Written by Kevin Heffernan
Photos Courtesy Mike West, Community Beer Works

From kegs to cans, the beer business rolls on.

“Beware the ides of March” took on new meaning this year, when nearly every business in the region either shut down or was forced to dramatically shift its operations. March 15 is the point where we determine what life was like before COVID-19 and after. For Community Beer Works, the “Before” included developing new events and entertainment to pack their tap room on 7th street, move plans forward for a new brick and mortar in Niagara Falls, and begin ramping up distribution to Rochester’s bars and restaurants. The “After” revolved around how to simply keep the business operational.

“We were a two-part business,” says Ethan Cox, CBW’s President and Co-founder. “Since 2012, we’ve been brewing and selling beer. Now on 7th Street in Buffalo’s lower west side, we’re essentially in food manufacturing (beer), alongside packaging, which is our on-site canning, labeling operation. And on the other side of the building and of our operation, is hospitality. Our tap room operates under the same financial logic as any restaurant or bar with a kitchen.

CBW’s owners, co-founders, Ethan Cox and Chris Smith

“When that March 15-17 time came, we had to shut down hospitality entirely. The entire bar staff had to be let go so they could grab unemployment. Back of the house, kitchen staff, same deal. I’ll tell you, that was not a fun day whatsoever.

“Because our manufacturing side could still operate under the state’s guidelines, we could retain all brewer jobs, warehouse, logistics people. The organization was operating at a much lower level because of course, our bar and every other bar and restaurant in the region had halted services and purchases. No more kegs. We had plenty that were ready to go to warehouse or distribution that we were stuck with. Fortunately, for some styles that allowed it, we were able to can what was in them and get it sold. Large breweries from Anheuser-Busch, Sam Adams, even a Big Ditch who move so much beer were not likely so lucky to save a lot of their beer and likely had to destroy it.

“These days, we are inventing ways to distribute everywhere and anywhere. Try-It Distributing is a long-term partner of ours and they’re getting us out to grocery stores, beer stores, convenient stores. Those remaining open has been a major help for business. They’re ready to get us back out to restaurants depending on if and how they are able to open. But we’ve needed to find some new ways to sell our beer directly to consumers in order to keep revenue coming in. That started with doing curbside pickup right from our tap room. Simple enough to can on-site and move it to the front door and use our in-house point of sale (POS).

“In order to introduce ourselves to new customers, or reach our current ones closer to where they are, we’ve begun doing pop-ups. You’ve seen our van (VAN in massive letters along the side of it with our logo) moving a few items around from time to time before, but now it’s the backbone of our pop up operation. We’ve teamed up with Chiavetta’s, with lloyd Taco Trucks. It really depends on who is managing the facility where we set up. We can be outside of a Walgreens, which does sell beer. But if they don’t sell our beer, and the manager believes we’ll help attract business rather than deter it, we will open up shop for a couple hours.

“It’s honestly been incredible. I’m shocked, I’m happy, I’m very thankful that the community has embraced our pop ups and our curbside. I’m on the board of the NYS Brewers Association and honestly one of the best things to come out of this is how easy it has been to set up these pop-ups. Under the allowances granted for COVID, we essentially just need to email the SLA where we’re headed and we can go. Now, when things return to more regular operations, we don’t need it to be that easy forever, but we would like to see some of these allowances continue long into the future. They’re very good for our state’s breweries and they just make sense. So we’ll be continuing that fight for more curbside, pop-up, delivery or direct-ship. We’ve talked with Senator Tim Kennedy about them already, but we understand that when they reconvene as a legislative body, all things COVID will take precedent.”

CBW’s long-term plans still exist – some in the fridge, others in the freezer.

“The Niagara Falls project is Han Solo right now. Frozen in carbonite. It was being reimagined prior to this but COVID really put it on ice. We’re hoping to re-examine when we can take some best guesses at what long-term prospects are. It will be really difficult to manage our current taproom if there are restrictions on capacity and while people are fearful of gathering spaces, so starting another one will have to be measured very carefully.

“The Rochester expansion of our distribution market is a go. We were figuring out fine details on packaging, distribution etc, but we hope to kick those items off by July and see our business grow again.”

“We love that people have been perceptive to this. A lot of this will remain. People will want to walk in and out of a brewery, grab their beer and go. Our tap room layout will change to support the operation of these new channels. We’ll see, you know? We’ll need to rely less on the on-premise traffic. Maybe the kitchen will only be reserved for a few nights a week. It’s all just speculation at this point but we’re ready to alter operations where we see opportunity to do so.”

For beer fans fortunate enough to have an expendable income, buy local! The mega breweries will survive. Local brewers, who keep your money inside our economy and make it stronger for all of us as a result, need your support today and tomorrow. Not some charitable act, their beer is incredible. It’s diverse, creative, fun, and delicious. Keep your eyes on CBW and all our locally-owned breweries for their innovative moves through the next few months and beyond.

Disclaimer: This is not a paid placement, but CBW has been a key sponsor of No Boundaries magazine in the past.