One industry that’s positively flourished in Connecticut in the last decade or so is small craft breweries. As of January, more than 100 were open up and down the state.
But with many so dependent on now-shuttered taprooms, and on their partnerships with restaurants, they’re in the eye of the economic storm, as coronavirus takes its toll.
This week came news of possibly the first casualty. Hanging Hills Brewery in Hartford announced it will close its doors for good after four years in business.
Owner Joe Ploof said his brewery was already struggling financially, but when COVID-19 started spreading, and Gov. Ned Lamont ordered bars closed, he could see the writing on the wall.
“It was the St. Paddy’s Day weekend,” he said. “We were looking at some events that we were doing, and we were like, well, if we don’t close down the doors, we’re gonna end up paying money to people to perform, and nobody’s gonna come because everybody’s terrified of this disease that is now actually gaining momentum.”
Now that the closure is a reality, he’s struggling with his emotions:
“I’m officially going through all five stages of grief at the same time all the time,” Ploof said. “Sometimes I accept it, and other times, I’m like, no, I hate acceptance. Acceptance is stupid, I should be angry about this.”
He said he hasn’t given up for good. Once the threat of the disease has receded, he may look to reopen the business in a new location.
For others, the situation is not yet so dire.
Joy Braddock co-owns Hog River Brewing Co. in Hartford with her husband, Ben. Their fourth anniversary is this August. She says that her numbers are as good as she can expect them to be, given that they’re doing only walk-up sales.
“It’s nothing compared to if we had our taproom running with just the public coming in,” she said. “In the taproom where people are drinking pints, that’s our highest margin. So the to-go format, it’s thinner margins, so all those sales are strong, the profit is less.”
Looking forward, Braddock is optimistic they will make it, although it’s increasingly hard to see the future. She worries about the staff she had to furlough and their health, but she tries to balance her outlook and the difficult choices they’ve had to make.
“We draw our living from this business. If this business doesn’t survive, there’s large consequences for that. So I try not to go there, but the stress of it does weigh in the background.”
For Thomas Hooker Brewing Co. in Bloomfield and Hartford, one of the state’s most established independent breweries, the crisis has meant some quick business decisions, particularly around its food service.
“We, like everybody else, attempted to turn our business into a takeout business,” said owner Curt Cameron. “And we still do that for beer, but we realized early on that you’re essentially in competition with every other restaurant that’s trying to transition from a dine-in to a takeout sort of business model. We tried it for a few days and realized pretty early on that that wasn’t going to work.”
He has made layoffs, but he said that overall, the company is in good financial shape, and sales at its locations are not the only way the business is managing to stay afloat.
“We’re fortunate in that we also do distribution,” Cameron said. “We’re distributed by the Budweiser distribution network here in the state of Connecticut, and frankly, those guys are busy right now, trying to keep package stores stocked. So thankfully, that part of the business is really supporting everything else for us right now.”
So far, the state has allowed package stores to stay open under its emergency protocols. If that alters, it could be a game changer.
“If they closed liquor stores, then all of the people that are still working in production with our facility are out of a job as well, and that would be really heartbreaking,” said Cameron. “Additionally, we could have a lot of products spoil, and on and on, and that would be a hardship for us.”
Back at Hog River, Joy Braddock said one of the things that’s hit her the hardest has been the loss of the community the brewery created.
“To have the taproom be empty, especially in a time where people need connection, it’s just such a shame,” Braddock said. “And of course we have to do that right now. But I just hope that we can come together again soon as a community, and be a part of hosting those moments in people’s lives again. Because I miss it.”