News

How Toronto craft breweries weathered the pandemic storm with no bars, taprooms or food service

How Toronto craft breweries weathered the pandemic storm with no bars, taprooms or food service
Top Stories
Six months ago Toronto restaurants and bars were closing their doors, leaving Toronto craft brewers in a tailspin from losing one of their main sales outlets, licensees. It could have been devastating; Toronto breweries had to quickly shift direction if they were going to make it through intact. Fortunately, with hard work and creativity it seems many craft breweries may have made their way through the storm. We are now on the better side of things and can only hope that the dreaded second wave is ineffectual.

Doug Appeldoorn and his partner Peter Caira of the People’s Pint in Toronto’s west end were relatively new when the pandemic forced them to close their space. They had opened their brewery doors only two years prior and were preparing for their anniversary party. Appeldoorn recounts, “at first it was pretty major. We lost 50 per cent of our business when bars and restaurants shut down. We decided to close our taproom and pivoted to doing 100 per cent home deliveries.” This is the common thread through the pandemic stories of many breweries: home deliveries. It allowed for income while owners re-evaluated their game plan.

For People’s Pint it was the ability to offer online purchases that would see them through. But there were other well-made moves; they partnered with neighbourhood businesses to sell curated beer-pairing packages. Beer paired with cheese (from Junction Fromagerie), chocolate (from Delight Chocolate) and books (sourced from Coach House Books), were some of the unique packages that sold out in hours.

In a time when it was hard to find light in all the darkness People’s Pint looked to stay positive and do good by focusing on some impactful collaborations. They reached out to their friends within the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) community and together created some brews to raise funds and awareness for both the Black Health Alliance and Egale Human Rights Trust. They are hoping to open their taproom come fall, allowing them to reunite with their loyal friends and customers who helped them survive the pandemic.

If People’s Pint is a toddler in the Toronto craft beer landscape than Great Lakes Brewery in Etobicoke is a granddaddy. Great Lakes has survived SARS, multiple global financial crises and the Leafs getting knocked out of the playoffs more times than anyone wants to remember.

How did a seasoned brewery like GLB manage to steer their way through the pandemic? Marketing and Communications Manager Troy Burtch says that for them the issue was keeping up with the demand from home deliveries. They were brewing seven days a week even though some major components of their business were shut down, specifically their retail bottle shop, food truck and event space. Through this time of change a few major developments occurred; one being online sales. Owner Peter Bulut had always been reluctant to sell beer online, but the time had come. And within 4 days of making the decision the taproom had gone virtual. This allowed for curbside pickup and deliveries, and also enabled Great Lakes to continue doing what they do best (aside from brewing), staying connected with the community. Burtch shared a few stories that allowed for some smiles during the hardest times. “We have a GLB colouring book available online, and parents were posting photos of their children’s creations on social media.”

Some young chalk artists also created sidewalk renditions of Octo, the infamous eight-legger found on the label of their beloved New England IPA, “Octopus Likes to Fight.” And in true GLB fashion they wore colourful Hawaiian shirts for their Friday home deliveries, resulting in a whole lot of kooky photos of happy customers receiving their fresh beer.

The biggest change for Great Lakes was their entry into the world of distilling. For years Bulut had planned to incorporate distilling as part of the business. How could he know it would take a pandemic to make the dream come to fruition? Burtch says “We were sitting on a lot of unused kegs that had been destined for restaurants that were now closed, we didn’t know what to do with them. Peter remembered Muskoka Brewery had had a distilling tank for sale the year before.” One fruitful call later and the still was theirs. Health Canada then granted Great Lakes the special license needed for distilling ethanol for making hand sanitizer, this allowed them to utilize the untapped kegs to help front line workers. Shortly after, they applied for and received a license for manufacturing spirits. Things are still in the beginning stages, but they have already launched two ready to drink products incorporating gin and vodka. And future plans include distilling bottled whiskey.

A brewery who really deserves a stiff drink is Rorschach Brewing in Leslieville. They are a combined business of brewery, full-service restaurant and event space. They brew to supply their own needs but also sell to licensees. Which meant when the doors slammed shut on restaurants and bars, they felt the pain twofold. Postponed and cancelled events worsened the situation, forcing them to turn to their only remaining outlet, online sales. Even though they are now reopened owner Matthew Reiner says these online sales are still the largest part of their income. He explained that this shift has given the brewery exposure to a new group of customers who are looking to try different and unique beers, something the brewery is known for. The slowdown allowed them the time to get creative with experimentation and they’re taking full advantage. As a way to bring some metaphorical sunshine into the groundhog days of Covid-19 they started brewing a series of sour beers inspired by Tiki cocktails. And a second series called Blasphemy which blends sour beer and a cheerful amount of fruit purée. They have now reopened their two patios and kitchen, allowing some real sunshine back into their business.

Sometimes it seems like we’re out of the woods, but Burtch is still cautious, “the next few months will be telling and critical.” Summer is over and we are entering a slower sales period. Not all craft breweries, as with many small businesses, will be able to weather another storm. Which is all the more reason to spend our dollars locally to help give everyone a fighting chance.
Read more on Toronto Star
News Topics :
RELATED STORIES :
World
MARSHFIELD, Vt. Sales of wine, spirits and other alcoholic beverages have risen during the coronavirus pandemic like foam in a freshly poured glass of beer. Just not for some...
Sports
Premier Doug Ford’s plan to set the minimum price for a beer at $1 by Labour Day is an impossible ask due to the increasing cost of beer production, according...
Business
Steve Carlton, who opened the brewery alongside his wife, Veronica, and other investors, said their inability to get beer in cans led to the demise of their Franklin Park brewery...
Entertainment
Overlooking the Salish Sea, up the hill from the pulp and paper mill, Townsite Brewing played no small part in revitalizing my hometown of Powell River, B.C. Two ferry rides...
Canada
WATCH ABOVE Global’s Paul Cormier reports on a joint deal between maple syrup producers and craft beer makers in New Brunswick will mean some new tasty brew and tourism opportunities...