Craft Brewers During the Big Freeze

Extreme weather is that distant relative that is a member of every Texas family. We tend to endure threats of heat, drought, damaging storms, tornadoes and fruit-analogy hail sizes on an annual basis. So the polar extremes of the North American winter storm of February 2021 shouldn’t have been a true surprise to any of us.

Just to recap: Due to a unique continental meteorological conditions, on February 10th most of Texas experienced roughly ten consecutive days of ambient temperatures dipping into the rarified single digits or even below zero, along with accompanying sleet, snow and ice. The extended weather extremes played havoc on our state’s unwinterized infrastructure, with electricity demand spiking beyond capacity statewide and forcing residents into rolling blackouts and/or days without heat or running water. As a whole, the state’s electrical grid came within mere minutes of permanently failing.

The technical causes and political blame for the piss-poor energy response in this modern and energy-rich state are a topic for another time. With water and natural gas pumps lacking the needed electricity, Texans were faced with the sudden lack of multiple utilities at once. At the same time, overwhelmed state emergency services could do little but figuratively tread water (among literal water shortages), and citizens in crisis had to rely upon the abilities and goodwill of fellow citizens, in some cases for their very survival.

One good example would be the local Denton County Brewing Company, who along with a few other local businesses and many private citizens stepped up as the staging ground for a minor relief effort. When public tap water became unsafe to drink, DCBC emptied 2700 gallons of potable water from its brewing tanks for locals. (Breweries often have tanks filled with clean treated water, either for sanitizing or in preparation for the next brew, so a reserve of usable water is usually available even with city boil-warnings in effect.)

But more than a brewery opening its spigot occurred. Neighboring beer bars The Bearded Monk and East Side, charitable organizations Denton Evening Rotary Club and Friends with Benefits, and many local restaurants and businesses all pooled what resources they had available above (or in spite of) what state relief existed. Individual citizens donated hundreds of cases of bottled water. The patio and drive-through space occupied by DCBC and The Bearded Monk became a functional clearinghouse and contact point for locally donated supplies and relief, enhancing city-organized efforts.

This relationship with their own consuming public places craft brewers in a very unique position where industry directly meets the consumer.

What happened in Denton happened all over our state. Restaurants emptied their now-powerless kitchens to donate food instead of watching it spoil. Food trucks powered by natural gas tanks served as mobile kitchens. Many craft breweries shared what resources they had or served as touchpoints for donations and other private relief efforts, even amid an ongoing deadly pandemic. Some brewery-sponsored and established charitable community organizations turned their full attention to emergency needs of local citizens while other breweries delivered beer kegs filled with fresh water to hospitals and assisted-living facilities.

As consumers, we tend to view craft breweries and brewpubs as retail establishments. They have a product (beer, wine, cider, sometimes delicious eats) and we want to purchase it, so we have a commercial relationship similar to other retailers for food or clothing or digital watches. But breweries are not like other retailers: Your favorite clothing boutique does not make the clothes it sells. The appliance store does not assemble the microwave ovens in its inventory. The tractor store does not manufacture tractors. Breweries are less like conventional retailers in that they take in raw goods and manufacture on-site the products they ultimately package and sell.

At this point, it would be easy to classify breweries along with restaurants and bakeries, as both transform raw ingredients into their ultimate retail product. However, restaurants are rightfully classified as a “service industry,” and their ultimate sellable product is less a packaged meal or jar of sauce and more the time, talent and space for serving food to you freshly and expertly prepared. Although taprooms have exploded in popularity since their legalization, a brewery’s business still ultimately reduces to selling well-defined, packaged retail products.

Craft breweries also exist in a unique relationship with consumers as their function as public houses. Unlike a restaurant, which depends on maximizing turnover, brewery taprooms serve as places for patrons to gather for social events and linger for hours. Clubs, dates, reunions, birthdays, private parties, pet adoptions, art displays and live performances all take place inside breweries, actively encouraged by management (for both charitable and commercial purposes) to host consumers for as long as possible. These are functions that most retailers strapped for valuable square footage simply cannot accommodate.

This relationship with their own consuming public places craft brewers in a very unique position where industry directly meets the consumer. Many are located in spaces zoned for industrial production, as the brewing process can be loud, messy, smelly, sometimes hazardous and often a high consumer of public resources such as power, plumbing and waste. Brewers often have access to resources or abilities of scale that a traditional mom-and-pop retailer does not. Whether it be raw materials such as fresh water or diatomaceous earth, or light metal shop tools or plumbing supplies, brewers are a natural player to step into the gap between municipality and the general public in times of crisis.

To paraphrase a friendly neighborhood man-spider, with this unique power comes unique responsibility. Most brewers and brewery owners already get it, and all should lean into this particular gap in our social fabric. Few industries are better suited and better positioned to liaise between government and the public in times of need. PH

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