Minnesota Breweries and Distilleries Cautious, Optimistic about June 1 Reopening Plans

Tattersall’s Northeast Taproom // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Minnesota Governor Tim Walz’ plans for the phased reopening of bars, restaurants, and places of “public accommodation” announced on May 20 is being met with mixed feelings by the state’s brewery and distillery owners.

Starting on June 1, the state will enter into Phase 2 of its four-phase approach which aims to contain the spread of the coronavirus. The new guidance for local breweries and distilleries, which are included in the category of restaurants and bars, will allow them to serve customers at their taprooms and cocktail rooms under considerable restrictions. 

Those restrictions are: 

  1. All service must occur outdoors
  2. A six-foot distance must be maintained between parties
  3. The number of patrons cannot exceed 50 at any time. 
  4. Masks will be required for all staff, and strongly recommended for customers at all times except when they are actively eating or drinking. 

Minnesota brewers and distillers have expressed relief to finally have clear guidance around what business will look like in the short-term after so many weeks of uncertainty; fear for what this severely limited business model will mean for their operation; concern for the health and safety of their staff and patrons; and gratitude for the community that has rallied around them. 

Brad Glynn, vice president of marketing and operations at Lift Bridge Brewing Company, says that he and his team have been in what feels like an unending cycle: making a plan, communicating it to staff, agonizing, strategizing, and then “scrapping that plan and rewriting another one” with each new development. “Now it looks like we’ll be writing a plan to add more tables and outdoor seating,” he says. “It’s good to have that.” 

While Glynn is concerned about his business as a whole, his frustration is not so much about profit margins as it is about the employees he cares so deeply about. “I think a key point for us is we feel bad as employers. [Bad] that we have folks at home who are great people and want to work.” Glynn wants to protect the future of his company, but most of all he wants to protect the people who have helped the brewery flourish. 

Ben Hugus, CEO of Ursa Minor Brewing, echoes this same tension Glynn is feeling in that public health, economics, and human interests can sometimes be at odds in these highly unusual circumstances. 

Ursa Minor Brewing // Photo by JaneCane Photography

“As a brewery owner you’re kind of forced to put on two contrasting hats that don’t necessarily jive. We want to protect our neighbors, we want to protect ourselves, our relatives. I mean, we want to stop this thing. We want to be part of the solution and not the problem.” 

That’s the human side. Hugus sees another side too. 

“And then there’s the business side, which you have to play, you know, you have to. Is it healthy to throw people on the street to say ‘I’m sorry, we made the decision to close and therefore there are no jobs’? Wages keep people safe in a very different way—help people pay rent, help people buy food.” 

As brewers wrestle with what a June 1 outdoor-only, limited-capacity operation model will mean for their businesses, distillers are grappling with the announcement of Phase 2 reopening regulations in similar ways. 

The calculations for a distillery in Minnesota are just slightly different than for brewers, shares Mark Schiller, CFO and co-founder of Loon Liquor Company and current president of the Minnesota Distillers Guild. 

Mark Schiller of Loon Liquor Co. and the Minnesota Distillers Guild // Photo by Aaron Davidson

“Essentially, and I can speak for most facilities in the state I think, our feeling is extremely tired. Most of the distillers in Minnesota have been working 70-hour work weeks for the last couple of months, basically, and probably even before that.” This is because Minnesota distilleries have pivoted to make a product they likely never dreamed of supplying: hand sanitizer. 

“A lot of us have been just busy to the gills making hand sanitizer,” says Schiller. “Collectively, we’re over 100,000 gallons of hand sanitizer that we’ve been able to produce for hospitals, police departments fire departments, EMS crews, first responders, nursing homes, big businesses, small businesses, and pretty much everything underneath the sun. We’re tired, but it’s been a really great honor, being able to step up for our state.” 

While distillers who have been able to produce hand sanitizer can take immense pride in the essential resource they are giving Minnesotans on the frontlines fighting this virus, Schiller warns against assuming this means distillers are going to emerge unscathed. 

“The ones that are actually looking to [reopen for cocktail service] on June 1 suddenly need to get their staff back while there’s time to train and it’s very difficult, very overwhelming.” He is hopeful, however, for distilleries that are lucky enough to have cocktail rooms with ample patio space, that they might have a good shot at survival. 

Norseman Distillery’s current to go cocktail set up during Covid-19 // Photo by Tony Saunders

And, even if a distillery (or a brewery for that matter) doesn’t have a pandemic-proof patio just ready and waiting, Mark sees an opportunity in the slight relaxation of stay-at-home orders coming June 1. 

“For our business partners, bars or restaurants that have big patios, this is a great opportunity to really showcase local spirits. For the people that are itching to go back and the establishments that are itching to reopen to meet those needs—and do it in a very responsible way—we’re going to see if we can help provide high-quality Minnesota-made spirit. When people do come back to the patios, hopefully they want to support Minnesota distillers and Minnesota agriculture—all the supply chain that Minnesota distillers partake in.” 

Indeed Brewing Company’s Minneapolis Taproom // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg

While things are still uncertain in many regards and reopening safely may be every bit as challenging and painful as shuttering for good, frustration at being in this situation in the first place—right at the start of a Minnesota summer, no less—abounds. Nevertheless, the general consensus seems to be: adapt, rather than quit. 

Tom Whisenand, co-founder and director of operations at Indeed Brewing Company, feels a sense of relief. “We’ve been kind of waiting for this guidance, because we have decisions to make.” He assures me it’s not “scary” per se, but he’s certainly not naive either. “We know it’s gonna be another challenge and we’re up to it.” 

“I’m hoping that our customers and employees and everyone will be patient and understand that not everyone—in fact no one—is on the same page.” Whisenand, like many of his colleagues, doesn’t like the way this issue has become politicized and hopes that when facilities cautiously reopen next month, everyone will be kind, empathetic and flexible. He, for one, says he doesn’t have any reason to believe this won’t be the case. 

Pepin Young, taproom director for Bent Paddle Brewing, echoes Whisenand’s sentiments. “The goal is to continue to have fun with customers [when the taproom patio opens on June 1], but at the same time to have expectations of our customers.” The single expectation Pepin hopes his patrons and staff will hold above all else during this uncertain time? Kindness. 

“We want to ensure that people are being kind to each other, kind to our staff, and that our staff is being kind back. And I think that if we can keep it simple, but yet very organized, that’ll be the strategy going in.”