COVID Can Consumption Caused Chaos for Breweries of All Sizes. Here’s How Three in Oregon Coped.

“We got emails from can suppliers [stating] that unless you buy a truckload, you can’t buy [12-ounce] cans.”

“Breweries have always been part of sharing culture,” says Ninkasi Brewing co-founder Jamie Floyd. “That’s who we are.”

With a pandemic suppressing our ability to share culture in person for the past two years, the beer world has suffered losses beyond revenue. Facing universal adversity, breweries ended up making choices driven by necessity, guided by ethics and community, and shaped by a passion for the culture of beer.

Craft breweries are generally categorized into large, medium and small sizes based on production volume, and there are both benefits and drawbacks unique to each. To get a sense of how different categories of breweries adapted as COVID swept the globe, we spoke to three Eugene-based businesses, all of which were caught in different phases of development in 2020.

Gratitude Brewing opened its small brewpub on the edge of downtown Eugene in December 2019. Owner Tristan Cooley was blunt about the first waves of the pandemic.

“Getting [Paycheck Protection Program] loans was based on showing a drop in revenue in years past,” he explains. “That evidence didn’t exist [for us].”

The restaurant shut down for a month, and Gratitude started selling crowlers online for outdoor pickup, reengaging with customers from a distance.

“Someone purchased $100 worth of crowlers for us to give to first responders and medical personnel,” says Cooley. That inspired the addition of a simple button on Gratitude’s website allowing customers to give beer as a gift. “People were really generous.”

It quickly became apparent that packaging beer was a necessity; in-house sales, which are the most profitable for a brewery, didn’t exist. Gratitude initially worked with a mobile canning company but realized it wasn’t worth it.

“We were paying them twice what it would take to buy a canning line,” Cooley says. So Gratitude took on more debt and bought a single-head canning line. “It enabled us to can smaller runs, whereas running 20 barrels for the cost break didn’t work for shelf life.”

The brewery also squeaked by on Restaurant Revitalization Fund relief. Gratitude produced less than 600 barrels (1 barrel equals 31 gallons) of beer in its first two years but is on track to make around 500 in 2022.

The pandemic introduced similar challenges to Whiteaker neighborhood favorite Oakshire Brewing, though the 16-year-old, medium-sized brewery had different strategies. First, it bought back its kegged beer from distributors, pushed it into tanks, and then canned it—a tremendous amount of extra work. Oakshire’s two taprooms in Eugene and Portland also closed while the owners came up with social distancing solutions.

Fast forward a year. “We got emails from can suppliers [stating] that unless you buy a truckload, you can’t buy [12-ounce] cans,” says Dan Russo, director of brewing operations for Oakshire. So the company switched entirely to 16-ounce containers.

Russo adds that the brewery’s strategy moving forward is to “focus on taproom operations, because that’s where the profit is. We’ll work with wholesalers to dial in forecasts for beer, and not go into winter with three times more beer than we should.” Oakshire’s production dropped approximately 30% from 2019 to 2021 to around 4,300 barrels.

The pandemic was perhaps even more complicated for the larger-sized Ninkasi Brewing. Owners Jamie Floyd and Nikos Ridge were in the process of buying the brewery back from Legacy Breweries—a company that formed in 2019 to allow breweries to pool resources and equity through acquisitions. They’d also just opened a restaurant in the brewery’s administrative building called the Better Living Room. Then COVID hit. The restaurant all but closed until mid-2021, and brewery production dropped by about a third, from 81,238 in 2019 to 60,193 in 2021.

“The 2020 barrels were a lot of mixed 12-packs as people stocked up,” says Floyd, “but those are the most expensive and, therefore, least-profitable products we make.”

Ninkasi also started canning more of its beer and producing other alcohol products. Because although it may appear very large, the brand competes with much larger breweries, like Deschutes and Sierra Nevada, for shelf space.

“Nikos and I saw the need to diversify well before COVID and started that process with seltzer and now canned cocktails,” Floyd adds. “We are a big machine, it’s true. With human nature, you have an idea that you’ll work hard and hit a level and be stable. We knew that was not going to happen in this industry. So getting our employees to understand that the only consistent thing is change helped to prepare us for a global pandemic.”

All three breweries are working on reengaging with the local community and getting folks to come back in for a pint. Ninkasi hosted its first NinkasiCon in late March and will put on the revered Sasquatch Brew Fest on June 11. Gratitude Brewing even has a stage, which is finally being used properly.

“We have live music on a regular basis, and weekly drag Bingo and trivia nights,” says Cooley. “We’re looking forward to the summer and all the events in town, including the World Athletic Championships, so we can go into winter with a little cushion.”

See more of Willamette Week’s 2022 Beer Issue Here!