Uncertainty reigns

For Houston's Craft Breweries, It's One Day at a Time

As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, brewmasters ponder the present and future.

By Timothy Malcolm March 26, 2020

If you follow any of Houston's breweries on Instagram, you may have seen photos or stories in which Saint Arnold Brewing Co. founder Brock Wagner shows up, now fully bearded, and buys a case or so.

"I’ve been trying to visit some of the smaller and newer breweries around town," says Wagner. "These are trying times and sharing the community of craft beer is a soothing balm."

For breweries small and large in and around Bayou City, the impact of novel coronavirus COVID-19 has been substantial. Just like their friends in restaurants throughout the area, uncertainty reigns.

"We're trying to do to-go sales from the roll-up door in front of our brewery every day, as long as we can," says Patrick Christian, founder and owner at Great Heights Brewing Co. in the GOOF. "We don't know if we're gonna be told to stop at some point, so we'll just sell as many cans and crowlers as we can."

Look around town, and you'll see that most breweries are doing just this. Out front of Eureka Heights Brewing Co., one or two employees wearing gloves and maintaining a safe distance from the customer work a pop-up counter to sell regular-rotation four-packs like Moo Caliente and specialty beers in crowlers and four-packs. Anyone can roll up, quickly pay, then leave with a 32-ounce crowler of an IPA. 

Other breweries that are doing to-go include Sigma over in the East End, the new Urban South HTX at Sawyer Yards, and Ingenious in Humble. 8th Wonder in East Downtown is also selling beer to-go, even putting it into miniature kegs for those who want to spread out their beer drinking. Some spots, however, like Brash in Independence Heights and Holler at Sawyer Yards have decided to close for the time being. 

Some breweries with full-service kitchens are adding to-go food service with to-go beer—those include Buffalo Bayou Brewing at Sawyer Yards, Local Group Brewing in the Northside, Platypus Brewing on Washington Avenue, and Saint Arnold.

"We’ve seen good support of our food and beer-to-go," Wagner says. "It’s a small fraction of what the beer garden would normally do but it is helping us keep as many people on the beer garden team as we can."

Breweries rely plenty on selling kegs to bars and restaurants, but that option is out the window now that those establishments aren't serving draft beer. So while some breweries can stay open with just to-go sales, they're all feeling the pinch from the loss of a source of income.

"We can't count on keg distribution sales right now," Christian says. He says that Great Heights is brewing about once a week, and it's a balancing act trying to figure out exactly how much should and will be sold just outside the taproom. He thinks if people steadily continue to stop by and buy beer, they should be able to pay bills. Still, Christian says he's furloughed workers, though he's able to continue to provide health care for them.

All that most breweries can do at this time is just make the beer and hope people still want to venture outside to pick more up. For Wagner, who has been around to see a Houston devoid of craft beer, this may be the most nervous time of all.

"There is a huge unknown," he says. "How long does this last? What does it look like when it’s over? When we get back to normal, does it look anything like the normal before? How do we keep our team safe? How do we take care of our people? What things can we do to ensure the health of everyone here? There is a lot of planning going on without a lot of information. At the end of the day we are focusing on the quality of our beer and setting ourselves up to thrive on the other side of these strange times."

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