The service industry is a community: servers, chefs, brewers, bartenders, artisans and every other cohort of food and drink professionals tend to have somewhat similar schedules and lifestyles, but also shared perspectives and unifying passions. This is especially true of those of us who are in it longterm without any intention of moving on. Something that has struck me during all the madness and tragedy of the last year is that few people I talk to outside this community seem to fully understand how much this pandemic is warping our businesses, our livelihoods and our futures.
I realize that Utah is better off than many places and I and many I know are extremely lucky to be healthy, to be employed, to be doing any business at all. But I still want to do my part in highlighting how resourceful, resilient and determined my industry is and how proud it makes me to be a member of this community. With that in mind, I sat down with Fisher Brewing Company's Head Brewer, Colby Frazier, to talk with him about the pandemic's effect on his popular Salt Lake City brewery.
Like every other bar or restaurant, Frazier and his business partners were forced to shutter their doors on March 16thwhen Utah's government mandated closing of non-essential businesses for the safety of all. There hadn't been much more than a day or two of warning and suddenly going from 100% of regular business to 0% was a big shock. “That moment of deciding to close was really stressful and terrible,” says Frazier about the sudden impact. Employees were furloughed, events were cancelled, beer sat unsold in tanks and kegs, uncertain of its future. And that's how it stayed for five weeks.
“We had an interesting blind spot that made me feel angry and vulnerable when we decided to close down” says Frazier of the dilemma that faced him and other similar operations. Many breweries plan on building large facilities, distributing their beer into grocery stores, convenience stores, bars and anywhere else that will take it. But the business model Fisher had adopted was entirely built around selling beer to drinkers at their taproom. They had sold to-go beer in 32oz crowlers branded with the now ubiquitous Fisher logo, but only to help move through volume, keeping the beer flowing so new batches could be brewed.
When it became clear things weren't going to improve quickly, the owners at Fisher mobilized themselves and some of their employees to start filling as many crowlers as they could straight from the taps in a process they dubbed the “wild sloth canning line” and selling them over their front patio balcony. But that brought it's own host of problems, ones that are still affecting the brewery today, five months later.
When the majority of a given batch of beer is sold on draft at $5 a pint, nobody minds selling the to-go stuff at a substantial discount. $6 for a crowler meant a mere $1 price increase for twice the volume: fine if its a fraction of the whole, but problematic if that's all you have. “Switching to all to-go beer is fine; selling beer is better is better than selling no beer,” laughs Frazier, but the challenges facing his small business were real. This is one of the issues I was alluding to earlier, one that people without first-hand experience may not perceive or understand: you can't change your entire business plan on a dime.
Many other breweries were facing a similar problem summed up by Frazier when he says, “You shouldn't make people risk their lives to go buy their favorite craft beer. Maybe they should be able to buy it while they're buying their toilet paper and their peanut butter cookies. We can't really make enough beer to do that, but if you're just selling beer out on the sidewalk, without the bar, suddenly you're in direct competition with the grocery store and convenience store.” Getting access to those retail venues simply isn't realistic for a brewery Fisher's size for a host of reasons I won't get into here (though I'm happy to discuss them if anyone is curious). But suffice it to say, something different needed to be done to keep people buying beer.
So the guys at Fisher came up with the idea to provide something that the grocery store couldn't: high-point beer. This wasn't something entirely new as the brewery had released a smattering of “full strength” releases since its 2017 opening, often for special events like yearly anniversaries. But what they've been undertaking in response to the pandemic is wholly different in scale and approach. Frazier and company have been brewing and releasing a new and different high-point IPA every week for the last two months, entirely packaged in crowlers and still very reasonably priced, plus additional other “scaled up” beers whenever possible. Leaning into this opportunity is a tactic that many other breweries are employing to keep people coming back again and again: fans who show up for something new will probably buy standard offerings as well.
Other local breweries like Shades Brewing and Proper Brewing Co. have also used this tool to great effect, releasing special high-point offerings or packaged beers originally only intended for draft. But the impact is much greater on a business like Fisher where this is such a change from normal. But it's working and fans are loving Fisher's takes on all these IPA styles, including several variations on a New England-style or “hazy” IPA, Frazier's favorite West Coast IPAs, and recently a Double IPA clocking in at a whopping 10.1% ABV. Additional high-point beers like a 5.7% version of Fisher's popular fruited sour ales brewed with plum and mango have also been released with more to come.
But even this success comes at a price. Strong beer is taxed differently in Utah than beer that's 5% or under and that, accompanied by the greatly increased cost in materials for making heavily hop-laden high-point IPAs, keeps this from being a home run. Just because it costs double to make doesn't mean the public will agree to pay double the price. All we can do is continue to support operations like Fisher and hope for a light at the end of the dark tunnel that has been 2020. “I want to be close to violating fire code every night like we used to–pouring draft beer like we used to, but that could be a long ways away,” Frazier laments. “But until I can fill very tank with 5% draft beer and sell every drop here, I'll keep making IPAs.”
The back patio re-opened at Fisher just a couple weeks ago and it's great to see people there again, enjoying the beer where it was meant to be enjoyed. But cold weather is close at hand and Utah's breweries will face another round of challenges as outdoor seating areas close and selling beer under a tent on the balcony becomes more difficult. But with work ethic and creativity like the team at Fisher Brewing have demonstrated, we can at least be sure there will be beer to help us get through. If you haven't, go support them and other local breweries by stuffing your fridge full of as many special-release brews as you can.