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Hard-hit breweries shiver at the thought of winter

Bartender Nick Caso sanitized a table after a customer left the Idle Hands brewery in Malden.
Bartender Nick Caso sanitized a table after a customer left the Idle Hands brewery in Malden.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

MALDEN — Chilly weather didn’t stop a devoted group of thirsty customers from huddling on the concrete patio outside the small Idle Hands brewery one evening last month. Tractor-trailers rumbled past on a busy four-lane road. The clickety-clack of the Orange Line could be heard.

Despite the gritty backdrop, all six outdoor tables were occupied and replenished with India pale ale, pilsner, lagers, and other craft beer. A few steps away, drive-up customers walked just inside the empty taproom to pick up their favorite ale and cart it home.

Chris Tkach, the owner, said he has managed to weather the near-constant reinvention forced on his small business by the pandemic. Revenues are down only 10 to 15 percent so far this year, he said. But as temperatures fall, Idle Hands and the state’s 200 other breweries worry whether all the changes they have made to stay afloat since March will be enough.

“The next six months could be excruciatingly challenging,” said Jack Hendler, co-owner of Jack’s Abby in Framingham. “A lot of breweries have been able to get through the past three months, but it has yet to be seen what will happen over the next few.”

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In April, only 23 percent of breweries in the state expected to survive longer than one year, according to a survey by the Massachusetts Brewers Guild. Nearly all reported that sales had fallen sharply, with revenue plummeting an average of 56 percent, said Katie Stinchon, the group’s executive director.

But an industry that had flourished in recent years worked quickly to adjust. That meant more canned beer, outdoor seating, quickly prepared food, home delivery in a few cases, even selling staples such as toilet paper.

“The winter will definitely be a belt-tightening time,” said Tkach, who opened his brewery in Everett in 2011 before moving here four years ago. “We’re still debating what we’ll do when the weather gets cooler.”

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Customers sat on the patio and enjoyed their beverages at Idle Hands Brewery.
Customers sat on the patio and enjoyed their beverages at Idle Hands Brewery.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

At Idle Hands, the plan is to keep the patio open all winter long — no heaters, no blankets, just a caveat to be prepared for the cold as Tkach’s small staff shuttles his Four Seam IPA and other ales out the door.

“I’m looking at 2020 as one of those years that will have a star next to it,” Tkach said from underneath a fraying Red Sox cap. “It might take a couple of years off my life, though. The last six months have felt like two to three years.”

Tkach expects his business to survive the pandemic, but many other breweries are not so sure. Sitting outside might be logistically or legally impossible, and the limits on indoor seating could be devastating for taprooms whose profitability depends on steady cash flow from individually ordered pints at the bar.

The uncertainty extends to larger, more established brewers such as Jack’s Abby, where a special permit for its 150 outdoor seats expires Nov. 1.

“We don’t see a short-term solution where draft beer comes back to any sort of pre-pandemic level,” said Hendler, one of three brothers who launched the brewery in 2011. “We’re very pessimistic.”

In response, Jack’s Abby and other craft brewers have ramped up production of canned beer. Instead of relying on indoor taprooms, many have set up temporary outdoor “beer gardens,” often in parking lots beside breweries.

Unlike draft beer, which has taken a huge hit because of the pandemic’s catastrophic effect on restaurants and pubs, cans still can be sold to liquor stores and customers who drive to their favorite brewers for curbside pickup.

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The change in demand prompted Jack’s Abby to shut down one of its two production lines — the one used solely for draft beer — and run the other line 80 hours a week. More than three-quarters of that line is now devoted to canned beer, as opposed to 50 percent before the virus hit.

At Idle Hands, by comparison, canned beer now accounts for 99 percent of production, up from 40 percent. A few breweries, including Trillium, are offering home delivery.

“We’ve had to make some really tough decisions to make sure we’re here in a year,” Hendler said of Jack’s Abby.

The brewery’s two taprooms had been open seven days a week with seating for 420 customers before on-premise consumption was banned temporarily in mid-March. Now, Jack’s Abby is down to one taproom, five days a week, with outdoor seating for 150 people. Service is moved inside in bad weather.

Still, revenue has dropped only 10 to 15 percent, and about 100 of the 140 people employed in January have been brought back, Hendler said. But what happens when colder weather arrives is “the million-dollar question,” he said.

“There will be huge challenges shifting to indoor seating,” Hendler said. “How are we going to do this safely, not just for us, but for the industry? One or two issues at any establishment will affect” business at all breweries.

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Speedy adaptation has been critically important. When the closings occurred in March, Hendler began baking bread for pickup. Finished dinners and even toilet paper were made available for purchase.

In Hudson, Medusa Brewing began shifting to canned beer and growlers, large jugs that allow customers to have fresh draft beer at home.

Since then, Medusa has been attracting customers from as far away as the North Shore and South Shore to its brewery 30 miles west of Boston, said co-owner Keith Sullivan, who is vice president of the Brewers Guild.

Business has exceeded expectations, Sullivan said, perhaps because many people need a bit of good cheer.

“We’re definitely down a little, but we’re doing better than we thought we would,” Sullivan said. “I think people are drinking more.”

The state allowed restaurants to reopen June 8 for outdoor dining and for limited indoor service on June 22. In August, Governor Charlie Baker said alcohol could not be served unless accompanied by food prepared on site.

That order has led to a rush of impromptu responses at breweries. At Idle Hands, it meant buying a panini presser to cook $3 grilled-cheese sandwiches and a steamer for $3 hot dogs, both of which meet the state requirement for food.

Medusa rolled out a restaurant-style plan that had been in the works, Sullivan said, including reservations, contact tracing, $4 tacos, and live music at an outdoor beer garden on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

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But for many breweries, particularly those without a kitchen, the future appears perilous.

“My best guess, and this is only a guess, but I think roughly 25 percent of breweries and restaurants will be critically hit,” Sullivan said.

“It’s kind of the elephant in the room,” he said of the coming winter. “Nobody’s talking about it, and we’re not looking forward to it.”


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.