Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Kyle Cargill said the craft beer industry was going “up and up.” Now, many local breweries may not survive.
Cargill, 24, is the co-owner of the Gainesville Beer Society, a community group dedicated to supporting local breweries. Usually, the society promoted the local craft beer scene through social media and beer-sampling events.
Now, its members spend their time trying to save local breweries from going out of business.
Falling in a gray area between restaurants, bars and manufacturing companies, Cargill said breweries have taken a lot of heat this year.
Like restaurants and bars, local breweries were allowed to re-open for on-site consumption in early June as part of the second phase of Florida’s reopening plan amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But after a state uptick in positive coronavirus cases, bars, and therefore most breweries, were forced to close again after just a couple of weeks.
But breweries aren’t really bars, explained Anna Heineman, who is one of four owners of Cypress & Grove Brewing Company located at 1001 NW 4th St. in Gainesville.
Breweries are first and foremost manufacturing plants, Heineman said. Taproom sales simply give breweries an income to fuel the plants. Without taproom sales, there isn’t enough money to manufacture.
Cargill said before COVID-19, it made more sense for breweries to classify themselves as bars rather than manufacturers, since they allowed customers to drink their product on the premises.
Now that restaurants are allowed to open in some capacity for on-site consumption, breweries are suffering even more as people prefer to leave their houses and drink at a restaurant over staying in and drinking local beer, Cargill said.
Consequently, many breweries are fighting to change their classification from bar to restaurant. This requires obtaining a food license from the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
Cargill said before the pandemic, the only brewery in town with a food license was Big Top Brewing. Since then, numerous Gainesville breweries have obtained a food license.
Cypress & Grove, who obtained its license early August, has already felt the impact of reopening.
“The food license has been so helpful because we could have people back in our space again,” Heineman said.
While getting the license has improved business since the start of the pandemic, Heineman said the brewery is still suffering as they cannot hold the large events that were previously a major revenue stream.
Although applying for the license is expensive and time consuming, Heineman said the brewery doesn’t actually have to sell any food to get approved, although they do anyway. She said the brewery just had to have a designated area which meets the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation’s (DBPR) guidelines for a suitable kitchen.
“The DBPR said ‘if you want to open, apply for a food license, and we’ll approve it.’” Cargill said. “Which again, doesn't make much sense, because if that’s all you need to do, then why do you have to do it in the first place?”
Contrary to this, Patrick Fargason, deputy communications director at the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation wrote in an email that “serving food is a fundamental prerequisite for a food service license.” The department’s website says that to file for a license a company must submit an application, a floor plan for the kitchen and a sample menu.
Regardless of the license’s legitimacy, Cargill said it’s imperative small breweries get a food license and start selling beer for on-site consumption.
It is the only way they can survive the pandemic, he added.
While the future seems bleak for small breweries without a food license, more established breweries who have greater resources and often sell their product in grocery stores, like First Magnitude Brewing Company, are doing just fine without opening for on-site consumption.
Since the shut-down, First Magnitude has been operating as a drive-thru, Simon McClung, First Magnitude’s chief brand officer, wrote in an email. Guests are able to drive through the building and look at how the beer is made.
“It's a really fun set-up many have seemed to enjoy,” McClung said.
Another issue breweries are facing is the struggle to obtain necessary supplies from distributors.
“There have been ebbs and flows from various suppliers,” McClung wrote.
They struggled to obtain rubbing alcohol, gloves, and more recently, blank beer cans. This is because the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a dramatic increase in the demand for canned beverages, Cargill said.
Amid all the struggles local breweries are facing, groups like the Gainesville Beer Society and its counterpart, the Tallahassee Beer Society, have continued to help support the industry.
One such effort is what Cargill calls “beer runs.” This involves people elsewhere in the state placing orders from Gainesville breweries. Then, Cargill will deliver the beer to them. He said that during the last beer run he delivered around $1,300 worth of beer to people in the Tampa Bay area.
While Cargill said that college students returning to UF’s campus won’t save the local industry as undergraduate students generally lack interest in craft beer, both Cargill and Heineman recognize that local breweries are best supported by people in the community.
“You can start by purchasing local beer, first and foremost,” Heineman said. “If you don’t support the breweries that are in your community right now, when we need it most, they may not be there when this is all over.”