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Will Tampa Bay’s craft beer scene survive the coronavirus pandemic?

Tampa Bay’s craft breweries have taken a huge financial hit. What will the industry look like when it returns?

Tom Williams and his wife Michele opened their small craft brewery and tasting room back in 2014.

A narrow, airy space with retractable doors leading out to St. Petersburg’s First Avenue N, St. Pete Brewing Co. quickly became a favorite for downtown locals, hosting regular trivia and bingo nights and a rotating selection of brews while a whirring machine in the background churned out movie-style popcorn.

It’s remained a small but robust operation, part of the constantly evolving patchwork of craft breweries in the Tampa Bay area. But despite the bar’s success, nothing could have prepared Williams for the state-mandated shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic — or for the harsh economic fallout that has followed.

Like the restaurant and bar world, Tampa Bay’s booming craft beer scene came to a screeching halt in March. All breweries were abruptly forced to close their taprooms, their draught distribution lines wiped out as the restaurants and bars they supplied were forced to shutter, too.

Almost overnight, Williams saw his sales plummet.

“Everyone is in the same boat,” said Williams, who also works as a lender, financing kegs and equipment for breweries across Florida. “It crushed everybody. Our biggest clients were the restaurants, and all the restaurants are closed.”

St. Pete Brewing Co. owner Tom Williams in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

In the six weeks since the shutdown began, Williams estimates his business has dropped by roughly 80 percent, a number echoed by many others in the local craft beer industry. Those numbers closely mirror national figures, according to a recent survey from the Brewers Association, a national non-profit trade organization that promotes and tracks the American craft beer industry.

That survey, published earlier in April, offered a grim portrait of the beer landscape, with most breweries reporting drops in excess of 70 percent of their regular sales. Many said they feared they would be unable to stay in business for more than a few months if the shutdown continued.

The survey included more than 500 responses from breweries across the country, and data from 19 Florida-based companies. The sharpest decline was in distributed draught sales ― to restaurants, bars and other retailers — with brewers reporting an average drop of 91 percent.

“For many small brewers, the current situation is not sustainable,” wrote Bart Watson, an economist for the association who provided the analysis.

Florida is home to approximately 300 craft breweries, roughly 80 of which are in the Tampa Bay area. Cities like St. Petersburg and Dunedin have become craft beer hotbeds — the densely packed brew hubs no longer a niche enterprise but a mainstream destination.

Like their colleagues in the restaurant and bar industry, Florida’s craft brewers have had to do a quick about-face during the coronavirus pandemic, turning their currently shuttered tasting rooms into pick-up points for customers to purchase to-go cans, growlers, crowlers and other merchandise.

The beer menu at St. Pete Brewing Co. on Wednesday. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Everyone has had to get creative, and fast. Recently, a major crowler manufacturer ran out of the 32-ounce cans breweries have been using to sell beer to-go. St. Pete Brewing Co.'s Williams ordered a large stock of 32-ounce plastic containers to use instead, and has been selling beer in what he’s nicknamed the “pandemic growlers." Manufacturing hand sanitizer has also been a popular pivot, and breweries all over the area, from Bradenton’s Motorworks Brewing Co. to Clearwater’s Big Storm Brewing have jumped on the trend.

The efforts have helped, a little bit. And the local response from the community has been strong.

“Craft beer really kind of proves to the country that manufacturing can be brought back to a local economy,” said Mike Harting, one of the owners at 3 Daughters Brewing in St. Petersburg. Sales at the St. Petersburg brewery are down about 80 percent, Harting said, but an increased focus on to-go brews and hand sanitizer manufacturing has helped the business stay afloat.

Since the shutdown, Harting and his team have turned their taproom into a grab-and-go beer grocery, where customers can pop in and buy six-packs of hard seltzer and Bimini Twist IPA.

“The upside for us is that it seems like there is going to be a lot more focus on buying local — help my neighbor. I think it’s one of the few bright spots," Harting said.

