N.S. craft breweries turn to online sales, home deliveries to keep operating

Extremely trying times have resulted in a pleasant surprise for Jeremy White and the people at Cape Breton's Big Spruce Brewing, one that has him contemplating the possibilities after the adversity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic settles.

The shutdown of bars, taprooms and eat-in service at restaurants has left Nova Scotia's once-booming craft brewery industry reeling. In the face of this challenge, breweries are looking for any way to get their product to customers so they can pay their bills and continue to operate.

White said the protocols introduced by the provincial government in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19 meant the immediate disappearance of about 40 per cent of his brewery's business, which in turn meant cuts to production and staffing.

Like many brewers, Big Spruce is in Nova Scotia Liquor Corp. stores, which has served as "a bit of a lifeline," said White. But that wasn't going to be enough in the face of other lost business.

"We needed to find a way to make retail can sales happen direct to patrons, so we went online," said White, the founder of Big Spruce.

Getting cans directly to people means they can make a little more money than when they send them to the NSLC, extra money that's "unbelievably valuable" to the brewery right now, said White.

"This crisis has gutted hospitality and now it's gutting all the suppliers to hospitality, we being one of them. And our ability to get a little bit of direct retail beer sales into people in a safe way to their door has been monstrously valuable."

In short order, Big Spruce set up an online store that allows people to choose from six of their brands and receive free shipping on orders of 12 or more cans anywhere across Nova Scotia. White said the response so far has been very positive.

"It's kind of led us to ask ourselves why we didn't do this a lot earlier," he said.

Big Spruce is not alone.

Heritage Brewing Company in Yarmouth, N.S., has seen quick growth since it opened in 2017, but when its taproom was forced to close this month co-owner Jeff Bain said he watched about 65 per cent of the brewery's revenue go with it. Then there was the lost revenue from no longer being able to deliver to restaurants and bars.

Lots of orders, lots of thanks

Bain said necessity led to creativity.

"We need to figure out how to get beer into the hands of consumers so that we can keep the bills paid," he said.

Three or four days a week they are now doing home deliveries of cans and growlers. Everything is co-ordinated through the brewery's Facebook page.

"No money changes hands, it's all done through e-transfer [and there's] no face-to-face contact whatsoever," said Bain.

Dropoffs are done at doorsteps after verifying the person buying the product is of age.

The response so far has been quite positive, said Bain, and he and his colleagues are expecting orders to increase as more people adjust to the new normal.

"It's created that little bit of revenue stream that we needed," he said. "Lots of thanks from people and lots of orders, which is nice."

White is a fierce promoter of supporting local businesses. He said it seems like during these trying times that message is resonating with people. 

Emily Tipton, one of the founders of Boxing Rock Brewing Company in Shelburne, N.S., and president of the Craft Brewers Association of Nova Scotia, said that local support must also continue to extend to the NSLC.

"I think they should be trying to help move as much local product as they can, while they can," Tipton said.

Local support couldn't be happening at a more crucial time, said Bain.

"If we don't get support from local, then there won't be anything for locals to support when this is done. And I think that's not just for us. That's for, you know, when restaurants open back up or restaurants that offer takeout still. We have to support those."

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