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Dominion City beer goes great with physical distancing. Photo: Dominion City Brewing Co.

#COVID613: How to support Ottawa’s local craft breweries during isolation

By Jordan Duff on April 3, 2020

Strange and quiet days here in Ottawa. With so many of our favourite restos and bars closed to help promote social distancing and fight COVID-19, it’s been hard to get a quality local beer. And I think we could all use a drink.

While breweries did, mercifully, fall under the essential workplace designation, the closures of gathering spaces and bars changed how thirsty quarantiners could access that beer.

Beer is, by its very nature, sociable. It’s awkward to bend an elbow with someone two meters away and it’s impossible to cheers. These new stay-home measures have hurt the bottom line for many breweries. Luckily, many of these businesses have quickly pivoted and adapted new models to get beer into the hands of their socially distant fans by bringing beer to their doorsteps. It’s been incredible to watch how quickly these businesses have adjusted to these strange quaran-times.

Dominion City beer goes great with physical distancing. Photo: Dominion City Brewing Co.

Dominion City Brewing Co’s Josh McJannett describes how his team reacted to the shutdown. “When we got to work a couple Mondays ago (March 17) we were kind of staring into the abyss as all of this really came together. We’ve always considered ourselves a ‘taproom first’ brewery with licensees (bar and restaurants) as a strong supporting element. We don’t sell any beer through the LCBO and only a very small amount through grocery stores and The Beer Store. We’ve always valued that direct connection with our fans and have worked to build a business that emphasizes it,” says McJannett.

“We were looking at a near-total shutdown of our business and we knew we had to change up or things were going to get very dark very fast. We’re fortunate to have invested in a strong web store several years ago. Typically we’d ship a few dozen can orders via Canada Post across the province in any given week. It didn’t take long for us to conclude that we could leverage it to keep beer moving to our local customers and we made the decision to offer drive-thru pickup and free home delivery. Suddenly people accustomed to brewing or canning beer, running the bar or taking care of licensees became Amazon-style beer fulfilment specialists driving orders across town. Everyone bought in and made it work, despite the challenges. It’s meant that everyone can keep working and getting paid. The response has been overwhelming and our community is truly stepping up for us; we couldn’t be more grateful.” You can place your order of their hazy Sunsplit here and this weekend they are doing a drive thru with Holly’s Hot Chicken!

You can drive up and collect a trunkful of beer at Dominion City. Photo: Dominion City Brewing Co.

Dominion’s situation wasn’t unique: Most breweries rely on their licensee partners. Kichesippi Beer Company’s Paul Meek took time to tell us about the tiered approach his brewery took once the shutdowns impacted his business.

“With no sales to restaurants and no revenue coming from our Taproom, we quickly had to shift our business model to 100% home consumer-focused. Restaurants and the taproom account for two-thirds of our revenue, so there was a lot of revenue that needed to be salvaged in order to keep as many people employed as possible. On Friday March 13, we launched our 12 cans ordered online = Free Home Delivery in Ottawa program and it quickly became a popular option.” Here’s their online shop.

“After the launch, we needed to go into Phase 2 which was developing a plan for the hundreds of kegs that were filled with beer for restaurants. We have been taking the beer that was in kegs, putting it back into the brite tanks, ensuring the carbonation is ideal, and then putting that beer into cans for the home-consumer business.”

Meek and the team have also leveraged the new allowance for take-away restaurants being allowed to sell beer. Another example of an agile business working hard to keep afloat during the pandemic.

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“Restaurants and the taproom account for two-thirds of our revenue, so there was a lot of revenue that needed to be salvaged in order to keep as many people employed as possible.”

While Kichesippi and Dominion are established in the local-beer scene, Small Pony Barrel Works is a newer company with a very niche market – barrel-aged sours – and I was curious how they were adapting. Brewer turned delivery-guy Sean McVeigh (not McVey) explained that home delivery was always something they wanted to try with their beer. “I have been operating the brewery solo for the past couple of weeks, coming in in the morning, doing some deliveries, then manning the retail/pickup side for the afternoon, then heading out on the road again in the evening,” says McVeigh. Having so many of Ottawa’s workers working from home makes the delivery even easier.

Small Pony does have beer available in the LCBO which helps them on the revenue side. They are also promoting their Culture Club annual subscription which, with its annual fee, should help keep the lights on over the upcoming dark months.

While the above breweries have shown agility, brewpubs seem to straddle that line between essential and non-essential. I reached out to Flora Hall for insight.

Per founder Dave Longbottom, “We moved quickly to both respond to the public health call as well as to adapt the business to do all we can to support the community, be safe, and keep this awesome business rolling so that we’re here for the neighbourhood and the city when things get back to some semblance of normal.”

“We moved quickly to both respond to the public health call as well as to adapt the business to do all we can to support the community, be safe, and keep this awesome business rolling so that we’re here for the neighbourhood and the city when things get back to some semblance of normal.”

“So far we’ve converted our horseshoe bar into a safe retail space, added an online store, introduced home delivery for beer, and added a nice small take-out menu so that folks can enjoy Flora food at home,” says Longbottom. For those who have never visited the heritage building off Bank St., it is meticulously designed for optimal socialization and conversation. Their motto is “Gather.” The new anti-COVID measures almost seem ironic in that context. But they have adapted.

The national and global slowdown is expected to hit the tourism industry hard, but just as hard-hit is the tour industry. Everyone’s favourite brewery tour service Brew Donkey has cancelled numerous tours. While so many breweries are turning to home delivery right now, it was not that many years ago that Brew Donkey’s beer delivery service introduced craft beer to many an Ottawan. They even took your empty growlers away. Owner Brad Campeau shifted the company to bringing people to beer rather than beer to the people. They are seeing community support with ticket holders asking for later tours rather than refunds. Supporters have also purchased gift cards to help the company bridge the COVID-19 stoppage.

Brew Donkey is offering virtual brewery tours via Instagram. Screenshot courtesy Brad Campeau.

Campeau has done a good job staying connected to the beer scene through this. Their website lists home delivery options and minimums for all local breweries. They are also running virtual tours of local breweries through Instagram, where participants have the chance to engage with the brewery and can “tip” their virtual tour guide. It’s a great pairing for those home-delivered beers you ordered.

No matter the great stories of resilience and change, the recession is hurting local businesses. But there are ways that consumers and fans can offer support. Home delivery is great, but it’s more expensive than previous beer-delivery methods. You can make the impact greater for the brewery by ordering larger amounts than the minimum or combining orders with your neighbours. Gift cards and merch are sold through most breweries’ online shops. This helps provide your favourite businesses with cash in hand now to keep on making great beer. Plus, if you are telecommuting from the home office, you can wear your new shirt to work.

We are all looking forward to getting back into our favourite watering holes, tap rooms and beer buses when this is all over.