Carolina Beer Guy: Breweries adapt to COVID-19 obstacles

ROLLING WITH THE CHANGES: Hi-Wire Brewing is one of many local breweries offering curbside pickup of packaged beer while taprooms are closed to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Photo by Jeremy Chassner

Just a few weeks ago, Asheville’s many craft breweries were buzzing with business. Taprooms were crowded with locals, and spring tourist season was almost here.

Now these businesses have been dealt a nasty blow by the COVID-19 pandemic and ordered by Gov. Roy Cooper to temporarily shut their public areas. With bars and indoor restaurant dining rooms also closed, the draft business has mostly evaporated.

Breweries with canning or bottling lines remain active and report strong supermarket sales. Some breweries are selling their beer to-go in crowlers or growlers, but for smaller breweries that depended on taproom sales, it’s another story.

“You can hear a pin drop over here,” says Carl Melissas, head brewer at Wedge Brewing Co. “We are not brewing at all.” The original Wedge location is closed until further notice, but the Wedge at Foundation site is selling take-home beer.

Production continues at Highland Brewing Co., where the focus has shifted to packaged products, according to company President Leah Wong Ashburn. “We are fortunate to have great grocery store and wholesale partners,” she says, but notes that the loss of draft business “is a great hit any way you look at it.”

Ashburn notes that Highland has not laid off any employees and that the company’s small-batch beers and new releases remain available for pickup at the brewery. But over at Hillman Beer, one of Highland’s nearest neighbors, brewing has ceased.

“We are totally closed right now,” says co-owner Brandi Hillman. “We’re not doing curbside sales. We feel like it’s safer for our employees and customers.” She adds that the company “is researching a couple of avenues” to get its beer to customers.

Oyster House Brewing Co. is similarly quiet. Owner Billy Klingel was forced to lay off his entire staff of 14 but continued to sell growlers, buckets of oysters and hot takeout food to go for nearly a week. On March 25, however, he announced via Facebook that the establishment is “going to say goodbye for now” with hopes of returning “in [a] few weeks or so.”

Like Oyster House, Brouwerïj Cursus Kĕmē doesn’t have bottles or cans and, in the words of owner Jeff Horner, has been forced to “completely revise [its] business model,” moving from “100% on-premise” to filling to-go growlers. “We will continue brewing on our pilot system, for sure,” he says.

Fermented Nonsense Brewing, Asheville’s smallest brewery, just made a batch of beer. But owner Matt Vaughn is facing what he calls “extremely difficult decisions about ­the viability of [his] business” and feels there “is practically no way [they] can survive.”

As for Asheville’s largest brewery, New Belgium Brewing Co. has closed its Liquid Center tasting room but is keeping its operation open with what spokesman Michael Craft refers to as a “minimal production and shipping crew,” which is practicing social distancing guidelines.

Meanwhile, Asheville Brewing Co. continues to brew and can its beer at its Coxe Avenue location, says company President Mike Rangel. But he’s cut one brew shift and is only brewing four days a week. With his restaurants completely shut down, Rangel has laid off about 145 employees and decided against doing food delivery or pickup to protect the health of his crew.

In Burnsville, Homeplace Beer Co. owner John Silver says the brewery will make one more batch of lager, then “shut it down” for the time being. He just canned a batch of Faith Healer IPA to sell for takeout but at press time he expected sales to end after March 27.

Hi-Wire Brewing is still making and canning beer, says creative director Javier Bolea. On March 21, the brewery hosted a collaborative drive-in pallet sale with DSSOLVR, Homeplace, Burial Beer Co. and Zillicoah Beer Co., and on March 28 looped in Hillman Beer, Bhramari Brewing Co. and Twin Leaf Brewery for a second edition. Hi-Wire, Burial and Wicked Weed Brewing have also launched separate online beer stores and are providing home delivery in Asheville.

Elsewhere, Archetype Brewing continues to make beer and sell cans and growlers from its West Asheville location, but owner Brad Casanova reports that his downtown location is currently closed. He’s also doing home delivery in a partnership with Haywood Road neighbor, OWL Bakery.


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About Tony Kiss
Tony Kiss covers brewing news for the Xpress. He has been reporting on the Carolina beer scene since 1994. He's also covered distilling and cider making and spent 30 years reporting on area entertainment. Follow me @BeerguyTK

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