Sonoma County tap rooms sell beer to go to stay afloat
Regulars at Juncture Taproom and Lounge in Rincon Valley bought rounds of drinks during fire season for firefighters and first responders. Now they’re buying canned beer to go for those on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic - health care workers.
“When you go through difficult times you connect with your neighborhood on a deeper level,” said Peter Lopez, Juncture’s owner. “We’ve just been through so much together, and they support us so we stay around.”
Some small taprooms and breweries in Santa Rosa have stayed open during California’s shelter-in-place order because they sell food to go, an essential service. Businesses are struggling with the dip in foot traffic but have been encouraged by the city’s supportive beer scene.
“In the beginning we had no idea if we were going to stay open or not. After power outages and fires we’ve learned to go day by day,” Lopez said.
The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, or ABC, eased rules March 18 to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages to go when purchased alongside food at an eating establishment. Additionally, taprooms like Juncture, which offers 20 beers on tap from Northern California breweries, are now allowed to fill growlers (jugs) to go.
Each brewery or taproom has a different approach to growlers. Steele and Hops and Trail House accept outside growlers, but citing sanitation concerns Third Street Aleworks does not. Juncture includes a new 32-ounce growler in the price of beer, Lopez said.
Growlers stay fresh for only a couple of days at the most, and for some customers in solo quarantine it may be too much beer.
Canned beer sales at several places have increased since the stay-at-home order, including at Trail House, according to Cafe Lead Crystal Ramirez.
“Since the ABC relaxed the liquor law we have been filling growlers, but it’s not as popular an option,” Ramirez said.
Trail House increased its quantity of canned beer in recent weeks, and sanitizes growlers customers bring in.
Plow Brewing Co. now offers curbside pick-up of growlers, or 32-ounce fillable cans. Before the Coronavirus pandemic, 75% of Plow’s sales were to bars and restaurants.
“It’s exceptionally difficult. We’re taking it a day at a time, because we have to. We have no end date,” said Kevin Robinson, co-owner of Plow. “We’re struggling but we think we’re going to survive because our local community is supporting us immensely.”
Half of the curbside customers are new to Plow and many are eager to support the local craft beer scene. Plow offers eight different beers, including its flagship Pilsner. Robinson said he maintains a skeletal crew, accepts credit cards over the phone and places beer cans on a table outside for customers to pick up to maintain social distancing.
“No one goes inside at all, not even for the bathroom,” he said.
Had the pandemic occurred in February, when beer tourists were lined up around the block in Santa Rosa to taste Pliny the Younger at the famed Russian River Brewing Co., it would have been a bigger blow to smaller breweries and taprooms boosted by tourism.
“Santa Rosa has one of the best craft beer scenes in the country, if not the world,” Robinson said. “Our beer scene is phenomenal, and our customers know that.”
While growlers and four-packs of 15-ounce cans of Hopocracy Imperial IPA at Third Street Aleworks sold steadily along with to-go dinners, the owners - all Santa Rosa natives - recently got creative to help the community and keep business afloat.
Matthew Vella, co-owner of Third Street Aleworks for 24 years, had an idea come to him when chatting with local vendors who were sitting on produce that wasn’t selling.
“We noticed the grocery stores are full of people; not great for flattening the curve,” he said.
To help get food to people apprehensive of heading into a grocery store and help comply with social distancing, Third Street began last week to offer to-go grocery boxes.
A $20 produce box contains bananas, apples, oranges, mangoes, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, romaine hearts, onions, bell peppers, cucumbers, carrots, avocados, potatoes and garlic. Also available are meat and bread boxes, which can be ordered online at thirdstreetaleworks.com/store.
Third Street Aleworks sold 250 produce boxes in the first five days.
“Vendors say they can keep a supply as long as the pandemic is going on,” said Vella, who partnered with Andy’s Produce Market, Golden Gate Meat Co. and Franco American Bakery for the food.
Vella said it’s been heartwarming to take to-go orders from regulars, but the economic effects of state and county orders to stay home and limit contact with others are still worrisome.
“We’re trying to figure it out as we go,” he said. “We’re doing what we can to help the community.”
Over 30 employees were temporarily laid off from Steele and Hops last month after the shelter-in-place order was announced. There are four employees still working to fill to-go orders alongside all the owners, according to co-owner Chase Williamson.
“None of us are taking paychecks right now,” said Williamson, referring to himself and the other owners.
To-go orders used to be at most, 5% of sales at Steele and Hops, a family-owned restaurant, bar and brewery on Mendocino Avenue. Now it’s all they do.
“We’re doing a good six to 10 times more to-go sales than before,” Williamson said.
Growlers are accepted, although Williamson said the brewery wasn’t set up for it before. More popular than beer growlers, however, are to-go cocktails alongside food orders. A quart of Moscow Mules or margaritas is $25.
Williamson applied for four different government loans for small businesses, and he hopes to hire back his workers. “It’s the worst thing, the layoffs,” he said.
The restaurant has a capacity of 160 people, but no more than 10 people are allowed inside at a time, including four workers.
“It’s a hard business to begin with, you only do it because you love it,” Williamson said of restaurants and breweries. “I hope people will support local.”