Here’s a scary scenario to imagine: gallons upon gallons of your favorite Colorado craft beer being dumped down the drain.
It’s not quite that simple, but this nightmare is quickly becoming a reality for many Colorado breweries.
As the pandemic persists and bars and restaurants remain closed for on-site dining, thousands of kegs of beer are going “out of code,” the beer equivalent of food expiration dates. This creates a real problem for the more than 400 craft breweries across the state, as well as many beer distributors, bars and restaurants, which now grappling with how to repurpose or safely dispose of all this beer.
Nationally, the scale of the problem is even larger, with some $900 million worth of beer lost because of the pandemic, according to Bob Pease, president and CEO of the Boulder-based Brewers Association, the trade group representing small and independent craft brewers.
“We estimate there are over a million kegs (in the U.S.) right now that are sitting and going bad,” Pease said.
Kegged beer typically remains fresh for 60 to 90 days, though IPAs can have a much shorter life at around 30 days. These dates typically have more to do with freshness and flavor than they do with health and safety.
“These beers aren’t necessarily going to make you sick, it’s more that they won’t be the target flavor profile and they will taste off,” said Shawnee Adelson, executive director of the Colorado Brewers Guild. “Breweries determine their dates based off of styles and various different aspects of ingredients they put into the beer.”
Sure, it’s just plain sad to trash what would otherwise be perfectly good beer. But the issue extends far beyond that, creating headaches across the hospitality industry. Should bars and restaurants have to pay for these now out-of-code beers that they weren’t able to serve? Are they entitled to a free replacement keg when business gets back to usual?
How should distributors tackle the logistical challenge of picking up kegs that are usually empty but are now still full of beer? Who pays for these reverse shipping costs? Who disposes of the old beer, the distributor or the brewery?
And what about taxes that breweries have already paid on these now-useless beers? And the costs of disposing of them?
Though there’s probably no ideal time for a pandemic to strike, the timing of coronavirus was especially bad because bars and restaurants were stocked up with extra kegs in preparation for March Madness, opening day for baseball and St. Patrick’s Day, Pease said.
Working alongside the trade groups American Beverage Licensees, National Beer Wholesalers and Beer Institute, the Brewers Association is asking Congress for a $900 million tax credit to help offset the out-of-code beer losses.
“It’s a mess,” said Pease. “It’s having a chilling effect on all three tiers of the beer world: the supplier, the distributor and the retailer. It’s hitting everybody.”
Though large-scale brewers like AB InBev and Molson Coors are grappling with this same problem, Pease said it’s hitting small craft breweries much harder, since they sell 40 percent of their beer on draft.
More specifically, the problem disproportionately affects craft breweries that don’t have the ability to can or bottle their beers. Many of these breweries are doing to-go orders of growlers and crowlers right now, but if they can’t sell enough beer fast enough, they’ll be dealing with out-of-code beer. Plus, crowlers, growlers and other craft beer supplies are hard to come by these days.
To that end, the Brewers Association recently updated its recommendations for beer disposal, noting that brewers and distributors have limited options. They can send the beer to a distillery to be made into hand sanitizer, they can compost it, or they can send it to their local water treatment facility — with caveats.
“You can’t just pour beer down the drain,” Pease said. “There’s proper pH levels that need to be attained before it can be safely disposed so it doesn’t mess up the municipal water supply.”
In Colorado, breweries have gotten pretty creative in addressing the out-of-code beer issue. In Greeley, WeldWerks is selling kegs to customers for the first time ever, a potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for people with home bars.
A few days before the on-premise shutdown order came down, WeldWerks also immediately began canning beers that would’ve otherwise ended up in kegs. The brewery also sent some Hefeweizen that had been destined for a chain restaurant to Pine Bluffs Distilling in Wyoming to be converted into hand sanitizer.
“A lot of people are saying, ‘I know this situation sucks but I’m super ecstatic to have Juicy Bits on tap in my home kegerator,’” said Neil Fisher, co-founder and head brewer at WeldWerks. “If you are a craft beer fan and you have the means and the equipment, you may find some one-off kegs that may never exist after this.”
On the other side of Interstate 25, Odell Brewing has been sending out-of-code kegs to its Fort Collins neighbor, Old Elk Distillery, to be made into hand sanitizer.
“It’s probably some of the best ingredients ever used to make hand sanitizer,” said Alex Kayne, a spokesman for Odell.
Denver’s Comrade Brewing, which sells more than half of its beer to bars and restaurants in Denver, will likely be forced to dump all of those kegs once brewery staffers are able to retrieve them, founder David Lin said.
“It’s a painful sight but if it’s old, out-of-date and oxidized or infected — or just stale — we want that product gone,” Lin said. “We want to make sure we get that replaced and get fresh beer out there.”
So, what can Colorado craft beer-lovers do to help? Drink more beer, of course.
If you typically head to the liquor store for a six-pack, consider purchasing a crowler or growler from your local taproom instead. And while you’re at it, buy a gift card and some merch — T-shirts, hats, etc. — to help these small businesses stay afloat.
“Think about how often you would buy a pint at your local brewery,” said Adelson of the Colorado Brewers Guild. “If that’s a place you like hanging out, we want to make sure it’s still around after this pandemic passes.”
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