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Dreaming Dog Brewery sits at the end of an Elk Grove strip mall. Ordinarily, it might be a problem that the shops across the way are all vacant. During the coronavirus pandemic, it turned into a life-saver.
Sacramento-area breweries were forced to get creative during the pandemic. Most built their business models around in-person dining and drinking; when they were forced to adapt, virtually all of them changed course.
It worked. No brewery in the Sacramento area went out of business during the pandemic. And the changes they made are likely to linger as they fully reopen for business June 15.
Nobody was forced to change plans more than Dreaming Dog, which is owned and run by 70-year-old David Brown and his wife Liz Brown. The brewery sits in a standalone building at the end of a strip mall. With no nearby neighbors, the brewery was free to turn the sidesaddle parking lot into a spot for outdoor concerts. The support of music fans and local devotees is what got the tiny brewery through the pandemic.
“The thing that has actually saved us on the outdoor side of things is we have a very large space and we’ve got a really nice patio area, and we invested in canopies that allowed us to do outdoor music and keep everything distanced properly,” Brown said. “Our customers have been great about it.”
With his in-house draft options cut off by the pandemic, Brown also turned to an old technology: his old bottling device, which can do two bottles of beer at a time. Before the pandemic, Brown estimated bottled beer sales accounted for less than 10% of his sales. During the pandemic, bottles accounted for about 60% of sales. The brewery recently capped its 10,000th bottle on the system.
“That poor little sucker has gotten such a workout over the past year, you wouldn’t even believe,” Brown said. “We just kept moving it as fast as we could.”
Dreaming Dog doesn’t have any employees. When Brown talks about hustling to survive the pandemic, he thanks his wife, brother, daughter and grandson. The family pulled together to keep Brown’s seven-day-a-week retirement job operational.
“I’m blessed with a very supportive family,” he said. “We couldn’t have survived without their support. It’s simply that. We would have sunk without their support. So yeah, it’s been a hard year. We’re starting to see the light of day.”
Fired-up at Red Bus, Flatland
Dreaming Dog isn’t the only brewery seeing the light. In Folsom, Red Bus Brewing has built a hopping scene in an industrial area near the historic downtown. It’s iconic red-and-white VW microbus sits out front. The brewery expanded its seating during the pandemic, taking away part of its production space to add spaced-out seats for guests.
The big change at Red Bus is the pile of wood that sits in the parking lot. The wood feeds a new pizza oven that sits near guests in the production area. Owner Erik Schmid is quick to give credit to brand manager John Soderstrom for coming up with the idea, and brewer Kellen Owen, who went to culinary school and supplies the pizza recipes.
The addition of the pizza oven was a workaround. The state didn’t allow breweries to be open unless they had a food truck or a caterer on site. If a brewery started its own catering business, it could meet that requirement and stay open for guests.
“The meal requirement is what did it,” Schmid said. “For breweries my size, the trouble with the food trucks has been we don’t have enough seats to get a lot of them out here. So we’ve always struggled with a consistency thing. We’ve got it to four or five trucks that like us and we like them. It’s harder to rely on the food trucks because they’ll just find better opportunities. So when the food requirement came out, the natural thing was to just bring in a food truck. Well, it didn’t really work for us.”
The pizza oven was about a $10,000 investment; Schmid said Red Bus started slinging pies in October and the pizza oven paid for itself by Christmas. The oven churns out pizza pockets, standard to-order pizzas and a monthly special; Schmid still raves about last fall’s Octoberfest pie, which was cooked on a pretzel-like dough and featured sausage.
The city of Folsom gave Red Bus a hand, Schmid said, by collaborating with the compliance inspectors to find ways to get the pizza business fired up.
“They were very, very helpful,” he said. “It’s not somebody you want on top of you for obvious reasons, but they were trying to help us make it happen. The upside now is it’s something I never would have done but now we control our own destiny. Our average ticket’s gone up. People are having an extra half a beer if they’re having pizza. And I think it’s also drawing people.”
The idea for Red Bus’ pizza oven came from Flatland, another Elk Grove brewery that had to swerve during the pandemic. Andrew and Michelle Mohsenzadegan opened the brewery with a tiny 31-gallon brewhouse in 2016 and have been expanding ever since.
