NYC’s Best Craft Breweries Are Torn on Whether to Reopen Their Taprooms
Although outdoor drinking is permitted under Phase 2, some brewers are waiting to resume on-site service
Now that summer is officially upon us, many New Yorkers are desperate to engage in small, socially distanced acts of normalcy — like drinking beer outdoors in the presence of other humans. We spoke to some of the city’s most popular craft breweries to find out how they’ve adapted to the new reality of NYC, and what steps they’re taking to get cold beer into the hands of their customers.
Like most of New York City’s food-and-beverage scene, craft breweries across the five boroughs have undergone significant changes over the past four months. Fortunately for everyone, brewing beer was deemed an essential service under Governor Cuomo’s initial executive order, so while taprooms had to close, brewing operations never stopped.
“At the start of the pandemic, like most small and independent breweries, we quickly needed to adjust our existing business model, which for us meant pivoting almost entirely to packaging in 16-ounce cans,” says Basil Lee, one of the founders of Finback Brewery in Glendale.
On March 17, the State Liquor Authority began allowing bars and restaurants to sell alcohol for takeout and delivery, but only with the purchase of food. Without the ability to serve draft beers to customers, kegs quickly became a thing of the past.
“Breweries with taprooms generally have three main revenue sources: wholesale (beer sold to stores), on-premise sales (beer sold to restaurants and bars) and taproom business (the highest profit margin),” says Joshua Stylman of Threes Brewing Company in Gowanus. Like Finback, Threes also shifted their entire production to canning when their taproom temporarily shuttered. “As you can imagine, the last two categories of sales disappeared when New York went into near lockdown.”
With two-thirds of their primary revenue streams vanishing overnight, some breweries, like Evil Twin Brewery in Ridgewood, scaled back production to 50 percent. But once the SLA began allowing statewide shipping of alcohol, they quickly resumed their normal production schedule. “We went from selling maybe 20 percent direct to customer to 90 percent plus,” says Evil Twin’s founder, Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø.
Evil Twin was also one of the first taprooms to reopen to the public for outdoor, on-site drinking on June 22, the day New York City moved into Phase 2 of reopening. “We have a big outdoor space and felt we could execute it in a safe way following all the guidelines given and it has been working with very few issues,” Jarnit-Bjergsø tells us.
Other breweries quickly followed suit. Finback Brewery is currently offering outdoor service at their Brooklyn taproom, and is planning to reopen their Queens location in the coming weeks. Strong Rope Brewery in Gowanus, Brooklyn also opened their taproom with limited outdoor seating early on in Phase 2. Brooklyn Brewery, one of the largest and most widely distributed craft beer outfits in the city, has taken a more gradual approach to reopening.
“We have started our reopening process with special events for now, including a to-go pop-up at the Brewery for Boundary Spell IPA, a limited release collaboration with WeldWorks Brewery in Colorado, where the proceeds went to the Service Workers Coalition, a relief fund for food and beverage industry professionals impacted by COVID-19,” says President Robin Ottaway. Following an initial positive reception by the community, they plan to continue offering pop-ups for limited-release brews, as well as to-go service on weekends.
Threes is taking a similar approach, despite having a backyard at their Gowanus location and a sidewalk cafe at their Greenpoint taproom. Their team has chosen to wait and see what the data shows after outdoor dining has been in effect for a few weeks.
“At this stage, we’re getting a lot more comfortable with the idea and are busy reinventing how service will work to incorporate contactless ordering, social distancing, enhanced sanitization, and other protocols designed to keep everyone at our facility safe,” says Stylman.
Other breweries have decided to keep their focus on production and fulfilling orders, rather than seizing the opportunity to turn their sidewalks into makeshift taprooms. Grimm Ales, Other Half Brewing and Kings County Brewing Collective are among those who are only offering curbside pick-up and delivery options.
Those that have begun outdoor taproom service plan to continue doing so for the foreseeable future.
“We’re going to continue offering outdoor service for as long as it’s safe for us, and our customers, to do so,” says Lee. “We’re closely monitoring New York City’s current reopening plan, and will continue to comply and move forward within the city’s existing strategy as long as we feel comfortable and confident that each subsequent phase ensures the safety of our staff and customers.”
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