As COVID-19 shuttered drinking establishments across Colorado, breweries along the Front Range still had something to cheer about: Urban and suburban density surrounded them with thirsty beer drinkers, many of whom were eager to swing by for to-go growlers or six packs. Takeout revenue may not have come close to matching sales from tasting rooms and bars, but they helped.
Some mountain town breweries were not so lucky.
Consider four-year-old Mountain Tap Brewery in Steamboat Springs, which was close to finishing a successful ski season when COVID-19 cut that short. Steamboat Ski Resort closed, instantly eliminating an enormous source of customers. Then the city temporarily banned all short-term rentals, effectively deterring visitors from coming to Steamboat. The remaining people in the town of 13,000 were locals; many of them worked in hospitality—at bars, restaurants, and hotels—and had therefore been furloughed or laid off. “There aren’t tech jobs here, or work-at-home office jobs,” says Mountain Tap Brewery owner Rich Tucciarone, who co-founded the business with his wife, Wendy. “Steamboat isn’t inexpensive, either. People have one or two jobs.”
The months that followed came freighted with dread and anxiety, but there was a small upside: April and May are especially slow months in Steamboat, like most other mountain towns that rely on traffic from seasonal recreational activities. Rich and Wendy spent that time brewing, serving people who grabbed growlers, and getting ready for the big reopen.
The situation was similar for Andy Jessen, the co-founder of nearly 10-year-old Bonfire Brewing in Eagle. March is one of his busiest months of the year, and Bonfire lost half of it to the coronavirus. Restaurants closed, and so did most of the brewery’s kegging business, leading to a 70-percent revenue drop. “It’s a different beast up here with so few people,” Jessen says.
In the months that followed Governor Jared Polis’s stay-at-home order, Jessen devoted a lot of time to prepping for the day he could serve guests again. That prep included expanding his brewery’s patio space and building chairs for the new al fresco seating areas.
Now, both Mountain Tap and Bonfire are reopened for dine-in service.
In Steamboat, lodging restrictions were lifted on Memorial Day. During April and May, Wendy and Rich figured out how they would make the pub work with halved customer capacity and the need to ensure both guest and employee safety. Despite their concerns, having beer drinkers in the pub again, hoisting mugs of ale and socializing, injected fresh optimism into the Tucciarones. It also introduced to them to a new brewery environment.
At Mountain Tap, groups of guests are advised to arrive at the same time to avoid congregations in front of the restaurant and are required to wear masks when they are not seated at tables. Servers distribute disposable menus popularized at sushi spots; patrons check off what they want and hand in the order. One of the principal pleasures of a bar—wandering around and hanging out with friends in different groups—is no longer is allowed. Customers must remain at their tables, unless they are using the bathroom. “We had an indoor-outdoor camping vibe here,” Rich says. “Everybody knows everybody. One group of bikers comes in and then another group of paddle boarders arrives, and you all share your adventures.”
That free-wheeling conviviality can’t happen anymore, and Rich can’t over-emphasize the challenges of the reduced seating restrictions. “It felt great to have people back in, and the staff, and people laughing behind their masks,” he says. “But it’s three or four times the amount of work for 25 percent of the revenue.”
The revenue problem stems from social distancing rules, including the required six feet of space between tables, and the lack of tourism. By Memorial Day weekend, visitors typically flock en masse to Steamboat for vacations and the annual parade of athletic competitions—mountain biking and ultra running, for example—that fill nearly every weekend until the end of leaf-peeping season.
In Eagle, population 7,000, Bonfire had one of its busiest Memorial Days ever. During the week that followed, guests continued pouring into the brewery and sales remained strong. Patrons are back at the brewery, drinking beer and talking with friends around tables, Jessen says. It’s familiar—yet everything is different for Bonfire, including the addition of table service. Prior to COVID, guests picked up their beers at the bar, but now the brewery has triple the number of employees to handle the seats. “As the novelty of going back out wears off, will people continue to go out?” Jessen wonders. “You go to a bar to socialize. I think if this were to last a year, it would be tough to handle.”
One advantage both Jessen and the Tuccariones say they have are their breweries’ remote locations and breathtaking surroundings. Local representatives in both Eagle and Steamboat, from realtors to chamber of commerce boosters, speculate that while COVID interfered with the well-being of their towns in the short-term, it might provide more enduring vitality in the end. “We think Eagle and the Vail Valley will be attractive for people leaving cities,” Jessen says. “We might end up with a larger local population in a few years.”
In Steamboat Springs, property managers now are pushing long-term rentals, reaching people in larger cities who might want to rent for the entire summer rather than just a week’s vacation. “A lot of people have realized they can work remotely,” says Mountain Tap’s Wendy Tuccarione. “They don’t have to live in a city, and maybe they don’t want to live in a city anymore.”