Even more-so than regular bars, breweries are very much a collective experience. The adventurous brews, availability of samples, informal atmosphere and often-communal seating arrangements are designed for customers to mingle and chat with one another. Add in the robust live music schedule that many breweries have, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for hanging out with friends and neighbors.
So what do these places do when none of that is allowed? That’s the question that Upstate breweries like Birds Fly South Ale Project on Hampton Ave., Eighth State Brewing Company on Augusta St. and Swamp Rabbit Brewery & Taproom on Main St. in Travelers Rest are dealing with right now. Even as Gov. McMaster has continued to lift covid-19-related occupancy restrictions, each of these breweries is dealing with the new normal, trying to maintain social distancing guidelines while keeping their taps running.
Early Days of the Pandemic
It was a bit of a bumpy process for the breweries we spoke to, but in the early days of the shutdown, they relied heavily on to-go sales.
“We’re a brewpub,” says Andrew Myers, head brewer at Swamp Rabbit Brewery & Taproom, “so before all of this happened, we relied 100% on in-house sales and growler sales. So we can’t distribute as opposed to other breweries who distribute. So at first, when this hit, we were able to open up our front window and sell all to-go growlers (glass jugs) at first, or special release bottles, or we were refilling growlers.”
“Fairly quickly, we knew this was not going to just pass over,” says Eighth State Brewing Company’s General Manager, Jack Ryan McDonald. “Because beer can take four-plus weeks to produce, we had to transition our brew schedules quickly to accommodate for making more of our most popular to-go options, like our imperial stouts and fruited sours. Part of this new mentality was to get at least a new release out every week and giving people something to look forward to.”
All three of the breweries we spoke to have some level of outdoor service, which came in handy as the reopening process began. “Luckily for us, we have a ton of outdoor space that’s all covered,” says Myers. “So we’ve been able to provide service to our regulars, and people visiting from out of town, people getting out on the trail and trying to get some exercise. We’ve done relatively okay on that front as opposed to breweries that don’t have outdoor seating.”
“We feel really lucky, because we have such a big outdoor area,” says Lindsay Johnson, co-owner of Birds Fly South. “We were shut down for a little while of course, and then we just started doing to-go sales, and then when we were able to serve people again outside. That was such a breath of fresh air because we were able to have so many people outside and everybody was able to find their own space. Everybody’s been good with wearing masks, and our staff has been wearing masks since the very beginning.”
Eighth State has a smaller outdoor area than the other two, but McDonald says they adapted their service model as the summer progressed.
“Since the start of August, we’ve provided onsite outdoor dining that more resembles standard table service,” he says, “with each group positioned over 6 feet apart and protected from the elements with an individual tent. We have been very forward from the beginning that we want to provide a space where our customers and employees can feel safe.”
And how are the customers reacting to the changes in how these breweries do business? After all, we seem to see clips of people angrily refusing to wear masks in establishments on the news every day.
As it turns out, some customers have objected, but they’re in the vast minority.
“95% of the people who come to our window are great,” Myers says. “A lot of them are regulars; they’ve been supportive. They’re tipping extra hard, they’ve been coming in once or twice a week, it’s been a pretty pleasurable experience. It’s pretty rare that we have customers who are just a**holes.”
“We will wear masks at all times, and we will require you to wear masks when you’re coming up to the bar,” Johnson says. “And if you can’t follow those guidelines and respect our business, then we don’t want you here. We just handle it by trying to stay calm and telling them that if they won’t wear a mask, they’re not welcome here. There’s not much more that we can do; some people just come up and try to get into an argument, and we’re not going to engage in that. We’re just here to serve good beer, and if you’re looking to get into some sort of political fight, we’re just not interested in that.”
The Path Ahead for Area Breweries
As we move towards some a fuller form of reopening in the Upstate, these three breweries perhaps reflect the community at large in their varying approaches.
“We haven’t really considered opening up inside at all for the foreseeable future,” Myers says, “and we don’t know how long that’s going to last. If we see a downtick in cases and deaths, then maybe, but until these numbers start going down, then we’re not even interested in opening our doors.”
Birds Fly South has begun indoor service again, which Johnson says “comes with all its own challenges as we try to figure out how to do it safely.”
“But we have a good plan,” she continues. “We’re going to do 50% capacity, we’re going to run our reservation system online so that people can book a spot and feel safe about it, and we’re going to have to increase our staff to help out more with cleaning and sanitizing inside. We feel good that we’re open, and that people are still coming, and for the most part we get great feedback from people that they feel safe coming here.”
All three breweries mentioned that their regular crowd has gone above and beyond to keep them up and running during the darkest days of the pandemic. And they hope that those regulars, along with the Upstate in general, continue to lend their support.
“It’s going to take a united community to overcome this moment in time,” McDonald says, “and we encourage all to help us do our part.”