local breweries anytime soon — pointing out, as he did, that Jack Pine produces roughly 1,600 barrels a year — but it’s the flagship issue in a comprehensive package of legislation that breweries are pushing to modernize the industry. According to the Minnesota Craft Beverage Council, which is among the organizations behind this initiative, the bill would implement the following:

  • Allow all breweries to sell beer to-go in cans, bottles and growlers up to 64 ounces.

  • Allow cideries and brewpubs to have more access to the market through self-distribution.

  • Create more standard taxation for cideries/wineries to align with federal statute.

  • Allow distilleries to sell up to 1.5 liters per person a day.

  • Allow bars and restaurants to permanently sell beer, wine and cocktails to go.

  • Allow liquor stores to fill growlers.

By enacting those changes, the council argues, more than 100,000 furloughed and laid-off workers in the hospitality industry would be able to return to their jobs, businesses like breweries would be able recover more quickly, and the economic viability of the craft beverage industry would be strengthened long-term.
“That’s one of the goals behind the comprehensive package. It modernizes the whole craft beer and liquor scene,” Sundberg said. “Minnesota is still pretty far behind as far as progressive beer and alcohol laws from a competitive standpoint with the other states around us.”

GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at gabe.lagarde@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5859. Follow at www.twitter.com/glbrddispatch .
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