When the shutdown first started, breweries — like most other businesses — were left reeling. Suddenly, restaurants and tap rooms were closed and kegs no longer needed filling. In most cases, craft breweries are tightly-run small businesses, often owned by families or a few friends, and with this sudden, cataclysmic change, breweries had to adapt, and do so quickly.
“We lost about 60 percent of our business in the blink of an eye,” says Jon Zerivitz of Baltimore’s Union Craft Brewing, who explains that kegs represented about half of his business and his tap room another 10 percent. Many breweries also had to let go of their employees just to stay in business, which dealt a serious blow to everyone’s morale, even those who got to keep their jobs.
But breweries were also at a relative advantage compared to some other businesses. For one, they were deemed essential (with good reason), and in many states, the laws around delivery and curbside pickup were changed or relaxed to allow them to do business during the quarantine. They could also, of course, get creative. Craft beer has always been about experimentation, and many breweries turn out new beers just weeks apart. It was inevitable, then, that a number of breweries would decide to name their new brews after our present predicament, such as Union’s “Somebody To Lean On” double IPA or Vennture Brew’s “Stay at Homies” New England style IPA.
While some might view quarantine-themed names as little more than a marketing ploy, a surprising amount of thought and sensitivity went into these titles on behalf of the brewers. For the folks at Smog City Brewery in L.A., co-owner Laurie Porter explains that they were stuck in a position where a new beer’s name was suddenly ill-suited to a time when everyone was locked indoors. “We had a beer in the tanks which was going to be named ‘Daily Breeze,’ and I told everyone, ‘We cannot have a beer named Daily Breeze!’ So we had to think of something else. We thought a lot about it because we didn’t want people to think we’re taking advantage of this crisis — which we’re not, we’re just trying to survive — so we didn’t want something that seemed to make light of the situation. After a bunch of very bad names that we passed around, my husband suggested ‘Quarantine Machine’ and that just stuck — it seemed perfect.”
Other breweries made sure to avoid seemingly cashing in on the pandemic by remaining true to how they normally name beers. With “Somebody To Lean On,” Zerivitiz tells me that Union often has music-themed names for its beers and with the passing of Bill Withers, this was their way of paying their respects. For Lori Withams at Proclamation Ale, her brewery released “Can’t Spare a Square,” which was an acknowledgment of our recent problems with toilet paper, but, given that it’s a Seinfeld reference, it also kept with Proclamation’s tradition of pop-culture-inspired beer names.
Other breweries found their new beer names by lamenting the lost sense of community that beer provides. The guys at Abomination Brewing Company, who had their plans for summer collaborations tanked by the shutdown, shared their “Social Distancing” beer recipe with some fellow brewers to virtually brew with them instead of doing so in person. There were also several beers released that addressed our digital means of toasting with friends, like Deschutes Brewery’s “Virtual Beer Hug” and Trophy Brewing Company’s “Virtual Cheers.” Trophy co-owner Chris Powers explains, “We felt that people were really missing the camaraderie of drinking with friends, so we released ‘Virtual Cheers’ so that you and your friends could drink it together and do a virtual ‘cheers’ with it.”
Some breweries took this sense of community further still. Despite breweries struggling financially, several of them have given back nonetheless. A great example is Magnify Brewing’s hazy IPA, named “Round of Applause,” which Magnify released only for those on the frontlines of the pandemic. “It was an exclusive beer that you could only get by showing your hospital ID,” says owner Eric Ruta. Laws prevented Magnify from simply giving away their beer, so a four-pack of “Round of Applause” went for just a dollar each, and all 600 four-packs were prepaid via donations, so no frontline worker paid anything. Additionally, Magnify matched every dollar and donated that money to a local food pantry.
Though most breweries here opted for naming one or maybe two beers after the pandemic, the people at Wild Heaven Beer decided to go all in, coining a whole series of beers after what’s been going on in the headlines. The first one they did was “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”; the next was “Fauci Spring,” followed by several others. According to Wild Heaven co-owner Nick Purdy, “We’re a brewery, which means that we’re in the business of putting smiles on people’s faces. If there’s a way to do that while also paying respect to how hard this is, we just wanted to put a bit of levity on the situation, but we thought carefully about each one to make sure we weren’t making light of a situation in a way that was glib or disrespectful.”
Trying to make people smile was their primary motivator, but Purdy explains that it was also a matter of survival. Like many of the breweries named here, Wild Heaven had to let go of several employees as soon as the shutdown took place just to try to stay afloat, so he says that he feels fortunate that people have been so excited about these new beers, because it’s proven to be a lifeline in a very difficult time. The excitement around them has even allowed him to bring back a few of those employees let go early on.
And finally there’s Ale Asylum, who decided to name their beer after the most universal pandemic-related feeling of all. Outright naming their beer “Fuck COVID” would have prevented it from being carried in stores, but co-owner Hathaway Terry-Pogue says that by naming it “FVCK COVID” they were allowed to sell it under government guidelines.
Fortunately, FVCK COVID ended up being a monster hit for Ale Asylum, which went viral, crashed their website and had some retail outlets upping their Ale Asylum orders by 400 percent. “It was doing so well that we felt like we needed to do something with the profits from this beer, so we split them 50/50 to help hospitality workers and the other half was going to frontline workers,” says Terry-Pogue. They also launched FVCK COVID 2.0 to help support the sales of the original FVCK COVID.
And though FVCK COVID is certainly an attention-getting name, Terry-Pogue explains that the name truly represented the feelings of everyone at Ale Asylum. “When the governor announced a shutdown, we had just four hours to shut down our tap room and we had to rush people out. We also had to furlough some of our staff, which was heartbreaking. We helped them get the resources they needed and we let them know that they had a job when they got back, but it was incredibly difficult for everyone. So when it came time to name this beer, saying ‘fuck you’ to COVID just summed up what we were all feeling.”
To take it even further, I’d say that the name represents what just about all of us have been feeling during this pandemic. Virtual happy hours are nice and assisting frontline workers is of the utmost importance, but don’t we really all just want to tell COVID to go fuck itself?