Food sales, though less common, have also helped buoy some breweries during the shutdown. At Dunedin Brewery, vice president and general manager Michael Lyn Bryant said their recently launched pizza concept Pie or Die — in addition to popular dishes like fried cheese curds and wings — has helped keep his family’s long-running business going.

Following the shutdown, Bryant had to lay off 35 of the brewery’s 45 employees and saw sales dip by more than 80 percent. The increased focus on take-out food and to-go beer has helped — he’s been able to re-hire a few people — but it’s still a fraction of what business this time of year would have been, Bryant said.

“It’s gone from a fire hydrant with the top off in the middle of the street to a leaky faucet,” he said.

Despite the shift to takeout operations and an uptick in to-go sales, brewery owners and employees eye a shaky future. The loss of distribution sales to restaurants and bars is a blow, but so is the lack of an in-person customer base at tap rooms.

“Closing the tap rooms has been a punch in the gut,” said Josh Aubuchon, a Tallahassee-based attorney and council and lobbyist for the Florida Brewers Guild.

Part of the guild’s work right now includes lobbying for additional federal relief for brewery owners, a possible deferment or suspension of some excise taxes, and a temporary relaxing of some state alcohol regulations that could help breweries weather the current slump.

Bentley, a 5-year-old Yorkie, sits out on the sidewalk during a visit to St. Pete Brewing Co. Bentley is a popular presence at the brewery, and even has a beer named after him. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Another wrinkle: Under Florida state law, breweries and distilleries can’t deliver alcohol to consumers beyond their tasting rooms. They have to go through a third party, or distributor, to deliver their products to places like bars, restaurants or grocery stores.

As part of the shutdown ordered by Gov. Ron DeSantis, businesses have been encouraged to offer takeout and delivery whenever possible, but the guidelines on alcohol delivery haven’t been made clear. Members of the Florida Brewers Guild and the Florida Craft Distillers Guild are hoping to get those laws at least temporarily relaxed so that self-distribution is an option.

“If you’re a brewery right now who doesn’t have a distributor, no one is going to pick you up,” Aubuchon said. “You can’t get it out there, anywhere. It just seems like it might make sense to re-evaluate that and say, if you’re in a situation where you don’t have a distributor — what’s the harm in allowing you to self distribute your product in these types of events?”

Aubuchon said some of these measures could help keep smaller and more vulnerable craft breweries afloat while the economy stabilizes and social distancing measures are slowly relaxed. But timing is everything. Breweries were not mentioned in the three-phase plan announced by Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday, which will allow restaurants but not bars to open with limited capacity starting next week.

“If Florida can get things moving and get us back to work and get things moving in the next 15 or 20 days, I think that the impact won’t be as bad,” Aubuchon said. “If we’re pushing this till June or July, then we’re looking at 30 percent of the breweries closing — at least that’s the fear. We might lose 10 percent within the next month.”

Even for those who were able to secure initial loans from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Plan, the future of the craft brewing industry is uncertain, especially for smaller breweries.

Breweries are places where people gather. And just as restaurant owners across the state are rethinking their future, anyone who owns or works at a brewery is asking themselves what a business heavy on social interaction and close person-to-person contact looks like in a world with social distancing directives.

Bartender Tate Turner carries cans of beer at St. Pete Brewing Co. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Bellying up to a crowded bar might be a thing of the past.

“One of the most interesting things has been the idea of cutting off actual sales at the bar and having everybody have table service,” said Aubuchon, who said members of the Florida Brewers Guild are working on a set of suggested industry guidelines to help smooth what may be a rocky transition. “That way you can ensure that when a group leaves, that table can be immediately cleaned and sanitized.”

Other possible measures include increased spacing of tables, taking the temperatures of customers and employees before they enter the building, removal of bar seats and more outside seating, contactless payment, minimal touch-points for staff, additional sanitizing measures, and masked and gloved bartenders.

Williams of St. Pete Brewing Co. said it’s likely some of the live music events he’s hosted in the past will be curbed for a while, as the tunes draw large crowds.

“It’s definitely going to change the way we work,” he said. “We’re all just waiting around, wondering, ‘When is this going to start?’ "

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