I have been fortunate to visit over 470 different breweries (see the life list if interested) in the last 30 years or so, starting with the the Sam Adams Brewhouse in Philadelphia. One of the main reasons I like to visit them (other than the quality of the beer) is that for me going to a craft brewery is an engaging social activity. I know that in almost every visit I am going to have a conversation with some like minded beer appreciator about either the beer, the brewery, the brewers or the business – even if I walk in alone. And more than likely it will be interesting. Sometimes it will simply be an awesome time.
But things are different now in the summer of 2020, and I haven’t visited a brewery new to me since early March. Of course I am still going to some of my familiar “go to” local breweries – though usually just to pick up curbside some fresh local beer. But the outside tap room – now the only shot many of these breweries have to stay open – has not been an attractive alternative for me. Of course, I am older and less inclined to take risks with my health than most of the typical craft beer fanatics that actively search out these places in their 20’s and 30’s. But it’s also the strangeness of the social aspect – being social with a mask on, or shouting beer stories to someone 10 feet away just hasn’t motivated me.
But I want to support the craft breweries and I miss the atmosphere – so thought that this would be a good time to reengage in my favorite activity. I started my reacquaintance with the Tap Room at the Jersey Shore as a change of scenery. First I hit “Hidden Sands” in Egg Harbor – a brewery that I had previously heard of and had tried their beer once and liked it – so it sounded like a good place to start.
And the experience is very different – as expected. The first issue to face is “how do I even get in there?” And then once you find the actual entrance – how do you get a beer? Sounds basic, and at Hidden Sands they did have some signs and a large fenced in area with a tent and one door to make it easier So I was in, and wandered into the huge outdoor tent with picnic tables, a “mister” to cool it down and classic rock coming from the speakers.
Some people were sitting at their tables, so I shouted through my mask “How do you get a beer?” They pointed at the loading dock where there was a sort of welcome mat and an umbrella. “Go down there and they will take care of you”. But, before I could get up a helpful masked server came out and offered a paper menu. Once seated I unmasked and was happy to find some great options for German style lagers.
The Keller Pils was outstanding – and the Kolsh was fine on a hot summer day – just like I remembered it. I walked down to the loading dock to the umbrella to settle up and buy a couple of crowlers on my way out. I asked the server how the brewery was dealing with the current situation and she said “it’s been really good since we reopened outside”. They are canning and getting local distribution – “no problems” she said.
I then visited another brewery not too far away and in my view they just didn’t have the same level of logistical and operational set up. There was a closed front door to the tap room, so I circled around back of the strip mall location to find a small crushed stone patio in the parking lot of but that was fenced off with some temporary orange rubber fencing material. So I wandered back around to the front entrance again, this time venturing inside. I came upon a huge empty room with chairs stacked up and malt bags on the floor. At the bar were two masked servers who waived me out the back entrance to the patio.
There were six picnic tables with umbrellas in the hot patio- and the beer was pretty good. This establishment was more into fruit and wheat (being seasonable) than my preference but it was fresh and more than good enough. I struck up a conversation with a couple 10 feet away, and it was OK, nice folks, some good beer talk – I began to feel the nostalgia for the “good old days” – back when I would wedge my way into new crowded taprooms, stepping over children and being jostled by millennials playing Jenga talking about life and beer.
I got a crowler of a pretty nice 7% ABV Brut IPA and on my way out asked how their brewery was doing. The server looked at me over her mask and just shrugged. I wondered if that meant that she didn’t know, or that – well, who knows? Hard to read the expression under the mask.
My experiences this summer ranged in all different ways as breweries try to “figure it out. Some were somewhat threatening – (walking up to a “police taped” front door with a orange cone in front, greeting a masked server who took me to a socially distant table). Others purely transactional (front door blocked with a table and server who could only hand beer to go out the door.) Moreover most of the beer gardens were pretty empty, sometimes totally at times – so there wasn’t much of a chance for social interaction. But I feel that this will change as people become a bit more adventurous and proper protocol is used universally.
We are all hoping that the industry recovers from this, and that the new normal is established to let these small craft breweries survive. I will certainly try to do my part – and I hope if you are hesitating – that you will give it a try. It’s still good beer, and good beer people – even if it’s a very different experience. They are figuring out ways to keep us safe. Let’s adapt and help our brewers survive.