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What Ails You? The Challenges Of Running A Microbrewery During COVID-19

Man behind a bar and beer
Courtesy Renee Nadeau
Rock Art Brewery owner Matt Nadeau stands behind the currently-closed bar at his brewery in Morrisville.

In a normal year, Vermont's celebrated craft breweries would be gearing up for a growing number of summer visitors, looking to try some of the state's hazy IPAs or sour ales. But like every industry that relies on in-person business, there's a lot of uncertainty right now for craft beer.

VPR's Henry Epp spoke with Matt Nadeau, owner of Rock Art Brewery in Morrisville. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: What happened to your business after the COVID-19 restrictions went into place? Did you take a hit?

Matt Nadeau: Oh, goodness. Yeah, I guess probably it'd be easier to say what didn't happen. You know, like everyone in our industry and a lot of folks in other industries, we went into almost a complete shutdown. Sales dropped about 60%, 70%. You know, we're hearing that beer is still selling in the stores and the liquor sales are good, but the beer they're selling is more of the national brand stuff in the value package. Craft beer, I think, has really taken a pretty big hit, at least talking to a lot of my buddies in the industry with their breweries ... all seem to be in a similar situation.

Before this, what did your business model look like? Who were you selling to mostly?

We saw lots of Vermonters. And then, of course, tourists, you know. We're primarily a tourist state, it seems. And we rely heavily on tourists that come in, and they take beers home. They come to the tasting bar. They try our beers, they bring them home. We've been at this over 20 years now, helping to build this industry, getting it to where it's at. And it just changed for us. ... I don't know what the model is right now, actually. Survival, I guess.

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Have you been been able to keep your employees on and keep some things running?

Yeah. You know, we are very fortunate that ... we're in a number of the stores that people are going to. So we are selling some beer, obviously. We're getting it out. We're keeping our employees going. We were able to get a PPP loan. You know, it's a definite nice little Band-Aid. It just falls short of what's really needed.

When this hit, did you have things that you were brewing that you were expecting to be, you know, getting out to people in a larger volume in the spring or the summer?

Sure, yes. It was a classic. We had a brand new delicious IPA coming out, a nice 5% version in a 12-ounce can. We literally had packaged it maybe days before the executive orders came down, shutting things off. The timing on that one couldn't have been worse. So now we have to destroy those beers because they're out of code. And, you know, to add insult to injury, we have to, you know, pay to ship those down to a company and then pay to have it destroyed. And so you're losing the beer and all the packaging materials. And we've got, probably, I'm guessing, 1,500 gallons-worth that we have to destroy at this point.

Well, so how are you then thinking about the months ahead? I mean, are you brewing new beer right now for the summer or just trying to get through what you have already?

Yeah, nothing really new. Trying to get new beers on the market is a little bit tough right now. We're trying to keep our yeast going week to week. So we've just really cut back on the volume, of course, to try to meet some demand and figure out what the demand is. I don't really know what's in store for the summer. We're hopeful though. We've got a great week here, now. We've got 80-degree weather, it sounds like, for quite a few days. People'll hopefully be getting together in small groups, socially distanced, and maybe having some barbecues and get togethers. That'd be great. And hopefully they'll think about Vermont beer and Vermont beverages in general and maybe have a nice cold one.

Amy is an award winning journalist who has worked in print and radio in Vermont since 1991. Her first job in professional radio was at WVMX in Stowe, where she worked as News Director and co-host of The Morning Show. She was a VPR contributor from 2006 to 2020.
Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
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