Candemic? Now it’s Personal
BY BILL RUBIN, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
In light of the global pandemic dating back to late February 2020, local brewers and beverage co-packers continue to demonstrate perseverance and resiliency. Hey, they’re small businesses and that’s what small businesses do. To suggest otherwise is counter to the esprit de corps found in good old U.S. of A. inventors, craftsmen, and artisans.
An early test of resiliency came at the pandemic’s onset. Little breweries were forced to close, per the “essential” v. “non-essential” business edict. Even in Wisconsin, they were not deemed essential, and that’s in a state known for Friday fish frys, beer battered onion rings, and Bernie Brewer, the mascot for the Milwaukee Brewers. Closed breweries meant closed taprooms. Consumers were left to hypothetically chant, “Beer, beer everywhere and not a drop to drink (in the taprooms).” A few establishments abided by strict regulations and found ways to reopen but reported losses in sales.
But wait. Brewers persevere. They package their products in bottles, cans, growlers, and a closely-related cousin, crowlers. Safety, sanitation and packaging go hand-in-hand, even in a pandemic. Shuttered breweries in Wisconsin’s St. Croix Valley and elsewhere got creative. They organized drive-through beer campaigns in their parking lots as an alternative to closed taprooms. Breweries had buffet-style product offerings from multiple operators, all in one location. Call ahead for easy pick-up – – a blonde ale from New Richmond, an IPA from Somerset, a Screamin’ L from Roberts . . . you get the picture.
One small brewery at Exit 4 had barely moved into its new facility in March 2020 when the invisible enemy blew into town. The dial for production was turned on; the bar was polished; the taproom was set; the pizza menu was ready. And then B-O-O-M. A window from the kitchen to the outdoor patio proved fortuitous. It became the walk-up point for loyal customers to get both six-packs and Jalapeno Popper Pizzas. The little brewery featuring a pitchfork as its logo survived. Some would say thrived.
Taproom crowds started to return by mid-2021. Beer production ramped up again. What could possibly go wrong? Spikes in COVID cases here and there caused concerns. And then a new menace showed up. Suddenly aluminum cans were in scarce supply. A brewer-turned-economics-professor could put it this way, “If we can’t get cans, we can’t put beer in it, we can’t sell it, so it’s really a danger to many breweries if we’re not able to get our beer out to consumers.”
Brewers are calling this latest threat a Candemic. And it’s not just impacting breweries. At stake are canned seltzers, soft drinks, sparkling waters, cold press coffees, functional water products, and ready to drink (RTD) cocktails. All are placing a strain on the aluminum supply chain. One big can manufacturer reported the U.S. market alone is short 10 billion cans. And it’s growing.
Locally, a beverage co-packer forecasts seven or eight million canned products going through its facility annually. Lacking cans, the Candemic may turn into Candemonium! And if it’s not the demand for cans, then corrugated cardboard is the next calamity.
Here’s to brewers and co-packers. A hardy crew they are. Little did they know the beverage business is a combo platter of mastering a craft, juggling, logistics, and Econ 101. All deserve in-person visits to the taprooms where glass pints are left behind after a couple of merry toasts. Carry on resilient brewers and co-packers!