Everybody wants a return to normal. Everybody loves free beer. How can you use the latter to accelerate the former?
Eric Orlando, executive director of the Brewers Guild of New Jersey, wanted member breweries to promote vaccinations through free beer, but there was one major problem: New Jersey law prohibits selling beer below cost—and “free” is below cost.
National brewers such as Boston Beer (#shotforsam) and AB InBev (ABeerOnBud.com) got around the problem by offering a “free beer,” which was actually a $5 virtual gift card or Cash App payment. That type of cash outlay would be beyond the abilities of the small breweries in New Jersey. In a neighboring state, the Connecticut Restaurant Association offered free drinks through the #CTDrinksOnUs campaign, where restaurants would offer a free drink (not limited to beer) to customers with a food purchase—but many New Jersey breweries don’t have food options.
So, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy’s office called Orlando. After the initial embrace of vaccinations by those most anxious to get it, Murphy wanted to target certain demographics whose vaccine turnout had so far been low. As COVID-19 infections grew among younger populations, the Governor's office reached out to Orlando and the guild to see whether they could work together to overcome vaccine hesitancy in that group. On May 3, the state announced its Shot and a Beer program, a collaborative initiative of New Jersey’s Department of Health and the Brewer’s Guild.
Under the program, New Jersey residents of drinking age can get a free beer at participating breweries by producing a vaccination card that shows a first shot received in May. Having Governor Murphy onboard made it easy to get a special ruling from New Jersey Alcohol Beverage Control to relax the beer-below-cost prohibition. The ruling is specific—just one beer, and in May.
At the time of Murphy’s announcement, 13 breweries were participating, offering the free beers at their own expense. They represent about 75 percent of the guild’s brewery membership.
“There was some concern around public reaction, as vaccination has become a political issue,” Orlando says. “But reaction has been 70 to 80 percent positive. This is not a mandate to get a vaccine. It merely incentivizes those who might be hesitant or wanting to wait.”
Breweries are doing it because they see it as the right thing to do, although there are obvious secondary benefits. Not only are the breweries showing their support for vaccinations, but they’re also helping restaurants, bars, and taprooms reopen more fully—via higher vaccination rates and lower infection rates—and that benefits the breweries themselves. Also, the New Jersey initiative immediately received global media attention, putting the names of participating breweries in the public eye.
A Growing Trend
New Jersey’s Shot and a Beer program was the largest coordinated free-beer program so far, but other similar efforts soon followed.
In Buffalo, New York, Resurgence Brewing hosted “Shot and a Chaser,” an on-site, first-dose vaccination clinic offering a free glass and a coupon for a beer to participants. A lineup of willing recipients was waiting when the taproom doors opened May 9, and staff, patrons, and friends encouraged each other to get the vaccine as the day went on.
By the end of the day, about 200 people had been vaccinated at Resurgence. That was more than all the county’s other vaccination clinics put together, according to a representative of the Erie County Health Department. That demonstrates the effectiveness of specifically targeting demographics with limited-time offers—and obviously, the beer doesn’t hurt either.
Resurgence was just the first of several area breweries to work with the Health Department to host vaccination clinics. Steelbound, Thin Man, and 12 Gates quickly followed suit.
As in New Jersey, the Erie County effort in New York was an organized effort to get industry support for vaccinations. However, in many other places, breweries have been taking matters into their own hands.
In Washington, D.C., Solace Brewing (based in nearby Sterling, Virginia) supplied free beer for an outdoor walk-up clinic at the capital city’s Victura Park. About 200 people got the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine during the four-hour clinic, which was the brainchild of one of Solace’s investors. By proactively reaching out to the local government, the vaccination clinic was able to come together in about 24 hours.
The beer-for-jabs movement has even crossed the border into Canada. Cold Garden Beverage Company in Calgary, Alberta, offered a free can of their appropriately named Neighbourhood Ale to customers showing proof of vaccination. At the time of the promotion, on-site consumption of beer was prohibited due to provincial COVID restrictions, so the free cans helped boost sales of beer for takeaway and helped move the province toward reopening.
Even as far north as Whitehorse, a remote city of just 25,000—but home to three breweries—in Yukon Territory, Polarity Brewing offered a free beer to those who have been vaccinated. That was after more than two-thirds of Yukon’s eligible population had already received both doses.
Lessons Learned So Far
In speaking to many of these breweries, we’ve seen a few themes emerge as universal.
- First, government agencies are excited to get more people vaccinated by partnering with groups who have influence over targeted demographics.
- Second, every brewery wants bars and restaurants to reopen fully, and for everyone to feel more comfortable going out (to buy beer); assisting with vaccinations is a path to getting there.
- Third, the cost of the beer is paltry compared to the benefits of overcoming vaccine hesitancy and accelerating the rate of vaccinations.
“The goal of doing this was just to encourage people to get vaccinated,” says Mike Arms, cofounder of Solace. “Our industry has been impacted as much as any, and we want everything to get back to normal and get everyone employed again.”