As we enter a second summer of COVID-19, things are looking up. Breweries and better beer bars have made it through the worst of the lockdown restrictions, and now these establishments are looking forward to welcoming back craft beverage drinkers, as people get vaccinated and are more comfortable going out again. Here’s a roundup of how some local places have weathered the pandemic and what they project for this summer.
FORT ORANGE BREWING
During the beginning of the pandemic, this Albany brewery shifted its business model from an events-based one, where pints and flights freely, to a model that focused primarily on to-go beer sales. They bought a crowler machine and increased mobile canning to every other month instead of the three to four times a year that it had been pre-pandemic.
Since late January, however, Fort Orange saw a turnaround in the number of customers coming in. “It’s not 100 percent normal, but pretty close,” said co-owner and chief marketing and communications officer Jim Eaton. “I think the vaccine has helped.”
In the 5,000-square-foot facility with the tap room occupying half of that, there are 12 socially distanced tables for inside seating. “We’re blessed and fortunate that we do have such a large space. We’re still able to accommodate decent-sized crowds on the weekends,” he said. Now, with warmer weather, they’ve opened the garage door and patio, where the dog-friendly spaces can accommodate anywhere from 25 to 50 people in addition to inside seating.
Fort Orange has been hosting contactless trivia every Thursday and yoga sessions, as well as hosting a food truck every Saturday. “We are bringing people together again, which we weren’t able to do at the height of the pandemic,” Eaton said.
A particularly poignant moment for Eaton is when a group of vaccinated nurses and firemen came in to enjoy an outing together. “It’s so uplifting from my perspective to see people feel comfortable and out and enjoying themselves,” he said. “I hope that’s the way we’re heading, especially going into the summer.”
WHITMAN BREWING COMPANY
Whitman Brewing Company in Saratoga Springs was only open for three months before New York went into lockdown. The brewery has weathered the COVID storm and is now gearing up for its second summer.
“We’re just kind of taking it week by week,” said brewery director Meg Thompson. “Increasing onsite consumption has been on our mind lately.” The production team has been gearing up for more people coming out now that people are getting vaccinated, and they’re figuring out a revised ratio between draft beer and cans.
At full capacity, the brewery’s tap room accommodates 185 people, but due to maintain social distancing, it has kept indoor seating to 60. However, the business has opened up its Walt Café upstairs with its bar and lounge areas to seat an additional 40 guests on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. “It’s a more low-key vibe up there,” Thompson said. The brewery instituted “Walt After Dark,” offering coffee and tea cocktails in addition to its beer.
Whitman Brewing also has a patio that accommodates about 25 people. “It’s nice and spacious,” Thompson said. “It doesn’t feel crowded, even when it’s full.”
The brewery has seen an increase in numbers of customers to the tap room. “We’re noticing a lot more out of town numbers,” she said.
COMMON ROOTS BREWING
For the first time, customers at Common Roots Brewing Company in South Glens falls will be able to experience the brewery’s brand new $6.5 million facility.
A year before the pandemic brought hardship to the world, Common Roots had endured its own catastrophe, a boiler fire that burned down the entire brewery. Father and son co-owners Bert Weber and Christian Weber set up operations at a temporary site and then rebuilt the brewery, opening in July 2020.
Opening at that point meant only for beer and food to go. “We took a really conservative approach,” Christian Weber said. “We wanted to be as cautious as possible. Safety and human health are the most important. We put people before profits.”
Now that its staff of around 30 have been vaccinated, and the brewery now occupies a larger space, the brewery will open on May 3 for on-premise dining and drinking. In addition to safety, one of the reasons for the long, slow rollout, as Weber describes it, is that they wanted to be able to offer customers the experience they had pre-pandemic. “The thing about Common Roots is that it was always about community—a local watering hole,” Weber said. “People could come have a beer together, meet people, and catch up. When you can’t have that social interaction, it was a different experience for Common Roots. It’s not the experience people want when they come to us.” Now, Common Roots staff feel that they can safely provide that experience.
While they can accommodate up to 380 customers inside and outside at full capacity, the brewery will only open at one-third capacity so that they can have safe clustering of tables and chairs.
Weber credits the brewery’s staff for the company’s ability to navigate through the events of the past two years. “Our staff is phenomenal,” Weber said. “We could not have gotten through the fire and then the pandemic without such a wonderful group of people who have really been able to kind of take everything as it comes. I don’t even know how to describe it. Our co-workers are so resilient, and they have such great attitudes.”
The staff at Common Roots is looking forward to opening the new facility and welcoming back an increased numbers of customers to a safe and fun environment.
UNIFIED BEER WORKS
Unified Beer Works in Malta did not open its bar last year, but now that all its staff have been vaccinated, they now feel comfortable having people sit at the bar. Additionally, they installed dividers for an added safety measure. “It won’t be the full bar as we knew it, but it’s going to be a little bit closer to normal,” said co-owner and brewer Erika Anderson.
When the weather warmed up, more customers started to come in, utilizing the brewery’s outdoor space to enjoy the weather and Unified’s selection of craft beers. “We’ve been doing a lot of pastry stout,” Anderson said. For example, Unified makes “Dessert is Served Chocolate Cherry Chunk,” a stout-pastry that the menu describes as “kinda like chocolate covered cherries wrapped in a cookie, dipped in a rich, seductive stout.” “We’re definitely going to have some nice summer options for people,” she said.
