Rethinking Brewery & Taproom Design in Light of the Pandemic

Gabe McKee, design principal at V Three Studios, explains how flexibility and reassuring design will help breweries prepare for the months to come and future events.

Gabe McKee Sep 17, 2020 - 10 min read

Rethinking Brewery & Taproom Design in Light of the Pandemic Primary Image

The Side Project Brewing taproom in Maplewood, Missouri, has been temporarily repurposed as an order-processing facility for pick-up orders. Long-term, breweries have a number of new design concerns to consider as more consumers move to contactless, to-go purchases.

The beer industry certainly has been put into an interesting position by the COVID-19 pandemic. On one hand, many breweries have loyal customers clamoring for more of their favorite beer. On the other hand, owners are deeply concerned for the health and safety of those same customers, not to mention their employees.

For most breweries, responsible steps have included limiting sales to online transactions and curbside pickup and to ensuring that visitors and staff practice appropriate social distancing. Some breweries have found this to be relatively painless because of the layout and design of their existing facilities. Others have struggled to come up with practical solutions.

These unprecedented times are forcing some breweries to rethink their entire operations to better meet the current needs of their customers—and to prepare for similar situations in the future. While demand has not necessarily dwindled, fears of exposure have shaken the confidence and trust of the average patron, leading to a vastly different transaction process from just a few months ago.

Now that breweries are investing in significant changes to their day-to-day operations, the design of both new and existing breweries will in all likelihood see a permanent shift once it’s safe to reopen. If breweries take the time now to carefully consider how the design of their spaces can help them adapt to similar situations in the future, they will maintain a competitive edge and be able to survive virtually any challenge thrown at them.

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The following is an overview of how good, smart design practices can help a brewery respond to the pandemic now while also providing the flexibility to adapt and remain successful long-term.

First, the Good News

On the plus side, the industry appears to be well-positioned for a reasonable level of success after the pandemic. The quarantine period has seen record sales of packaged alcohol, favoring breweries that already package and distribute beyond the tasting room. By nature, breweries are already designed with cleanliness and sanitation in mind, so as to not contaminate batches of beer, so discerning customers who are aware of this fact have the peace of mind to continue buying beer.

Regardless of the state of public health, most successful breweries are already designed to deliver positive, impactful customer experiences. Think about it: When customers walk into your brewery, there is most likely a certain atmosphere and character to the space that connects them to the personality of your brewery. It’s something that adds up to more than the sum of its parts. When it’s safe to gather in taprooms again, customers will continue looking for that impactful experience, albeit with different expectations in terms of safety and sanitation. Brewery design going forward will need to adapt to these expectations—and be able to respond to any future challenges—in order to remain successful.

Responding to New Needs Now

Until we’re completely clear of this pandemic, breweries face the harsh reality of needing to immediately adjust their workflows and business models to ensure that their customers and employees are safe and healthy. The social distancing orders necessary to flatten the curve have forced many breweries to move entirely to online and curbside to-go sales, shift from taproom to packaged sales, or pivot into other products entirely—hand sanitizer or face masks being the most obvious examples.

Whether offering curbside pickup or allowing customers inside during the first phase of reopening, breweries with more flexible designs will have fewer barriers to overcome when responding to their customers’ needs. That is to say, spaces that were intentionally designed to serve multiple purposes or adapt to different uses are proving especially valuable right now. Furthermore, breweries that move quickly and update their spaces now will likely benefit in the long run. Here are a few specific examples.

Barrier-free/automated restrooms

Best practices in restroom design already dictate that guests should come in contact with as few surfaces as possible. Now and in the future, breweries with updated restrooms will have one less thing to worry about in terms of spreading infections. Consider motion-sensitive faucets and soap and paper-towel dispensers and toe pulls for the restroom doors.

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Durable, easy-to-clean furnishings and materials

Despite the popularity of rustic/reclaimed materials in breweries, those with more modern, nonporous finishes will find it easier to clean and reduce any risk of infection, keeping customers assured of their safety. (More on this later.)

Flexible point-of-sale

Breweries that can offer online sales and no-touch pickup and can accept all forms of payment are in an enviable position right now compared to those with more outdated point-of-sale systems. Moving forward, adapting to customer needs in terms of accepting payment will be crucial for a brewery’s success.

Adaptable multiuse spaces

A few months ago, tasting rooms across the country were packed with customers, as originally intended. Now that tasting rooms are empty, those spaces are being used to serve other purposes, such as canning and packaging, order storage, or social-distancing queues. How effectively these spaces can serve those purposes is determined by whether they were originally designed to easily convert from one use to another.

Brewery workflow

Brewhouses designed with a flexible layout have required minimal reorganization to meet changing demands during this pandemic. They have also allowed employees to adjust their workflow to maintain appropriate distance from one another, thus taking less time to get back to producing beer. Brewing systems that are cleaned by automation and/or hard piping with stainless-steel sanitary beer lines are more efficient and safer than those cleaned manually with hoses and pump carts. These hard-piped systems (pictured below) are typically seen in mid- to large-sized breweries, but smaller breweries should consider implementing them for sanitation purposes.
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These hard-piped systems are typically seen in mid- to large-sized breweries, but smaller breweries should consider implementing them for sanitation purposes.

Visibility into brewing systems

Providing customers with a clear line of sight into the brewing system—while already a trend well before this year—will now take on the second job of reassuring guests that the beer is confined within the system and does not frequently come in contact with any contaminants. (Side note: We expect breweries to take a close look at their wild-fermentation programs in the coming years and find solutions to ensure that there is no contamination occurring.)

Long-Term Design Changes

Once the brewing industry, along with the rest of the world, has weathered the storm of this pandemic, customer expectations and social norms will have permanently shifted. New breweries will be designed with these considerations in mind, and existing breweries will likely need to upgrade at some point to stay relevant.

First and foremost, there will likely be an increased focus on cleanliness and sanitation, with space for social distancing, touchless restrooms and ingress/egress paths, and spotlessly clean brewing equipment becoming the norm.

Second, aesthetics and design trends may shift. Perception is everything, and customers could come to expect that breweries look very clean and sanitary. That said, brewery owners don’t necessarily have to choose between maintaining a classic brewpub aesthetic and using modern, easily cleanable materials. A good designer will be able to specify less permeable materials, such as stainless steel or synthetics, to ensure easy sanitation without sacrificing aesthetics. The key is to create physically sterile environments without them feeling sterile to your guests.

Finally, there will be new or adjusted operating procedures to consider. For example, breweries could be designed with floor layouts that accommodate more rigid cleaning schedules or make clean-in-place piping systems clearly labeled rather than hidden or tucked away. Employees may need more space to perform the same tasks they could previously accomplish in a smaller area. Whatever the specifics, if the space is thoughtfully designed, these should be easy obstacles to overcome.

To sum it up, the brewing industry has been around for a long time and will continue to grow and adapt. Nimble, smart, and flexible operations that are equipped to adjust to changing circumstances will prevail over those without the planned flexibility to meet new challenges. Today we are veering toward online sales and curbside delivery, but who knows what tomorrow will bring? The bottom line is that well-designed spaces allow clever, entrepreneurial brewery owners to remain successful despite any obstacles that are thrown in their paths.

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