Some Montana breweries move to delivery as COVID-19 closures shutter tap rooms

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Wednesday was the perfect time for Jen Berry to buy her very first growler.

After working two jobs from home all day with her cat as a co-worker, she could use a cold beer. And for Tim Chisman it was valuable sign of community support.

Chisman is co-managing partner and head brewer of Blackfoot River Brewing Co., and he was out delivering growlers this early spring afternoon to Helena beer fans unable to come into his taproom, which is shuttered by a state order that affects bars, breweries and other businesses where people congregate. The order is in place until April 10, though that date could be extended, as it has been once already. It’s an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. By Wednesday afternoon Montana had reported 65 known cases.

“I’ve been working from home since Wednesday, trying to socially distance, but I figured I have to do what I can to help,” Berry said as she paid Chisman for the growler.

Since Bullock’s closure order, which came after some counties had already taken similar measures, more than 40 of Montana’s breweries have moved to offer some sort of curbside or delivery service, in addition to the growler fills they’ve traditionally offered. Though, now there are caps on how many people can be in the taproom at a time for those fills.

Matt Leow, executive director of the Montana Brewers Association, said right after the closure order there was some confusion about breweries’ ability to deliver because the privilege had never been tested before. In the pre-COVID-19 world, there wasn’t really much reason for breweries to deliver beer to consumers beyond things like kegs for wedding receptions, Leow said.

Part of the magic of a Montana brewery is rolling in after work, running into friends, shuffling a deck of cards and splitting a bowl of popcorn with your favorite people.

But now “home delivery now provides a real opportunity for some breweries during a very challenging time,” Leow said. And following the temporary state of emergency declaration from Bullock and a directive from the state Department of Revenue, delivery and curbside options are good to go.

Emily Clewis said she bought a growler Wednesday to support Blackfoot, and was so excited she had Chisman pose for an Instagram photo with her empty that he’ll take back to sanitize at the brewery downtown.

Brewers are approaching the situation with a mix of optimism and reality, blended with the mindset of doing not just everything possible to help a shrinking crew of employees keep drawing paychecks and sustain business through incredibly volatile economic times, but also recognizing how much of a touchstone breweries are in Montana communities and wanting to give people some bit of normalcy.

Bethany Flint, co-managing partner at Blackfoot, said delivery is an emotional boost, but it’s not an economic silver bullet. Blackfoot had to lay off the majority of their taproom staff, though it had made 74 deliveries before Wednesday. Anonymous donors in Helena covered the delivery fees for the first 200 orders.

At MAP Brewing Co. in Bozeman,  co-owner Dash Rodman said he’s also down to a skeleton crew. Normally he has 55 employees, but he’s now at about nine. MAP and a few other breweries in Bozeman decided to shut down even before the governor’s order, knowing that they’d set an example in their town, helping make clear how important it is to avoid gathering in crowds.

“With our taproom shut down, we lost about 95% of our revenue literally overnight,” Rodman said. “From a business standpoint it is incredibly difficult but we also see what’s going on from a public health standpoint and that is what needs to be taken care of first and then the financial aspect for everything can be addressed.”

That theme was common among breweries in the state.

“We felt we needed to be leaders in our community and set an example,” said Nolan Smith, a co-owner and the operations manager of Philipsburg Brewing Co., which also shut down before the governor’s order. “We’re very visible in our community just by the location of our brewery. It was the hardest thing that we’ve ever had to do but obviously it was the right thing to do at the right time.”

Flint was on Blackfoot’s first delivery mission last Friday, and while it was a little nerve-wracking at first, people were very appreciative of the brewery coming to them.

Blackfoot has a growler exchange system, so people can return used growlers and get a sanitized and filled one back. MAP is getting its sanitizing system up and running, but has been selling new glass growlers at cost.

“It’s tough because it’s a lost revenue source, but it’s just a community effort right now,” Rodman said. “People want to drink beer and people are stuck at home, so we’re just taking the hit on that.”

In addition to making sure people aren’t getting warm beer, Flint said there are the important tasks that would be done whether the beer is delivered at home or not, such as checking everyone’s ID. That’s done at front doors instead of over the bartop. Growers are sanitized before being filled, and drivers wear gloves, Flint said. Payment devices are sanitized between each customer and the van is sanitized, too.

Philipsburg isn’t offering delivery, but does have curbside service. They can fill a growler, sell a case of beer canned up the road or — because there’s no open container law in town — even a pint to go.

Though many employees are out of work, brewers are trying to fill financial gaps as much as possible. MAP is selling a T-shirt and profits go to an emergency fund for the staff. That’s also where tips are heading. Employees have already tapped into that fund, and while Rodman wishes it didn’t have to exist, he’s glad it’s there. But the reality of the situation is pressing on him.

“I think we will see breweries go under, potentially, and so I think it’s really important for folks as much as they can to help support these local businesses,” Rodman said.

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