In addition to all of the getting-to-know-yous, the inquires about previous experience, and the general seeking to understand whether a new employee might be a good fit, Lark Carlyle Ludlow, the owner and brewer at Tahquamenon Falls Brewery and Pub in Michigan has one important thing to share: Twice a year, once in the late fall and again in early spring, usually the month of April, you’ll be laid off. It’s nothing personal, and there’s a full expectation that you’ll be rehired, but given the seasonality of the brewery’s location, in the state’s Upper Peninsula and inside a state park, there’s just not enough consumer bandwidth to keep a full complement of employees during the down season.
“For some it works out perfectly,” says Ludlow. “There’s another wage earner in the household, or they use it to spend time with family. But for others, it’s tough. Maybe they have to have two jobs just to make ends meet.”
There are about 6,700 breweries operating in the country right now, and the majority of them are open year-round. Situated in populated areas, they operate like any other business with set hours, closing only on holidays (if at all). But there are a handful of breweries that are located in areas that are largely seasonal. Some are in beach communities that see the majority of business in the warm months; others are in the mountains, where winter conditions make roads impassible or just unsafe. Usually the ones that have to close or modify their hours are the ones in major vacation areas that see a big influx of folks when the weather is nice and then the population plummets when it’s not.
Such conditions add a layer of complexity to running what is already a difficult business. Still, the brewers were all too aware of the situation when they signed on to open a brewery. It’s just one of the challenges of everyday life.
Expansion as an Option
Boothbay Craft Brewery & Tavern is located in a seasonal resort town in Maine that sees tens of thousands of visitors during the desirable months. “Our population in the winter is 4,000—5,000 at most. And even a lot of them disappear in February or April for vacation,” says brewery Owner Win Mitchell.
He knew opening a brewery in such a spot would be a challenge. During his time at brewing school, when he was working on his business plan, he recalls a slide in class that showed demographics, ages, and population needed to make a small brewery work. “Everything said that it wouldn’t work,” he says,” but I ended up not really believing that because maybe we could get the seasons to expand, or we could follow the tourism to other parts of the state in the winter when they weren’t coming to us.”
The restaurant and taphouse that he operates have been seasonal since opening. From Memorial Day weekend through early fall, they do all their business, and that allows them to stay in the black going into the next season. Until recently, his production brewery was limited in the winter months, but still stayed open thanks to some self-distribution he was doing to year-round accounts and some spots in Portland.
That worked for three years, and then he signed on with a statewide distributor. At the time of this writing, he was waiting for delivery of a 10-barrel brewhouse (an upgrade from his existing 5-barrel), and now has five full-time employees who brew year-round.
Upward of forty percent of the beer he makes will go off the peninsula the brewery calls home to accounts in the state. Production ramps up in late spring to allow him to service all the local accounts and the visitors. It’s a balancing act, making sure the year-round folks get what they want and have come to expect while also doing the same for the limited window available to him at home.
He says that such balance means having to be careful with adding new accounts so as to not overtax the brewery or his staff. Still, he acknowledges it’s the demand that has helped him grow and get to this point.
“There’s a positive side of seasonality, where you get the break, the slow time,” he says. “It may not be warm and sunny, and you have to spend it with a cleaning regime, organizing, and doing other work, but you do get to take a breath.”
What to Do With Down Time
Beth Marcus, the cofounder of Cape Cod Beer in Hyannis, Massachusetts, has learned a lot about seasonal business. Being in the vacation-and-tourist-heavy sea area, Cape Cod Beer earns about half of their income between Memorial Day and Labor Day. “Summer gets shorter each year, kids go back to college sooner, or the school season starts earlier, or something else that keeps people at home, so the focus has been to see about giving the shoulder seasons (typically late spring and early fall) more attention to attract more people—because if we were to rely on just the summer months, we wouldn’t be able to survive.”
Annually, Cape Cod Beer makes about 6,500 barrels per year, and the majority of that is brewed and packaged during the summer months. “Pretty much, we’re going all out between April 1 and the end of August,” Marcus says. When they first opened their doors in 2004, they were the only brewery on the Cape and quickly realized that they needed to be on tap at not only the seasonal restaurants but also at the ones that stayed open year-round for permanent residents. (Her husband, Todd, the cofounder and brewer at Cape Cod Beer, as a matter of fact, would sell to only year-round accounts when they first opened, knowing it was those businesses that would help them stay afloat in the long, lean months.)
It was tough not only on the accounting spreadsheets but in the brewery as well. There were weeks without a brew day and without a visitor.
“It’d be like tumbleweeds in the tasting room,” Marcus says. In recent years, however, as breweries have become more popular and a tourist attraction in their own right, it’s likely that they’ll have visitors even on the coldest of winter days. Some folks just want to learn about beer; others just want to pick some up to go. Cape Cod Beer has almost twenty full-time employees and about a dozen part-time employees.
“We try to keep all full-time employees at 40 hours, and when it’s slow in the winter, we try to find them things to do. This means we do a lot of maintenance. We pull things apart, clean everything, put it all back together. Some of it is busy work, but it’s also necessary work. We have the time to make sure everything is cleaned and working right so that when the busy season hits, we don’t have to worry too much about maintenance issues. Still, our distribution and retail people know how to wash kegs because everyone pitches in.”
The winter months are also spent building community good will. The brewery hosts a number of charity events for local causes, goes to events across the Cape, and regularly hosts people inside its own walls. The part-time employees are usually folks looking for a second job or just something to do to fill some hours—retirees, teachers, and others are usually the ones representing the brewery at events and festivals, says Marcus.
“The locals are the only ones you know are going to come back,” says Marcus. She notes that while the brewery has about 18,000 fans on Facebook, it’s impossible to know how many of those were one-time visitors or vacationers. You can only do so much on social media, but the forging of personal relationships with the people who are with you day in and day out are paramount.
During the summer months Tahquamenon Falls’s Ludlow has to make beers that can turn around fast. Stouts, raspberry ales, and other easy-drinking summer offerings are what you can expect to find on tap when you visit during the popular months. If you happen to visit when the weather is less desirable (or if you’re a fan of snowshoeing, snowmobiling, or winter bird- watching) and Ludlow has had some more time to spend with a recipe, you might find a lager on tap or something else that needs some additional time in the fermentor. It’s a welcome reward, especially for the locals who live in the closest town, just twenty-three miles away.