Normally, events are an effective way to draw additional patrons—but crowded fests right now are not only taboo (and often illegal), they’re also potentially deadly. Sadly, the year without festivals looks likely to stretch well into 2021.
However, many breweries are showing how special events can be done safely. It’s pretty straightforward: Accept reservations, limit group size, space those groups widely apart, and keep it outdoors, if possible.
Here’s the idea: Promote an event or an opportunity—could be as simple as the chance to reserve a firepit or a small cabin—with attendance by reservation only. Limit the group size and ensure that the groups are sufficiently spaced apart. To help ensure that the patrons show up, sell the reservations in advance as prepaid packages that include food and drink.
In St. Louis, Urban Chestnut recently has been organizing events such as chili nights and German-style pig roasts at its Midtown Biergarten on weekends. With groups limited to eight people maximum, the reservation price—for the pig roast, for example—works out to about $33 per person and includes plenty of food, a pint of beer, live music, and a firepit.
“It started with Oktoberfest, obviously realizing that we [couldn’t] do the same size Oktoberfest that we did over the past few years,” says Florian Kuplent, Urban Chestnut’s cofounder and brewmaster. “We thought maybe we [could] spread it over a few weekends, utilize the outdoor space that we have. And it was pretty amazing. We basically sold tables very similar to what the real Oktoberfest in Munich does—you have to reserve tables and prepay for your food and beer to some degree. And we did essentially the same thing. And we sold out it in hours, not days. People were really excited. And fortunately, the space that we have at Midtown allows us to be able to do that.”
After the Oktoberfest success, Kuplent and his team decided they should try to use that system for other events, while taking advantage of that beer garden. “And so far, that’s really worked out well,” he says. “It’s probably not going to happen in January, February, but who knows? Maybe there [will be] some nicer weekends where we can do something fairly last-minute.”
Kuplent is a native of Germany, where going out into the cold to eat and drink at Christmas markets is a cherished tradition. Americans, on the other hand, don’t have that kind of tradition and are more likely to stay inside where it’s warm. Enticing them to dress warm and have fun outdoors when it’s cold can be a challenge.
“We’ve actually done the Christkindlmarkt,” he says. “It’s always been a little bit challenging. We’ve done glühwein, and some people showed up when it’s getting a little too cold. I think there’s some cultural education that still needs to happen. But maybe that’s an opportunity—that the pandemic is an opportunity to get people outside in the winter and have them enjoy that.”
Other breweries are trying similar tactics. Also in St. Louis, 4 Hands has set up a firepit next to a camper trailer, six chairs, and a cooler. For $240 (or $40 per person), a group gets to use the space for three hours. It includes all the goodies for making s’mores, and the cooler is stocked with a case of 4 Hands beers.
Not everyone will go for this kind of thing when it gets cold. However, social media can help to communicate the hygge. “Basically, lean into the cold,” says Joe Mastrangelo, a Boston-area beer enthusiast whose consulting firm does health-related consumer engagement. “Make it a tailgating-esque experience. You’re going to lose customers who can’t take the cold; they’ll do take-home. Lean into the people who want this weird experience.”
Other breweries that have been organizing firepit reservations include Odd Alewives in Waldoboro, Maine; Caboose Commons in Fairfax, Virginia; and Lone Oak Farm in Olney, Maryland, also with heated tents.
Another approach is not to invite everyone indoors, but instead to build a tiny indoors—i.e., a cabin, chalet, or igloo—that can be shared by a small group by reservation.
In Chicago, for example, Open Outcry added cozy cabins or “domes” to its rooftop beer garden. Each cabin has a theme—such as “Your Parent’s Basement 1985” or “Hogwarts Library”—and can only be reserved in advance by private parties of up to 10 people. The reservation fee is $169–175 and includes some drinks.
More Winter Attractions
Even in non-pandemic years, winter can be a tough time for taproom business. But as we’ve seen before with independent breweries, necessity can be the mother of invention. An industry that pivoted with surprising agility in the spring is finding ways to do it again.
Some ideas, such as providing space heaters or firepits, are relatively obvious and becoming increasingly common. Briefly, here are some other ideas we’ve spotted around the country and abroad.
Blankets: We’ve noticed several breweries inviting patrons to BYOB—bring your own blanket. A few others are doing like Dovetail in Chicago and selling their own brewery-branded blankets to those who want another layer. (Given the pandemic, shared blankets may be taboo bordering on unwise.)
Layer up: Brewery-branded winter hats (aka beanies), scarves, hoodies, and gaiters (which can double as face masks) are all viable options for patrons who arrive with too few layers or have yet to hear the Scandinavian wisdom that “there is no bad weather, only bad clothes.”
Layer, down: As in, add some kind of layer between the cold, cold ground (especially ice-cold pavement) and people’s feet.
Wind breaks: The wind can be the biggest contributor to chill. (Maybe don’t get rid of those spent barrels just yet?)
Koozies: Not just for summertime, these provide a layer of insulation between warm hands and cold beer.
Hand warmers: Odorless and disposable varieties are available, such as those sold by HotHands.
Mulled ales or other warm drinks: Ever had glühwein? How about glühkriek—warmed, mulled, sour-cherry beer? Or maybe it’s time for the beer version of feuerzangenbowle, a German tradition that involves setting a rum-soaked hunk of sugar on fire before it glops down into your mulled punch (or beer)? How about flip cocktails prepared in the traditional way, with ale, rum, sugar, and a red-hot poker? Even at the Guinness Open Gate Brewery in Dublin, amid the snugs with wind breaks, they’re serving mulled Guinness upon arrival.
Outdoor-drinking loyalty program: The Draught Works Brewery in Missoula, Montana, is offering a Polar Pint Pass for hardy drinkers. Drink nine beers outdoors when it’s 45°F (7°C) or below, get your card stamped each time, and you get the 10th for free.
Winter glasses or mugs: “Glassware has been where we’ve seen the most movement,” says Kim Jones of 88 Design Group, a division of Grandstand that designs branded merch. “Many breweries are looking to provide special holiday or winter glassware to their customers for purchase.” For example, 8th Wonder in Houston, Texas, will release a set of special glasses inspired by ugly sweaters, while LUKI Brewery in Arvada, Colorado, has a winter design planned for its locally popular barrel-shaped glass.