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Ask local brewers what keeps them up at night, and they’ll talk about a dirty draft line ruining their product and scaring a customer away forever. They’ll mention that the historically poor quality barley harvest in 2021 worries them when sipping their 5 a.m. coffee. And for brewery owners, just keeping their brewery afloat looms large when their heads hit the pillow.
Many breweries saw the pandemic slash draft sales because bars and restaurants were buying fewer, if any, kegs. They’re also seeing costs go up for everything from raw ingredients to cans.
“Here in D.C. we have a very, very competitive beer market,” says D.C.-based Seventh Point Analytics Consulting founder and chief economist Michael Uhrich. “We have suppliers from all over the world that are competing pretty fiercely, and we have some strongly relevant local brands.”
To forecast the brewing landscape in 2022, City Paper interviewed more than a dozen brewers, distributors, retailers, economists, and reporters to get a sense of what lies ahead. The challenges they’re facing vary based on their size and business model.
What trends are coming down the pike? Walters Sports Bar owner Jeremy Gifford believes the popularity of the lunch beer while working from home led to a rise in sales of low-alcohol beers. “When the pandemic first hit, and we were all allowed to sell six packs [to go], we couldn’t sell an IPA, but anything that was light we just couldn’t even keep on our shelf,” he says.
“Everyone was drinking two beers at lunch and needed to be able to function on the Zoom, so I think there will be a more concentrated effort on lower ABV beers,” Gifford continues. He says that the robust seltzer market may have convinced brewers they need to make more “crushable” beers if they want to sell volume.
Mike McGarvey, owner of 3 Stars Brewing Company, also notices consumer tastes trending towards what he calls “comfort” beers. He describes this category as consistent, readily available flagship brands that are often clean, traditional styles with lower ABVs.
3 Stars’ newest flagship beer, Chillum Lite, is designed to be familiar to beer drinkers. If you’ve ever tried Bud Light or Miller Lite, you know how an American light lager brewed with rice or corn tastes.
Lead brewer Meth Gunasinghe used corn and rice in formulating Chillum Lite’s recipe. Gunasinghe also used German hops and Bavarian yeast in the beer, further differentiating it from Bud Light and Miller Lite. The beer debuted in December, 2021.
According to McGarvey, in order for a beer to be labeled lite or light, it needs to adhere to Tax and Trade Bureau labeling requirements. So as a result, Chillum Lite was sent off for laboratory analysis. The goal is to have Chillum Lite widely available wherever 3 Stars beers are sold, unlike their rare, specialty beers that are only available in their taproom.
Like Gifford, McGarvey expects consumers to flock to gluten-free beverages like hard seltzer. 3 Stars isn’t the only local brewery with a hard seltzer. Atlas Brew Works, DC Brau Brewing Company, Denizens Brewing Company, Other Half Brewing, and Solace Brewing Company make it too. Smaller area producers like Patuxent Brewing Company and 7 Locks Brewing have also hitched seltzer kegs onto their proverbial lager wagons.
Bill Butcher, who founded Port City Brewing Company, believes that in addition to their pale ale and porter, their lager line of beers will be an important part of the brewery’s growth in 2022. Their rotating styles of lager beer allows drinkers to discover styles they may not drink regularly like Czech-style dark lagers, German-style smoked lagers, and Mexican-style dark lagers. These are beers that brewers love making as much as they love drinking. “Our lager series sells very well, and continues to grow,” Butcher says.
“I think you’re definitely seeing a shift to some older traditional styles like lagers,” says Matt Monahan, CEO of Other Half. He expects more breweries will add lagers into their production schedules as their customers ask for it. For now, all of Other Half’s lagers are manufactured in D.C.
Jon Humerick, co-founder and director of operations at Solace, has a different take. “Every year I hear the same thing, ‘Oh it’s craft lagers, or sours, or some old-world style that’s the next big thing,’” he says. “And every year, IPA continues to dominate.” He doesn’t see consumer tastes “changing significantly enough to knock IPA off its pedestal.”
Combatting Rising Costs
“Some folks think that our beer is really expensive, and we’re making all this money off this beer, and we’re not,” says Sankofa Beer Company co-founder Kofi Meroe. The D.C. brewery that draws influence from West Africa is best known for its hibiscus pale ale, Hypebiscus. Sankofa doesn’t have its own physical brewery. Instead, Meroe brews out of the Black Flag Brewing Company in Columbia, Maryland.
“Our beer is really expensive because I just don’t want to go under,” Meroe continues. Prices for “inputs,” a term brewers use for the raw ingredients like barley and hops, are rising. “My inputs are killing me right now,” he says.
“In terms of commodities, a lot of stuff is through the roof,” Uhrich echoes, ticking off barley, corn, and wheat. Rice, however, is more stable. “Does that mean that brewers who rely predominantly on rice as an input are going to face fewer challenges in the coming year? I don’t think that means that, no.”
