Charleston breweries may dump beer as pandemic kills sales

CHARLESTON, S.C. — With draft beer sales virtually zeroed out thanks to the mandated closure of on-premise drinking due to the coronavirus pandemic, Charleston area brewers may soon have to dispose of full kegs of beer that have gone stale in distributors’ warehouses.

“We’ve never had to deal with dumping beer before,” said COAST Brewing Company’s co-owner Jaime Tenny. The North Charleston brewery has been turning out organic craft beer from its brick-clad redoubt on the naval shipyard for 13 years, but the COVID-19 shutdown marks the first time the prospect of a mass disposal of “out-of-code” (read: no longer fresh) beer has come up.

“This is new to us,” said Tenny. “We’re looking at a lot of kegs in my distributor’s warehouse that are getting to that point where we to look at options, and the top option is to dump it all.”

She paused a moment, then added: “Actually, there are no (other) options.”

Outside the temperance movement, you’d be hard-pressed to find an American adult who was keen on the idea of pouring out keg after keg of perfectly good beer. Craft brewers themselves tend to view it as a necessary evil, a loss to be taken when there’s something wrong or defective with their beer.

But for brewers to whom freshness is a core part of the value-proposition and what sets their brands apart in a crowded field, selling once-good beer that might be going stale is also anathema. So for many breweries, once a beer is past its prime, its only destination is the drain.

Craft beer is hardly the only sector of the food and beverage industry grappling with waste caused by the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on supply chains and buying habits. Dairy producers, chicken farmers and produce growers throughout the United States are donating what they can, and destroying the rest. In many cases it’s the only way to avoid needless production costs and prevent consumers from winding up with spoiled product.

At COAST, Tenny is facing the latter dilemma in real-time. The kegged beer stockpiled in the refrigerated warehouse of COAST’s wholesaler, Advintage, is approaching a month old. “Our beer usually doesn’t last longer than a month... 60 days is really the max,” said Tenny.

Well into the second month of the pandemic, brewers around the country are making their own tough choices.

In Portland, Oregon, producers have sent around 20,000 gallons of beer (about 1,300 kegs’-worth) to just one wastewater treatment facility so far. In Baltimore, Manchester, N.H. and here in Charleston, brewers have turned to distilleries to convert stale beer into hand sanitizer.

The shutdown has made the predicament so common that the Brewers Association, the country’s largest craft brewery trade group, earlier this month published a guide outlining the best practices for dumping beer.

Though the South Carolina Brewers Guild does not yet have data on how much beer Palmetto State beer makers will flush due to the shutdown, executive director Brook Bristow guesses “there’s a fair segment out there who will have to do it in the next 30 days.”

Whether a brewery finds itself in this pickle is a function of how state and federal liquor laws govern distribution, and how that brewer sells the majority of its beer in non-pandemic times.

Breweries that sell a lot of packaged beer—that is, in cans and bottles—through retail outlets like grocery stores are moving product well (though analysis by Good Beer Hunting, a trade publication, suggests that that macrobrewer brands and large craft brewers are capturing that boost more than small, local outfits.)

Breweries that sell most beer on draft through at bars and restaurants, on the other hand, have almost no outlet for their product right now. COAST sells 85 percent of its beer through its distributor, about 70 percent of which is draft, said Tenny. After the shutdown began, the brewery’s keg sales were effectively zeroed out.

Breweries with popular taprooms are also in a tight spot.

“One of the tough things with not having on-site sales is people aren’t doing flights, people aren’t trying things because they have to buy a whole growler,” said Low Tide Brewing Company’s founder, Mike Fielding.

After sending 300 gallons of on-the-verge beer to Striped Pig distillery last month, the Johns Island brewery went on a two-week hiatus to sell through what fresh beer they had and reassess demand.

“Now that we have a month’s worth of data on how we’re (selling beer) through the taproom, we’re trying to brew to meet that, not exceed that,” said Fielding.

COAST is doing the same: it has ceased putting any beer in kegs, and is currently brewing enough only to sell in cans through its taproom. But Tenny, who was an instrumental part last decade in efforts to reform South Carolina’s beer laws, says the pandemic has made clear that the state’s brewer’s need more relief now, and more legal leeway in the future.

“We need some initiatives that will help right now (like) home delivery and keg sales directly to individuals,” she said. Under state law, breweries can currently do neither.

Like Tenny, Fielding and Bristow both emphasized that home delivery in particular, were it allowed here would it would be a much-needed boost for the state’s brewers. South Carolina is not among the states that have opted to permit home delivery of beer during the pandemic.

Beyond untapped kegs with imminent expiration dates, the area’s brewers face stiff headwinds.

“We need (relief) on the back-end, too,” said Tenny, who was looking into options for reconstituting any wasted beer as sanitizer. “I’m hoping there will be a spoiled beer tax credit.”