NINE PIN CIDER WORKS
Nine Pin Cider Works thrived during the pandemic’s winter months by setting up two private campfire arenas that people could book for two hours at a time to enjoy cider and food with just their own group. In addition, they invested in outdoor patio heaters, including a huge overhead heater that made the outdoor space “nice and toasty warm,” said Josh Whelan, director of marketing.
Now that summer is near, the campfire areas have been transformed into an outdoor patio area where about 36 people can sit. Nine Pin is also taking advantage of special permission from the City of Albany to expand its patio out onto the side of its building. “There are more options to sit in open air outdoor seating space, which makes people feel more comfortable,” Whelan said. “More people are getting vaccinated every day, and that has been a huge help in making people feel more comfortable about coming out.” Nine Pin’s staff is starting to see customers that they hadn’t seen since the start of the pandemic returning to enjoy its hard ciders, all crafted with locally sourced fruits.
This year, the cidery is introducing the Nine Pine Mobile Bar. It purchased an old horse trailer in February and spent a few months refurbishing it. The cidery will take its full mobile bar to private events in the state and set it up. They’ll be offering an “all you can drink” option as well as the option for a cash bar.
Nine Pin is grateful for the support it has had from its customers. “The outpouring of support we got last year at this time was incredible and really helped us survive those really hard times, not to say that these times aren’t hard as well,” Whelan said.
Prior to the pandemic, The Ruck in Troy had begun to focus attention on its food menu in addition to its large selection of craft beers. “We grew into more of a restaurant vibe in the last few years, thanks to Chef Rachel [Mabb] and her team,” said owner David Gardell. When the pandemic hit, this Executive Chef from Brooklyn had a large role in keeping business flowing with her innovative menu. “We leaned on Chef Rachel to be inventive and creative to get people to support us,” he said.
Fortunately, pre-pandemic, Gardell had made a large investment redoing the kitchen in order to accommodate increased business, including food delivery. “With our kitchen being redesigned, we were able to move into delivery pretty seamlessly,” Gardell said of when The Ruck shifted to delivery service when the lockdown began. “You’ve got to take all the silver linings with the grey cloud.”
The Ruck kept its taps running during the shutdown and limited reopening and purchased a crowler machine so that it could offer a takeout option for beer. “Keeping the draft flowing was crucial in our business model,” Gardell said.
Currently, The Ruck can seat around 55 people inside, but by opening its patio area, the restaurant and bar can seat an additional 50 people. Like other area establishments, The Ruck has seen increased numbers of customers this spring.
“I feel like once the alcohol and food purchase restrictions are removed, that it will be a big game changer, and I hope w will happen soon now that more vaccinations are being received,” Gardell said. He also hopes that the six-foot social distancing restriction will drop to three feet, as it has in schools. “That would really be a big difference maker for bars and restaurants.”
RARE FORM BREWING
During the early days of the pandemic, Troy’s Rare Form Brewing used its delivery van, nicknamed “White Lightning,” to do beer deliveries, getting its craft beer in the hands of area customers. Now, the brewery has started to see more people come into its taproom and outside space to enjoy an afternoon or evening out with good food and beer.
“It seems like a little bit each week—a small growth,” said owner Kevin Mullen. “People feel more comfortable getting out and about. There’s a little more normalcy.”
Rare Form has continued brewing new beers, and for the summer, people can enjoy beer slushies like the “Moxie Creamsicle” and “Peach Mind Fuzz Kölsch.”
The brewery has pizza available to order on site, and they allow people to bring in their own food as well.
BOOTLEGGERS ON BROADWAY
This better beer bar and restaurant in Troy has 38 draft lines with an eclectic craft beer selection. At the beginning of the pandemic, it had a great deal of inventory and fortunately, beer companies took much of that product back. “We had a lot of support from them,” said owner Nathan Rock.
The business had transitioned to primarily food takeout for months, but those days are over. While it had to reduce the number of beers it had on tap for much of the past year, the business has slowly been adding more taps back in and is up to 30 draft lines now. “I would say in the last month for sure, business has really picked up a lot,” Rock said.
Bootleggers on Broadway has an inside capacity of 350, and with current regulations, it can operate at 75 percent capacity. In addition, the City of Troy has allowed the brewery to move into parking spaces in front of the establishment as well as the sidewalk, affording Bootleggers an increased seating capacity. “I can already notice the difference in people coming out,” Rock said.
With summer around the bend, the bar and restaurant will be offering some new drinks, including slushies and frozen cocktails to beat the summer heat. Bootleggers offers a full food menu as well.
HENRY STREET TAPROOM
As COVID restrictions relax a bit and the number of vaccinated people is on the rise, Henry Street Taproom’s owner Ryan McFadden has noticed a significant increase in the numbers of customers in the Saratoga Springs establishment, including customers that they haven’t seen since the onset of the pandemic last year.
The restaurant and bar is back up to 80 percent staffing and has installed glass dividers at its bar and partitions in its dining room for COVID precautions. The city blocked off half of Henry Street so that the establishment will have a makeshift patio for the summer, where tables can be spaced six feet apart for customers’ comfort. In total, Henry Street Taproom seats about 70 inside and an additional 40 outside.
While some breweries had shifted to cans versus kegs during the pandemic, McFadden hopes that they will switch back to kegs so that he can keep the best and most rare beers on draft for customers. “We hope they start distributing at a higher rate than they did the past year,” McFadden said. Henry Street also rolled out a new menu for the season, and McFadden is grateful that the curfew time was extended to midnight in mid-April.
“We’re looking forward to getting back to business as it was before all this happened,” he said.
Hopefully, COVID-19 will soon be a thing of the past, and people can get back to enjoying the best that the local craft beverage industry has to offer.