by Kevin M. Smith
Let’s face it, we’re in unprecedented times, and just like the rest of us, Frederick breweries are dealing with a whole new world. Initially, when Governor Hogan’s stay at home order was given, there was a question as to what was going to happen to our local breweries. When Comptroller Peter Franchot cleared up that our local craft producers – brewers, vintners, and distillers – would be designated necessary businesses, and allowed to conduct business, many of your local makers saw this as a lifeline.
Sure, it wasn’t perfect, as many breweries make a significant portion of their profits in their tasting rooms, but it was better than being shut down with beer in the tanks. Many of these businesses were forced to shift their business model. Those that provided limited options in cans quickly expanded their canned options. Others who sold take-away beer found their crowler sales going through the roof, and struggled with sourcing enough supplies to deal with the significant increase over their PC (Pre-Covid) needs.
While it hasn’t been easy for anyone, this has hit Frederick’s newest, Jug Bridge Brewing, particularly hard. This past week, proprietor and brewer Mat Townsend initially announced the closure of Jug Bridge due to an inability to source crowlers and meet customer demand. With a little help from the Ogdens over at Attaboy, Mat was able to keep Jug Bridge chugging along – at least for now.
Sure, Townsend’s little venture had been open for about nine months, opening at the beginning of last June, when he finally had his grand opening/ribbon cutting – just ahead of the proverbial shit hitting the fan – but those nine months still leaves him as Frederick County’s newest active brewery.
Like any brewery, the soft opening didn’t quite go as planned. “The original plan was to open on St. Paddy’s weekend 2019,” Mat explained. “However, between renovation setbacks, a leaky roof, licensing issues, and health conflicts – I almost died actually, all due to internal bleeding in my colon, but I got better! Once open the first 9 months have been a struggle. The intention of being open by [last] March was also to attend all the festivals that season [as a way to] help promote [the] brewery and showcase what [we have] on tap” and promoting the business. “Since that didn’t happen the only way to get the name out there was through social media.” (continued after photo)
Townsend made it through a difficult first nine months only to run into the buzzsaw of Covid-19 restrictions. Mat was gearing up for and counting on this year’s festival season to build product awareness, but social distancing measures put a quick end to that. “Because of Covid-19 our season is gone, that second chance swing I got was more like a hit-by-pitch but didn’t get to go to first base,” he explained. “Essentially there is almost zero business because of the stay at home order. Don’t get me wrong., my wife works as a technician for infectious diseases, so I understand the impact of such a thing and being safe is probably best for all of us. However, being deemed a necessary business seemed like a saving grace at the time, but [it hasn’t translated] after seeing the impact from…all of this and we haven’t even seen the full spectrum yet.”
To add insult to injury, with the shift in the business dynamic for local breweries has created another issue – the aforementioned crowler issue nearly closed Jug Bridge’s doors in mid-April. “Acquisitioning crowlers is just the tip of the iceberg.” He speculated that “soon it will be all to go vessels, and at the same time we are using one-use containers at an alarming rate. It’s crazy…Ball, the main manufacturer for glass, and aluminum vessels had to make an announcement that they would get right to work on getting their supply houses stocked. Unfortunately, what limited funding I do have was placed in pre-ordering new cans because they are much more cost effective than glass.”
Even with the designation of being essential, and the donation of crowlers to keep the beer flowing, Townsend admits that permanent closure remains an option that is on the table. “I have applied for a few different grants and looked into an SBA loan. One thing about all of it is that there are terms and conditions, and some of them don’t apply to me because of the size and structure of the company,” he explained. “Since we are the newest brewery, and haven’t even had a chance to really showcase what we have, there is some great consideration in closing permanently. All future plans for this company will be in jeopardy because of how much time and money it took to get to where I am now. Maryland has made choices based upon the safety of others and I agree with everything they have done. However, I feel I might have been better of forced to close then to struggle on limited funds, and fighting” for supplies to make ends meet.
Until next time, stay well and drink good, local beer.