Cody McKendrick and Ross Metzger had no idea of the nightmare that was just three months away when they opened their brewery on Friday the 13th in December 2019.
They were planning a St. Patrick’s Day celebration as kind of a grand opening party for Bewilder Brewing Co., McKendrick said, when their crew watched from their spacious taproom as the NBA canceled the remainder of the 2020 season.
Days later, they were forced to close their newly opened doors to the public.
But the young brewery, like several new ones in the greater Salt Lake City area, has survived. Like so many other companies, breweries retooled their business models — shifting from a focus on their taprooms to also developing sales of take-home beer for Utahns confined in pandemic lockdown or by general wariness.
Bartender Melissa Diaz and other staff, facing sparsely filled tables, helped Bewilder’s brewers with production, canning and labeling beer to go, she said. And to help make up for the lost wages in a tip-centric industry, Bewilder’s owners increased the hourly rate they paid bartenders — a raise made possible, she said, by the federal coronavirus stimulus Paycheck Protection Program.
“There was a couple of shifts where I was here for eight hours only making $36 in tips,” Diaz said of 2020′s dog days.
As pandemic precautions lifted this spring and summer, business remained sporadic, but the brewery’s finances were starting to come out of the red. And in September, when Bewilder hosted a Bavarian-inspired Oktoberfest — embracing the beer and sausages on which it prides itself — it had its best week to date. The Festbier from McKendrick, who’s also Bewilder’s head brewer, was arguably as great as the holiday turnout.
In December, Bewilder will be bringing its signature handmade sausages to The Salt Lake Tribune’s Salt City Best Fest. Utahns can sample the best food and drink from around the Wasatch Front at the Dec. 4 celebration at The Leonardo in Salt Lake City.
For now, McKendrick said, he’s still waiting for the moment when he’ll feel certain that the brewery is going to hold on.
Family, friends and plexiglass at Heber Valley
East of Park City’s slopes and south of Heber City’s northern fields is Heber Valley Brewing Company, which also opened on the precipice of the pandemic.
The company was started by Greg Poirier and Clint Jones, a pair of ski coaches with ties to U.S. Olympic ski teams and the Utah Olympic Park who have been friends and coached around each other for years. They’d frequently talked about opening their own brewery in the quickly growing Heber Valley, Poirier said, before deciding to set up a taproom and brewing operation in Heber City’s north end in August 2019.
“Finally, one day I kind of sat down and said, ‘Look, if you and I don’t do this now, someone else is going to come and open a brewery,’” Poirier said he told Jones, adding they’d regret it if wasn’t their own place.
Months later, after working to develop a clientele and put a taproom together, they saw their business plan changed by the pandemic. “Fortunately,” Poirier said, “alcohol is considered an essential service or business, so we were able to keep our lights on and keep producing beer during COVID.”
Heber Valley canned its beer and offered it to patrons through plexiglass at the taproom, a routine Poirier thinks has contributed to its success through the pandemic. Beer enthusiasts had to travel to the brewery to make purchases — and they’ve kept coming, now to have a draft in the the bar. Poirier suspects the earlier trips helped condition customers to return for good beer and customer service.
The brewery did apply for federal stimulus support, according to Poirier, but was denied assistance because its revenues actually increased during the pandemic.
“We were able to survive by selling to-go beer and then when the taproom opened, it was just kind of icing on the cake at that point in time,” he said.
The after-work crowd on Monday night sipped draft beer and watched skiing and rock climbing videos on a TV mounted above Heber Valley’s taps. Behind the bar, Poirier’s daughter, Brie, poured pints and chitchatted with locals who said they worked nearby.
Grid City grinds it out
Grid City Beer Works, just west of music venue The Commonwealth Room on 2100 South in South Salt Lake, scheduled its brewery premiere for March 20, 2020. The brewers were planning to build a roof deck to draw a crowd of beer drinkers who’d want to sip their ales with a mountain view.
It didn’t happen.
Utah officials ordered restaurants and bars to shutter just two days before Grid City’s scheduled opening. It would be another month before the new brewery would be ready to start selling to-go beer in growlers. The money set aside for the roof top patio instead went to purchasing a canning line, said Grid City chief executive and brewery partner Drew Reynolds.
“Sheer will,” he joked sarcastically, offering what he believes is the only reason the brewery is flourishing now. Reynolds is managing the growing business with his partners, Justin Belliveau and head brewer Jeremy Gross.
Reynolds said the brewery, which had never collected a cent of revenue, was unable to prove that it had lost money because of the pandemic, so the federal government denied its initial request for help. As the pandemic went on, the brewery reapplied and later did receive some assistance, he added.
Grid City spread out its tables and upgraded the ventilation in hopes that people would come in, once indoor dining was allowed it again. And they have.
Behind the welcoming bar and dining room stand massive brew tanks and long rows of plumbing that give Grid City the feel of an operation that could have been at home in Willie Wonka’s candy factory. The sophisticated brewing apparatus pulls nitrogen from the atmosphere, compresses the inert gas and carbonates Grid City’s brew directly in the beer lines, allowing Gross to pour one of the smoothest brown ales in Utah.
As Reynolds considers what has helped Grid City survive, he said, “it was really just good food, good beer, good word of mouth [that] really helped us out.”
Correction • Nov. 22, 11: 10 p.m.: This story has been updated to correctly spell Jeremy Gross’ name.
— Salt Lake Tribune reporter Sean P. Means contributed to this story.