Woven into the collective DNA of Colorado, craft brewing is as integral to the state’s identity as snowcapped peaks, the Broncos, and John Denver. But the booming local beer scene has been bludgeoned by coronavirus closures and the current state-mandated restrictions upon bars, taprooms, and restaurants. According to Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association, 12 breweries have closed their doors for good, with many more struggling; he predicts close to one-third of Colorado’s 411 breweries could shutter.
For three craft breweries, the pandemic could not have happened at a worse time. Each was expanding operations—a challenging feat even before the pandemic. Each business has had to adapt their plans, often daily, to deal with new challenges and maintain momentum. Their stories might be the new norm.
On March 16, Todd Baldwin, the founder of eight-year-old Red Leg Brewing Company in Colorado Springs, was shocked by Gov. Polis’ dine-in closures, which meant he had to shutter Red Leg’s tasting room. “That was the worst day of my life, and I had seen some pretty bad days when deployed in combat situations in the U.S. Army,” says Baldwin. He was in the midst of helming an ambitious brewery/entertainment venue project just outside Garden of the Gods. The $9 million build will contain a 14,000-square-foot brewery and taproom and outdoor concert area, as well as seven restaurants and five retail locations housed in repurposed shipping containers.
Baldwin rapidly had to decide what to do in the face of an instant loss of revenue. He brought all of his employees in and told them the truth: He had enough cash in the bank to keep the business operating for 10 weeks; after that, unless things changed, he would have to close. Also, he was not laying off anyone. They were in it together.
His team rallied behind him and continued producing Red Leg’s beer, sending most to the brand’s primary customers: military bases in Colorado, Texas, and Oklahoma. Not delivering to those bases would have meant losing the contracts Baldwin worked so hard on securing. “As an officer, I had to lead my soldiers every day, regardless of the situation, so I just brought that mentality to my business,” he says. “Together, we would succeed.” Baldwin also secured a Paycheck Protection Program loan, and in mid-October, Red Leg will move into its new facility, only three weeks behind schedule.
Westbound & Down head brewer Jake Gardner thought he was the luckiest man alive when he held up the Best Mid-Size Brewpub of the Year award on stage at the 2019 Great American Beer Festival. In just four years, his Idaho Springs brewpub had gone from plucky upstart to bona fide beer royalty, with aggressive expansion plans on the horizon. A general store extension to its mountain taproom location would precede a 20-barrel production brewery and restaurant in Lafayette.
What might have saved Westbound & Down in the face of COVID-19 was, in fact, the canning line it bought and installed right before the lockdowns began. Having package beer available with its taproom closed allowed the brewery to keep its tanks full and its brewing staff at work, with cash coming in. And while the Lafayette facility is on hold for now, the general store adjacent to the Idaho Springs brewpub is open—and forms a crucial contact point with consumers. “We realized that we needed to use the market to become a spot to sell our beer to go. We had to focus completely on package product,” says Gardner. “We were fortunate enough to have been moving in the direction of packaging when COVID hit. I know many other breweries that were focused on taprooms and to-go crowlers as their main source of income; a lot of them are struggling.”
Opening a new brewery amid a pandemic was the springtime challenge facing the owners of Wild Provisions Beer Product in Boulder, an offshoot of six-year-old 4 Noses Brewing Company in nearby Broomfield. Designed to produce complex sours and farmhouse ales alongside traditional Czech-style open-fermented lagers, the expansion is a passion project for 4 Noses president and head brewer Tommy Bibliowicz. Sparing no expense, his high-tech facility, which opened on May 8, is a sleek homage to experimentation with a barrel-aging room. Thankfully, brewing those kinds of beers called for slow and methodical brewing processes, something that helped to assuage the stresses surrounding the virus.
“We knew that these beers were going to take time to make, and the plan from the beginning was for a slow rollout,” says Bibliowicz. “COVID-19 made it even slower, one month to be exact. I used the extra time to fine-tune everything and get some beer started, so when we did open our doors, everything was dialed in.”
But not everything has gone smoothly for Wild Provisions. The brewery’s banking partner was not on board, so Bibliowicz had to find a new one. Sales have been good, but not at the levels initially been hoped for. “We have been focusing on liquidity, managing our expenses, and staying nimble,” says Bibliowicz. “This situation is not going to be fixed tomorrow or even this year, but at least we can live with it and hopefully keep improving.”