Fall and winter are always tough times for area breweries as business fades along with warmer days and nights. But the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will make these coming months even more difficult.
Since the pandemic roared into North Carolina in March, many breweries have greatly relied on outdoor, socially distanced seating. And those that have kept indoor spaces open are limited to just 50% capacity under orders from Gov. Roy Cooper that are meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Breweries have been scrambling to find ways to keep outdoor customers as comfortable as possible as the temperature drops. Many are installing city-approved propane heaters that can be difficult to purchase in the pandemic era. Others are tricking out their spaces with even more elaborate plans.
Wedge Brewing Co. has ordered four heaters, though owner/founder Tim Schaller isn’t sure exactly where on the properties they’ll be installed.
“We’ll use two of them at the Foundation [brewery] and two at the Studios [brewery],” Schaller says. He’s already activated the overhead heat on the loading dock at the Studios brewery but notes that seating is greatly reduced on the dock to maintain social distancing.
While the Foundation property has a lot of room for indoor business, Schaller has kept it closed to prevent coronavirus transmission. The only exception there and at the considerably smaller Studios taproom is to visit the restrooms.
“When it’s a nice day, we’ll post it on Facebook and Instagram and we’ll serve pints,” Schaller says. “We had a pretty good fall. We took all the [COVID-19 stimulus] money available. We’ll make it [to spring].”
Just up the French Broad River from Wedge, New Belgium Brewing Co. shut down its outdoor seating area on Oct. 26 after “the weather turned,” says spokesman Michael Craft. The indoor Liquid Center taproom was shut when the pandemic hit.
The production side of the massive brewery continues to crank out beer, which is sold in the eastern United States. “We’re going to do curbside sales for a few months until we can have people back safely,” Craft says. “Fortunately, production is up, so we could move some folks from the LC over to production [and not] lose any employees.”
New Belgium’s original brewery in Fort Collins, Colo., had its own unique challenge. “They had such a terrible fire season that there were a lot of days that they couldn’t even serve people outside because the air quality was so bad,” Craft says.
Oyster House Brewing Co. already had one heater on hand for use on its patio, and owner Billy Klingel is adding two more for the coming cold season. However, he’s “absolutely concerned” about surviving the winter, noting that “Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, it’s been 30% of what business used to be.”
Klingel reopened his indoor space but removed barstools. “We have four tables inside, and our capacity is 24 people, and that includes staff,” he says. But many customers “have been patient and willing to wait for a table.”
Hi-Wire Brewing has installed eight transparent “igloo” pods at its Big Top location. Digital marketing assistant Shanda Crowe says each “igloo” has a table — sanitized after each use — and string lights, and as colder weather sets in, the brewery will install heaters in each pod. “It stays pretty warm in there,” she says.
Crowe adds that the Big Top has been operating at about 50% capacity both indoors and outside, while the brewery’s original South Slope location offers exclusively indoor seating and can serve 24 customers at a time.
Sweeten Creek Brewing is using outdoor heaters and has covered its front patio, says Erica Justice, who owns the brewery with her husband, Joey Justice. They will also rely on indoor seating after a spring and summer when the majority of the brewery’s business was from customers sitting outside.
“I think most people have their fingers crossed for a pretty mild winter,” she says. “We’re trying to prepare as best we can, but I don’t think anyone knows what to expect.”
Highland Brewing Co. will continue using its spacious indoor taproom and can utilize its indoor private event rooms as needed. The brewery will also keep its sizable meadow space in use, but company President Leah Wong Ashburn says it may or may not have the outdoor bar open — and has already closed its rooftop space. “It’s pretty cold up there,” she says.
Wicked Weed Brewing’s Funkatorium venue has electric heaters at tables for its beer garden space, says the company’s pubs director, Jared Edwards. At the company’s Biltmore Avenue brewpub, a heated tent will cover the front patio, and propane heaters will also be used.
Asheville Brewing Co. has ordered 12 propane heaters for use at both its Merrimon Avenue restaurant and its new Rabbit Rabbit event space next to its South Slope brewery on Coxe Avenue. Both brewery locations are closed indoors, and Rabbit Rabbit is all outside seating.
Company President Mike Rangel got the heaters through a bulk order program with Co-Operate WNC and Mountain BizWorks. “We’ve been in business for 25 years, and outside of our first couple of years of struggle, this is the most concerned I’ve been,” he says.