‘Everyone’s going to be changed forever.’
Breweries across the U.S. and Ohio, including in Dayton, had to adapt quickly to survive the calamitous effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Some of those changes are likely lasting, according to Nick Bowman, co-founder and vice president of sales at Warped Wing Brewing Co. in Dayton.
“Everyone’s going to be forever changed and think about their business differently because if this happens again, you have to be a little bit diversified in your business model,” Bowman said. “I think a lot of people learned that to be able to survive something like this.”
Breweries were responsible for more than 8,300 jobs in Ohio and had a nearly $1 billion economic impact in the state prior to the pandemic, according to the Ohio Craft Brewers Association. Southwest Ohio had 59 craft breweries in 2019, which ticked up to 65 last year.
Craft beer production in Ohio went from more than 1.33 million barrels in 2019 to about 1.18 million barrels in 2020, a more than 11% decrease, according to recently released statistics from the brewers association.
Warped Wing saw its overall rate of production drop about 35% in 2020 with the initial shutdown and then gradual reopening of on-premise consumption businesses like bars and restaurants, Bowman said. But the brewery’s production losses were offset somewhat by what Bowman described as a “quite healthy” 15% rise in bottling and canning, the result of a consumer shift to dining and drinking at home.
“We weren’t producing as much draft kegs as we were,” he said. “We shifted the majority of our production over into cans to meet the demand that was happening in people’s homes.”
Fred Pallant, the Head Brewer for Warped Wing Brewing Company, checks one of the tanks Wednesday. April 21, 2021. Ohio craft breweries moved up one spot to fifth place in overall craft beer production nationwide. The brewery was fortunate to have outside distribution, Bowman said, which enjoyed a steady volume of business through their accounts. Primary taproom sales came in the form of curbside carryout while another new feature, home delivery, also helped.
“In the heart of the shutdown, we were doing quite a bit of delivery to people’s homes, which was predominantly cans and bottles,” he said. “That was a saving grace for us as well.”
The free home delivery option for a $30 minimum order saw Warped Wing delivering 15 miles from the brewery’s downtown Dayton location, reaching as far south as Springboro and as far north as Piqua and Sidney, Bowman said.
Warped Wing also gave its customers offerings it hadn’t made available to the public in quite some time, including cellar-releases of barrel-aged beers, he said. It also brought back some brands via canning that it hadn’t yet planned to reintroduce to the market.
“That created excitement and increased our individual order threshold quite a bit,” he said. “It was just a way to be able to generate revenue and keep our people on staff.”
It also initiated a statewide shipping program to anywhere in Ohio, one that “will definitely keep going through the pandemic and beyond,” because there are places in the state where it does not yet distribute, he said.
With the opening of a Springboro location in August, Warped Wing staffing expanded to 83 employees. “We actually grew during the pandemic, which is kind of crazy, when you think about it,” he said.
Smaller breweries, he said, have added various amenities, including a kitchen, production capabilities or canning lines to compensate for lost revenues and even packaging beer directly from the bar for to-go sales. “There was just a lot of creativity because we were forced to,” Bowman said.
Warped Wing likely will keep a variety of things it introduced during the pandemic, but Bowman said he isn’t yet sure to what extent.
He said things have “flipped faster than we thought” and likely will continue to do so at breweries, restaurants and other businesses as more people get vaccinated.
“There is definitely a bright future,” he said. “People have been cooped up for so long that they are so looking forward to getting back out to be with each other, to be with community.”
Lisa Wolters, co-owner of Yellow Springs Brewery, said it produced 5,200 barrels in 2019 and 4,600 in 2020. “Immediately, as soon as we got shut down (at the start of the pandemic), nothing went into kegs, everything went into cans,” Wolters said. “We had to shift our model overnight … because the outlets for our beer itself just slowed way down,” Wolters said.
Yellow Springs already had a canning line in place, but a shortage of cans by mid-2020 saw it purchase a new canning line due to the flexibility it offered, she said.
The Yellow Springs Brewery Barrel Room, located at 1475 Xenia Ave. celebrated its grand opening starting April 9. Hours are 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Sundays.
The new canning line allowed Yellow Springs Brewing to purchase cans that could be easily labeled in-house, allowing it to offer a wider range of beers to customers.
The opening of a second location this month on the southern edge of town allowed the brewery to expand its offerings by providing customers there with new products, including mixed fermentations, sour beers and clean-barrel aging beers. Originally envisioned as an event space, the pandemic forced Yellow Springs Brewing to change.
“It’s basically a secondary taproom at this moment in time,” she said. “We’ll just wait and see what happens. It might become a hybrid model where it’s a taproom on the weekends and we might have events during the week, possibly, but we have some options there.”
Peter Hilgeman, majority owner for Dayton Beer Company, said pandemic-related restrictions meant production dropped approximately 50% and has not returned completely to previous levels.
There hasn’t been a lot the brewery has been able to do to make up for lost business, he said. The canning shortage affected production levels, and many of the bars and restaurants that stocked Dayton Beer Company creations remain closed, Hilgeman said.
Home delivery and curbside pickup programs didn’t compensate for lost business, he said, and were were discontinued last spring when the brewery was allowed to reopen.
“There wasn’t a huge (enough) demand to keep it financially viable to do it,” Hilgeman said. “You have to pay someone to deliver to homes when you’re not getting a ton of home deliveries.”
Spirits from the Dayton Barrel Works Artisan Distillery became available starting Nov. 1, 2020, at the Dayton Barrel Works Artisan Distillery, 324 E. Second St. in downtown Dayton. A part of The Dayton Beer Company, the grand opening of the new coffee & cocktail bar “The Local Option” took place last October.
In addition, online sales can only take a business so far, Hilgeman said. “Nothing replaces people actually coming and visiting.”
The proverbial light at the end of tunnel started to appear in the past month or two as consumer confidence increased during the COVID-19 vaccine roll out and fewer people getting sick, Hilgeman said. The eventual elimination of restrictions like six-foot-distancing and the mask mandate will likely be the catalyst needed to completely get the business back to normal, he said.
“Gathering places are a place for people to gather and when you don’t feel like where you’re back to how it used to be, it’s just hard for people to want to stay out and spend their time and money doing what they used to do if they can’t do it,” Hilgeman said.