GRAND FORKS — The pandemic hasn’t been easy for anyone. But for those in the beer business — or wine, or spirits, or anything with alcohol — it’s been an especially strange year.
Matt Winjum, co-owner of Grand Forks’ Rhombus Guys Brewing Company, has watched his supply chain swing wildly since last March. When the pandemic struck, business cratered, as customers stayed out of bars and restaurants. But then, as months passed, things started changing.
“What happened was the liquor stores of the world got really busy,” Winjum said, with customers snapping up wine and spirits and beer they couldn’t get elsewhere. “Historically, we would typically package more kegs than cans. More of our volume would be going through restaurants and bars — but it flipped.”
Suddenly, Winjum said, the brewery was doing a big portion of its business in off-sale cans of beer. And it wasn’t just them — brewers everywhere piled their product into cans, forcing a nationwide can shortage. That’s why some summer Rhombus Guys cans were black, he said — the brewery had to scramble for backup packaging.
"Obviously, grocery stores have been very strong,” said Hal Gershman, president and board chairman of Happy Harry’s, the chain of off-sale liquor stores. “Off-sale alcohol has been fairly strong in the market, too. That's just been the way it is, and that's the way it is nationally. People are spending more time at home, they're not traveling. And they still want to eat well and relax."
That sudden, mid-pandemic pivot has been a wild ride for anyone in the adult beverage business. But the industry’s past 10 months are linked to bigger concerns than its own bottom line. Blue Weber, director of the Grand Forks Downtown Development Association, pointed out that breweries are a big point of interest for visitors — not just adults looking for a drink, but families, too.
“You can't really have a thriving downtown without a solid backbone of food and beverage businesses,” said state Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, whose district includes downtown Grand Forks. “(With retail) they really complement each other."
But this year has brought those businesses close to ruin. Winjum said Rhombus Guys Brewing might not have survived without federal government support that’s kept American small businesses afloat. And Chad Gunderson, owner of Half Brothers Brewing Company in Grand Forks, found himself in a similar position — having worried throughout the last year if the business was in danger.
“I feel for the bars and restaurants here in town and across the state that didn’t have that option in their business to be able to sell a product outside their walls,” Gunderson said.
The North Dakota Legislature, now meeting in Bismarck, has been discussing bills that could tweak the way bars, restaurants and liquor stores do business. Sen. Scott Meyer, R-Grand Forks, is the primary sponsor of SB 2220, a bill that would have shifted the state’s blue laws and permit on- and off-sale alcohol as early as 8 a.m. Sunday. At present, liquor stores, bars and restaurants aren’t permitted to sell alcoholic drinks earlier than 11 a.m. (though that law was rolled back from noon in 2015).
The bill was defeated 21-26 in a Senate vote Thursday. Meyer, speaking that afternoon, said he wanted to lobby for more support for the bill, holding out hope that he could get three more votes to pass a version of the law. He later told the Herald, just before its print deadline, that the bill had passed the Senate Friday in a 24-22 vote.
Earlier in the week, Meyer pointed out that hospitality businesses — bars, restaurants and the like — have been slammed by COVID restrictions capping occupancy and business hours.
“It’s not just bars and restaurants. We also have convenience stores that might be in areas that are rich in hunting and fishing that could take advantage,” Meyer said. “Golf courses and curling clubs are both seasonal … and Sunday mornings there, another opportunity for them to make a little more revenue.”
Winjum said he sees earlier hours on Sunday as a straightforward opportunity for a win: While Rhombus Guys isn’t likely to open on Sunday morning, the places that sell his beer might, and they might sell more as a result.
Gershman, though, said Happy Harry’s is unlikely to open earlier than 11 a.m., should the bill pass — “out of respect for both employees and consumers,” he said, adding that “11 o'clock on Sunday is fine with us. We just don't have to go earlier than that."
There’s plenty else working through the Legislature, too. Mock is the primary sponsor of HB 1286, which would allow a distillery to operate a separate, satellite tasting room. State Sen. Doug Larsen, R-Mandan, is sponsoring SB 2321, which will broaden what local breweries can do — like in-state shipments directly to North Dakota customers. Mock’s bill has passed the House unanimously; Larsen’s is currently still in committee.
Brewers are optimistic that the light is at the end of the tunnel. As vaccinations rise, the state is slowly pulling out of a difficult economic tailspin. Already, 9.5% of the state had received at least one COVID-19 vaccination shot as of Wednesday, according to a New York Times database,
Things are even looking up at places that haven’t opened yet. Mike Opp, owner of Judy’s Tavern and a co-owner of Oxford Brewing Company, said the fledgling brewer is set to release its “Ox Golden Ale” in a matter of weeks.
"The bar’s busy as hell. I think when we get our beer, and we ship it off. … I don't know for sure, but everybody’s asking, ‘When is the beer coming, when is the beer coming?’” Opp said. “I imagine that when it does come, they're going to buy it. We've had test runs. Everybody loves it."
And it’s full steam ahead at Half Brothers, too, Gunderson added.
“We're on schedule to release just around 100 beers this year — 100 new beers,” Gunderson said. “So, we're going to go down swinging if we go down.”