Cans are another financial challenge. Meroe says he used to be able to go to one source for cans, but now needs to get them from multiple vendors. “Obviously we’re not a big player so we got cut when things got really tight because we don’t have a large contract with the suppliers,” he says.
Ball Corporation, the world’s largest aluminum beverage can manufacturer, told contractless customers in November 2021 that their minimum orders for printed cans must increase from one truckload to five come January 2022. That translates to a previous minimum order of 204,000 cans to more than one million. This new minimum equates to 6,000 kegs, which is more beer than the majority of D.C.’s small producers manufacture in a year. According to the Brewers Association, a trade group, only four D.C. breweries produced more than 6,000 kegs worth of beer in 2020.
Oregon Sen. Roy Wyden, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, sent Ball Corporation a letter at the end of last month asking the company to delay implementation of their new policy for non-contracted customers. Ball notified the senator’s office and the Brewers Association that it will postpone implementation to March 2022.
Predicting Keg Sales
Continuing economic challenges are a given for brewers. But so much of the growth and decline of a market depends on consumers and their heavily changing habits. Draft sales haven’t returned to 2019 levels, and there is still a residual shift to beers packaged in bottles and cans.
Uhrich says that national draft sales are roughly 25 percent less than pre-pandemic levels. This may be attributable to more beer making its way into cans as much as to a decline in dining out. Breweries such as Port City may choose to sell their beers in bottles and cans if they have the means to do so.
Butcher, of Port City, believes his company’s biggest challenge is trying to forecast how sales and production will look in 2022. He says that normal trends have gone away, and the outlook on numbers changes daily.
Butcher notes on-premise keg sales have been slow coming back in D.C. Despite the sleepy sales of kegged beer in bars, some well loved lagers are turning over at a decent clip. At The Pub and the People, Port City’s Downright Pilsner leads draft sales. Whereas America’s number one selling beer, Bud Light, moves around one case per month at the same bar.
The consequences of being unable to predict keg sales mean brewers must be nimble and find ways to make up for their losses. But if consumers’ habits change based on COVID-19 transmission, the job of forecasting brewery sales shifts from predicting purchases to epidemiology.
Staffing & Labor Models
Finding, hiring, and retaining employees poses a problem to breweries in need of quality staff. “As with any industry, there’s lots of jobs that no one wants to do in brewing,” Monahan says. He asserts that he pays well and offers good benefits. Other Half has alumni from other D.C. breweries like 3 Stars, DC Brau, and Right Proper Brewing Company on its team.
A brewer in the D.C. region typically makes $16-$20 an hour, according to interviews and job listings. Some may leave to seek jobs at larger breweries that may have more resources. Others may leave the industry all together in search of higher wages, more benefits, and better hours. Like bars and restaurants, smaller breweries are trying to do more with fewer employees.
It’s hard to know how to staff a taproom when you don’t know who will show up. “We have a bar that can hold 600 people, and we’ve maybe seen it filled up three or four times,” Monahan says of Other Half’s Ivy City location. “We expected it to be like that every weekend.” The brewery celebrated its one-year anniversary in October 2021.
The operational changes that result can be felt when walking into a taproom. Before the pandemic, bartenders or servers could explain what makes some beers sour or why a particular beer is made from rice. Brewers lament that these interactions have largely been replaced with QR-code ordering.
At the Solace Outpost in Falls Church, Humerick notes that the restaurant portion of the business doesn’t have a host station or servers who come to the table. “It’s seat yourself, and you have to go to the counter to order,” he says. “Since the Falls Church Outpost opened in June of 2020, we were still operating under a lot of COVID restrictions so the model made sense. We’ve found that it works, so we’ve kept it. The Outpost at Navy Yard will use the same service model and will also include QR ordering from your table.”
For those completely converted to QR code ordering there are breweries who will no doubt continue it. Will breweries continue a trend of a reduced labor force? There’s a good chance of it, and with that we’re likely to see competing models on how to run a brewery.
Even with these challenges, more breweries are coming. Meroe expresses his excitement for more Black-owned breweries popping up in the District, like Urban Garden Brewing. “I also think there’s going to be a lot of movement from smaller breweries getting their start,” he says, listing Black Viking Brewing, Montgomery County’s first Black-owned beer brand.
In addition to forthcoming small new breweries and beer brands, breweries from the suburbs are also coming to the District. While Solace will populate the Navy Yard neighborhood, Barred in DC reports Crooked Run Fermentation will operate a business in the Union Market area. They currently have locations in Leesburg and Sterling, Virginia.
For these forthcoming beer brands, brewpubs, and breweries, a thirsty public eagerly awaits.