Rip Current Brewing adopted screw top crowlers in 2020, and (unrelated) may have new ownership in 2021
It will surprise exactly no one that most of the biggest beer and beverage stories of 2020 revolve around the most impactful happening of this or any year: the covid-19 pandemic. Public response to the coronavirus wreaked havoc on the everyday business of serving beer.
Workers catch the brunt of the pandemic
The beer industry came into the year credited with making a billion dollar-plus economic impact annually, while directly employing about 6,500.
The loss of such jobs has been the most widespread impact of the pandemic, as shutdowns and heavily restrictive social distancing guidelines forced many breweries to cut employee hours, furlough staff, or lay them off altogether.
Exact numbers may never be tallied, but anecdotally, some workers have been rehired or repurposed, some have managed to pick up work at other breweries, and others have relied upon some combination of piecemeal wages and unemployment benefits. If they’re lucky. With on-premise service hampered, tipped employees particular have been out of luck. It remains to be seen whether such jobs will return once vaccinations become prevalent.
Ownership struggles and opportunities
When the pandemic shut down San Diego bars in March, things looked dire for the beverage industry. But federal grants and loans helped many through the worst, and as time has passed, the industry has more closely echoed the nation’s K-shaped recovery: meaning some individual businesses thrive, even as others face decline.
Though several beer companies have shuttered in response to the pandemic, the number of outright closures is actually down compared to prior years. Two of San Diego’s smallest nanobreweries — Escondido Brewing and Thunderhawk Alements — were among the first to go, followed by Vista’s Iron Fist Brewing. Perhaps the most significant closure was San Marcos Brewery, which had been brewing beer since 1991.
Rather than close, several breweries have instead gone on sale. 32 North Brewing sold to a pair of new interests, and Circle 9 Brewing was put on the market. Add to this list America’s very small brewery champion of 2015, Rip Current Brewing. Co-founder Paul Sangster says the brand has attracted a “significant amount of interest,” and will likely see a change or modification in ownership by new year.
More common were breweries closing individual locations: Two Roots, Belching Beaver, and Culture Brewing closed Ocean Beach taprooms, for example. Amplified Aleworks and Legacy Brewing cleared out of Miramar, and Automatic Brewing closed its Tiger Tiger bar. To the chagrin of few beer fans, 10 Barrel Brewing Co. ended its tenure in East Village. Several of these locations have been claimed by other beer businesses, still looking to expand heading into 2021.
New ways to sell beer
Arguably the biggest change that helped breweries survive 2020 was relief offered by the ABC, which allowed them to include home delivery and shipping to their take-out options. This mainly helped breweries that had invested in canning lines and crowler machines (some offering newly available, screw-top crowlers). By the end of the year, roughly 45 are offering in-house delivery service, several in North County are delivering through new site BrewCatalog.com, and several others offer beer to-go through third-party delivery services such as GrubHub and DoorDash.
Fundraising and social advocacy
For a year so fraught with challenges for those working in adult beverages, a great many people in the industry responded to adversity with charitable actions. Brewpubs and bars established programs to donate meals to first responders and those out of work due to various shutdowns and restrictions. Those doing so included AleSmith, Stone Brewing, Bay City Brewing, 619 Distillery, and craft beer mainstay Small Bar, which continued to provide meals even as it closed permanently in November.
Additionally, dozens of local breweries participated in Black is Beautiful brews, a nation-wide collaboration raising funds for local organizations espousing the social justice principles of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Beer Media takes a hit
It wasn’t just a year of tumult and change within the beer industry, but in the media covering it. For starters, the most venerable voice in San Diego beer, Peter Rowe, retired from the Union-Tribune after covering San Diego breweries for a quarter century.
Meanwhile, the disappearance of restaurant and bar ad revenue has seen several publications shut down or suspended. San Diego CityBeat stopped publishing altogether, and while San Diego Magazine returned from a spring hiatus, so far it has resumed without a dedicated beer column. Likewise, monthly beer and beverage magazine West Coaster remains on indefinite hiatus, having published one issue since the spring. Without their mastheads, regular contributors of these magazines have pursued self-publishing. Former Reader columnist Brandon Hernandez launched his own web site, SanDiegoBeer.news; and Beth Demmon, former columnist for City Beat, San Diego Magazine, and West Coaster, plans to launch a substack in the new year, which she will dedicate to, “highlighting marginalized voices in craft beer.”