When Westbound & Down Brewing Company shut down in early March because of the coronavirus pandemic, head brewer Jake Gardner knew he needed to brainstorm some creative new income sources — and fast. With ski resorts shut down, he also needed to find a way to repurpose the kegs of beer that no one would be drinking at bars, restaurants and the brewery’s Idaho Springs taproom.
Then he remembered Craft Alley, the Denver business that specializes in selling 32-ounce crowlers of Colorado craft beer.
“Obviously, it’s not a replacement for taproom sales, but it was an awesome way to have some extra revenue coming in, especially when times were really uncertain,” said Gardner.
Long before the pandemic forced Colorado bars, restaurants and breweries to close down and offer delivery and curbside pickup options, Craft Alley has been shuttling craft beer all over Denver from its brick-and-mortar store on South Pearl. The store makes on-demand, same-day beer deliveries, as well as scheduled beer drops for members of its crowler subscription program.
Now, Craft Alley is serving as a lifeline for struggling Colorado craft breweries staring down empty taprooms.
“We’re doing everything we can,” said co-founder Bryce Forester. “We’ve heard breweries have had pretty good support at their taprooms, which is awesome to hear, but we’re definitely one of their main outlets, especially if they don’t have packaged products to get into liquor stores.”
Craft beer, delivered
Brothers Bryce and Bret Forester, who launched the business three years ago, were initially inspired by their own beer-drinking habits.
They were sitting at a local brewery, discussing how much they liked the beer and bemoaning the fact that they couldn’t make it to the taproom more often. Sure, a growler fill would last a few days, but what then?
The brothers started brainstorming and came up with the plan for a beer delivery service primarily driven by online orders. Because of state alcohol rules, they also opened a small retail liquor store. (During the pandemic, customers can order or pick up drinks through a to-go window.)
“The goal all along was just to make it easier for people to get their hands on the awesome beer from the small breweries,” said Bryce Forester.
They also started a beer subscription program to deliver fresh crowlers to beer-lovers on a recurring basis (weekly, every two weeks or monthly). An in-house algorithm sifts through each member’s list of preferred beer styles and their previous delivery history to select four novel Colorado craft beers.
Customers can make changes to their delivery ahead of time, but often just let the algorithm do its thing so they can try new beers.
“You tell us your taste preferences and we recommend the highest-rated beer you haven’t had yet,” said Bryce Forester.
Lately, there have been a lot more beers to choose from as the pandemic upends the craft beer world.
When Craft Alley launched in 2017, customers could order beers from five breweries for pickup or delivery. In the years that followed, the number of breweries grew to 40.
Then the pandemic struck. Almost overnight, Craft Alley signed on 20 news breweries.
The surge wasn’t a surprise since small breweries do the majority of their business in the taproom; most don’t have the equipment (or the desire) to put their beer in bottles or cans, then send them off to liquor and grocery stores. During the pandemic, this means they’re almost entirely dependent on to-go orders.
Craft Alley offers a good middle ground.
“It is really hard to completely shift gears and say, ‘I’m going to be a distribution brewery now because a lot of people are drinking at home,’” said Bryce Forester. “We’re happy we can fill that niche for some of these guys, who are putting all the cards on the table and looking at all their options like, ‘How do I stay afloat until people can come back into my brewery?’”
For fledgling breweries like Denver’s FlyteCo, which recently celebrated its one-year anniversary, Craft Alley is providing another much-needed stream of cash while at the same time introducing the aviation-themed brewery to new fans, including some in other states. Craft Alley, which also recently began selling 12-ounce and 16-ounce cans, ships Colorado craft beer nationwide to states that allow inbound alcohol shipments.
“Our bread and butter is really butts in seats and people enjoying our taproom experience, which we’ve put a lot of our time and effort into,” said Jason Slingsby, FlyteCo’s co-owner and brewmaster. “Through the pandemic, we’ve had to shift our entire business plan. The main way we’ve done that is through crowler sales and that’s the way we’ve been able to survive the last six or seven weeks.”
Beer-drinkers win, too, since they don’t have to leave the house and risk spreading or becoming infected with the virus. They get a diverse supply of tasty brews while supporting Colorado breweries and a Denver small business at the same time.
During normal times, Craft Alley customers also get access to small-batch and limited release beers they might otherwise miss out on because they can’t make it to the taproom in time.
“I used to very arrogantly assume that I was pretty familiar with every brewery in town — wrong, wrong,” said Bryan Holets, 66, a longtime Craft Alley customer who lives in Aurora.
When the world returns to normal, people will once again visit taprooms across Colorado, including — hopefully — new-to-them breweries they sampled through Craft Alley. Until then, Craft Alley is giving partner breweries an extra 10 percent of sales and trying to get as many crowlers as possible into the hands of beer-drinkers.
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