With cooler days on the horizon, the fate of restaurants and bars already dealing with economic challenges from the pandemic remains uncertain. That is especially true for brewery owners who rely on oudoor beer gardens and bar service to stay in business. GBH Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu spoke with Sam Hendler, president of the Mass Brewers Guild and co-owner of Jack's Abby Brewery in Framingham, to learn more about the way forward. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: Owners like you and other members of the guild have been forced to jump through a lot of hoops to stay open here. You've been forced to lay off workers, dumped thousands of gallons of beer to scale back capacity in the middle of tourist season. I was scanning some local headlines that mentioned your name, Sam. "Mass breweries worry about winter;" "We're still standing" is another one; "How Jack's Abby is pulling through the pandemic;" "Breweries close after COVID positive customer went bar hopping." These are some days to be in your business.
Sam Hendler: Yeah, it's a really strange time to be in the beer business.
Mathieu: How do you stay afloat when you know that the season is changing, and you're trying to adjust your own capacity to relate with that?
Hendler: Yeah honestly, it's just really challenging to plan out. We're kind of taking it day by day, week by week, making whatever we can work for us now. And the reality is, things are changing so fast, it's almost futile to make longer term plans right now.
Mathieu: There were 200 active breweries in Massachusetts. Do you know how many have had to close since this all began in March?
Hendler: So we've only had a few close to date. There have been a lot of things that have helped us get through to today, but it definitely is a lot more concerning as we look towards winter time. At some point, outdoor seating is not going to be viable anymore. That's been one of the big things helping us. And there's been a lot of help from the government, whether it be PPP loans or other programs that have helped kind of prop things up, get us to today. It's really foggy as you walk out into the winter to see what kind of help will be available to us.
Mathieu: And uncertainty is the enemy of a business owner.
Hendler: Yeah, and uncertainty is all we got. So we just need to figure out our way through it.
Mathieu: Well, one thing we do know is that it gets awfully cold around here in the winter. And I wonder, are you buying heaters as we speak to try to extend the season?
Hendler: Yeah, we're looking at heaters [to] definitely help us get into the fall as we start to expect some evenings getting into the 50s or even 40s going into October. But that has a shelf life. Those heaters are not going to help you on a day where it's 18 degrees out in January.
Mathieu: There's a lot to consider here as we move into the new season, considering beer gardens potentially closing and obviously outdoor seating becoming limited or eliminated altogether. I wonder if direct selling is helping to offset that loss.
Hendler: Yes. The one bright spot in the beer industry has been wholesale sales [and] retail sales, so whether it's grocery stores or people coming direct to the breweries, people are buying packaged beer. Unfortunately for a lot of small craft breweries, while that's nice, it's not enough to offset the loss of draft sales to bars and restaurants, which is a big part of the local craft beer scene. So there are things that are working, and it's really those can sales that are propping up a lot of brewers right now. But yeah, we're also just coming off of the best beer season with barbecues and people outside. It's really the perfect beer drinking time, so natural beer consumption starts to go down in winter, especially in New England. And it just looks like a lot of cards are going to be stacking against our industry this winter.
Mathieu: If a vaccine is the holy grail, what until we get there is the biggest thing that brewers need to stay open? Are you asking for relief from the government?
Hendler: We're asking for relief, but I'm not so sure that we're going to get it. I think the biggest thing I would ask is for people to be really conscious of where they are spending their discretionary money. Businesses are facing an existential crisis right now. And I would really encourage people to consider supporting local businesses [and] supporting the businesses that have supported their community. Brewers, I think, have been great corporate citizens in the towns and cities across the commonwealth, and we need people's support right now. And that's going to be the best thing that gets us through is people buying our beer.