When the pandemic hit, and with Flatland already adding five new expensive fermenters and a new brewhouse, the Mohsenzadegans figured: what’s another $25,000? They brought in a shipping container, added a little kitchen and their food service was added.
“The idea was, as great as food trucks are, they’re great independent businesses, and they have great symbiosis with breweries, but they’re not the most reliable because they want to make more money or the truck breaks down,” Andrew said. “But having that affect my business? I was over that.”
Putting a can on it: How serving beer changed
The obvious change every brewery was forced to make involves how beer is served. When bars and restaurants closed for in-person dining, they took almost every tap line in the area with them.
With keg sales basically dead, Auburn’s Crooked Lane was one of many breweries forced to pivot to can sales. Co-owner Teresa Psuty said she added a de-palletizer to pull cans off pallets as Crooked Lane ramped up its canning.
“Otherwise some poor soul is pulling them off by hand. It’s the worst job,” she said.
And a necessary job. The state changed its regulations to allow breweries to send packaged beer anywhere in the state during the pandemic. Interstate sales are still not allowed by federal law, but the change in California was a huge lifeline to many breweries.
“I think brewers have learned the benefits of diverse sales channels, as well as the ability to be flexible,” Psuty said. “If you account for to-go, in-house sales at breweries didn’t decline anywhere near as much as draft beer sales at bars and restaurants. It’s a testament of the ability of small breweries to rapidly change their business model.”
Moonraker, another Auburn brewery, was able to change its plans rapidly. Moonraker was already primarily canning most of its beer; the change to state rules meant “lots of mailing,” co-founder Karen Powell said. “We shipped out almost everything we made here.”
“The majority of our customers are from the Bay Area and Southern California, so being able to ship beer, people don’t have to be passing through town. We still ship out pallets of beer every week,” she said.
The shipping of beer will last until the state changes its mind, which it might never do. The pizzas will continue to roll out. Consumers will see more cans around town and a slow reopening of tap lines.
And some breweries made lasting infrastructure changes during the pandemic.
Moonraker was one of the fastest-growing breweries in the area before the pandemic. Not much has changed. Just before the pandemic, the company purchased 15 acres to build out a destination tasting room in Cameron Park, next to Highway 50. Construction delays have pushed the opening back to mid-November, but the expansion is still a full-throttle go.
“People have said: ‘Why would you be doing an expansion right now?’ Why wouldn’t you? This isn’t going to be forever,” Powell said.
The end of the pandemic, in their own words
We asked the brewers what their takeaways were from the pandemic. Here is what they said.
David Brown, Dreaming Dog: “My goal is that we’re actually going to get a day off out of this, some weeks. I know there will be times when we need all three days to get work done, but the goal is to be able to cut back a day and maybe I can get to go fishing now and then. It would be a different story if I was still in my 30s or 40s doing this, but at 70, it’s starting to look a little different. I’m blessed, I’m healthy, I’m strong, I’m doing well, but I’d like to actually have a day off now and then. It’s been three and a half years and I have basically worked seven days a week the whole time.”
Teresa Psuty, Crooked Lane: “I think about it a lot because I felt all along it presented some unique challenges. If you can rise to that challenge, it actually puts you in a much better place going forward. What we experienced is basically having to cut back on everything, having to stop everything and just really focus on what’s important and then put those things first, and then slowly build up from there.”
Erik Schmid, Red Bus: “My takeaway is I built the brewery, I’m 51 years old, and I did not want to build the next big regional brewery and have 50 employees. I wanted a small, community-oriented brewery, to where I can be Folsom’s little place. And if s--- hits the fan, my wife and I can run it ourselves. The pandemic really tested that. I kept my core three of four employees and we muscled through it.”
Andrew Mohsenzadegan, Flatland: “We learned a lot. How to adapt quickly. How to get online sales up and running quickly. We use Square for POS and Toast for the kitchen. We got online very, very quickly. That’s not going away. We do a decent amount of shipping inside the state. That’s been great for a different stream of revenue. Other takeaways, focus on the small things. Slow down a little bit. The last five years with the business, it’s been go go go, always changing and adapting. Now I feel comfortable with our home. We’re as big as I want to be for the rest of the company’s life.”