Beer Scout: Breweries focus on R & D amid COVID-19 challenges

CREATIVE SPARK: Sideways Farm & Brewery co-owners Jon and Carrieann Schneider haven't seen their brewing capacity change as a result of COVID-19 restrictions, but minus taproom interactions with their inspirational patrons, they feel less motivated and creative. Photo courtesy of Sideways Farm & Brewery

With their taprooms closed and keg distribution accounts on hold, many Asheville-area breweries have made the necessary shift from draft to packaged products. Though sales aren’t quite what they were, new beverages continue to enter the market as local businesses strive to remain innovative.

Michael Craft, Asheville community and communications ambassador for New Belgium Brewing Co., says the company’s pilot brewery at its Fort Collins, Colo., location is churning out experimental creations as usual. Some minor adjustments had to be made to New Belgium’s production schedule with keg business “down to almost nothing,” says Craft. But packaging for grocery store accounts has increased and will receive another boost with the addition of a canning line at the Asheville brewery, which he anticipates will be operational by June.

Hi-Wire Brewing digital marketing assistant Shanda Crowe feels that research and development efforts are more important now than ever. Minus its usual taproom traffic, she notes, the brewery is “reliant on creating a buzz with each release” to help drive business to its online store.

“We’re hitting all of our release dates as planned but adjusting volume slightly and packaging primarily into cans,” Crowe says. “We’re actually increasing the number of releases coming out of our South Slope Specialty Program by a lot with various 750- and 375-milliliter bottles.”

At Highland Brewing Co., communications and community outreach specialist Eeva Redmond reports that its R&D program continues to move forward, having refocused its efforts on testing for new beer releases rather than creating a balanced tap list for the currently closed tasting room. The brewery’s new year-round beer, Rising Haze IPA, debuted via curbside pickup and in stores in late April. And though a few on-premises releases have been rescheduled, she says, Highland is otherwise moving along with its 2020 release schedule.

After closing Oyster House Brewing Co. for three weeks, owner Billy Klingel has reopened his brewpub 4-8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays for to-go food and growlers. In pre-COVID operation, the brewery’s most creative offerings were typically cask and nitro brews, which don’t keep well in growlers and therefore aren’t currently being made.

Instead, Klingel plans to brew batches of Amarillo Pillow IPA, Step Papa Pale Ale and Bob’s Your Uncle ESB in the near future. “It’s what [patrons] are buying, so no time for exploratory flavors yet,” he says.

Limited brewing continues at Zillicoah Beer Co., where co-owner Jeremy Chassner has experienced a roughly 80% loss of revenue. A quickly established online store and drive-thru pickups of packaged beer noon-4 p.m. Thursday-Saturday keep product moving, as does direct shipping to a few states.

Zillicoah will also soon offer 12-ounce, bottle-conditioned lagers, beginning with its keller pils sometime in June and its helles after that. Also on the way in the next few weeks are the first of six beers from its wild/sour cellar: a gose-inspired offering, brewed in collaboration with England’s Duration Brewing; and Mother Vine 2019, made with last year’s crop of scuppernong grapes.

At Sideways Farm & Brewery in Etowah, co-owner Carrieann Schneider says operations remain unchanged, thanks to pre-existing practices that haven’t been impacted by COVID-19. She and her brewer husband, Jon Schneider, use small-batch, locally roasted malts instead of relying on delayed or reduced shipments and have enough hops on hand to last a few months. They also use local honey for bottle conditioning, so they’re not dependent on carbon dioxide or crowlers — both of which are currently in short supply. The urge to craft imaginative brews, however, has proved somewhat elusive.

“Without our customers in the brewery, we are feeling less motivated and creative. Having both of us behind the bar allows us to educate and see guests’ reactions to every taste — what people are surprised by, what they love, what’s their reaction to an unusual ingredient,” Carrieann says. “We are inspired by our visitors, we allow our guests to have creative input into our beers, and we miss them.”


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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