Craft vs. COVID-19: How are Romania’s breweries handling the pandemic? (part 1)

We’ve started a new series of blog posts discussing the ways in which Romanian craft breweries are tackling the current COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s hoping this series will be a short one. 

It’s been almost a month since Romania’s third military ordinance went into effect. On March 25th, the local government imposed restrictions on the circulation of the population outside their home, limiting it strictly to necessity, and effectively placing the country in lockdown. Prior to that, all non-essential shops and establishments had to close to prevent the spread of the virus. Obviously, this included bars and restaurants, the bread and butter of the craft beer market.

From the get-go, we were wondering whether the industry would come to a stand-still, with breweries halting production and closing down temporarily. Yet it seems that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. And our local lads and lasses have not only continued to treat us to new releases and exciting developments, but have also displayed that resourcefulness and get-up-and-go attitude that embodies craft brewing.

With bars and restaurants closing to the public, breweries had to think fast in order to find an outlet for their beers. A few pubs still operate via online orders, but it’s nowhere near enough to cover the volume of beer that needs to sell so that brewers can make ends meet. For many, only one option remained: breweries doing online orders and handling deliveries themselves.

For some of them, this was a seamless transition, as the infrastructure was already in place. Breweries like Hop Hooligans, Oriel Beer and Plan Beer already had a webshop in place, while others had one on the back burner, waiting to go live at some point in the future. The pandemic changed the playing field, and did so fast, meaning that many breweries had to find a solution over night in order to keep up. And the answer showed itself in the brewers’ favourite platform for interacting with their fans: Facebook. As the weeks went by, more and more breweries announced that they’re taking FB orders and doing deliveries. Some of them chose to deliver themselves, sticking to their local towns. Others relied on couriers for their fan base across the country. And others preferred to rely on intermediary retailers.

As of today, most of the craft breweries are providing their beers via online platforms. Looking at some of the figures for the stand-alone breweries in our database, we’ve noticed that:
– 14 breweries are selling through their webshop and intermediary retailers;
– 12 breweries are selling through their FB page and intermediary retailers;
– 11 breweries are selling their beers just through intermediary retailers.
Most of the gypsy brewers are relying on their parent brewery to handle the sales, yet three of them (Anagram, Blackout Brewing and Wicked Barrel) have started taking orders via Facebook and delivering locally.

‘The pandemic and the restrictions it came with turned all our plans upside down. Most of our clients were bars and restaurants . We couldn’t wait for them to open their terraces for the warm season, but then, over night, everyone had to close down. We had to rethink the way we operate, and so we switched to direct sales. We came up with our own delivery system in Bucharest, and we’re also looking at delivery options to other towns and cities.’ (Raluca Baran-Candrea, Anagram Brewing)

For some of them, the pandemic was what triggered the online sales that were bound to happen sooner or later anyway.

‘We’ve been preparing for home-delivery for quite some time, together with a bike delivery company (Eastride – we even made a beer for them!). So after a lot of postponing, the current situation finally made us go ahead with the service.’ (Peter Dezso, Bere a la Cluj)

‘We were planning to open an online shop, so this was just the kick up the ass to get us moving. It was a good choice. One day after opening the webshop we were already sold out, so these days we’re brewing again and bottling a batch we ran out of.’ (Cristian Dinu, Clandestin Beer)

Meanwhile, those who already had their own webshop hauled their entire sales operation online:

‘With 99% of our clients either closed down or reducing their activity, we’ve had to adapt. So it was important that we focus on the remaining channel we still had to sell beer – our online shop. We made some beer packs to help with the volume and make delivery more efficient when it comes to courier fees. Our boxes can fit 12 cans, so we wanted to optimize that. In the same vein, we’ve also decided to cover the shipping fees on all orders over 100 lei.’ (Cristian Mihai Dinu, Hop Hooligans)

HH

Work hard, play hard, leave a trail of crazy, damn tasty beers behind (photo credit: Hop Hooligans)

But what happens when, all of a sudden, social media feeds are flooded with posts and sponsored ads for so many breweries looking for an outlet? Do you rely solely on your fan base and post reach, catchy text and colourful photos? Or do you put on your marketing thinking hat and go the extra mile?

‘We wanted our online shop experience to be as enjoyable as possible. We pack our boxes with all sorts of goodies [“thank you” notes, coasters, stickers], we process the orders as fast as possible, find solutions to any issues that may come up because of the delivery company. I don’t know if it does set us apart, but we wanted to treat our customers the same way we want to be treated when we order from others. And we’ve learned a lot from many webshops.’ (Cristian Mihai Dinu, Hop Hooligans)

One of the most common ways of enticing customers has been offering free delivery on orders over a certain amount, and it’s been employed by a lot of breweries, especially the ones that only deliver locally. Some breweries, such as Nembeer and Capra Noastră, also provide free bottles or jars of brewing yeast, which was a nice touch in the light of bread yeast being virtually nonexistent on supermarket shelves.

Some brewers used the pandemic as a way to pay it forward, and return the favour and positive attitudes they’ve encountered from the start. Călin Ignat is the head brewer and owner of what is probably the only craft brewery in the country that has asked retailers to pay for his beers upfront (most breweries are paid within 30 days, often longer). It was a move that not only worked, but also saw his batches sold out via pre-orders before they left the fermenting vessels. This kind of relationship with your retailers takes a lot of trust to build up, but once established, it’s worth going the extra mile to maintain.

‘So before we started selling our beers directly, we made sure that our partners [bars and restaurants] weren’t left with beers on their stock. We encouraged people to buy from them first, and only after they sold out did we start making our own deliveries. Some of the shops and bars used to order and pay for our beers on the spot even before this whole debacle, so we couldn’t ignore that. We believe in mutual relationships and the fact that we’re all in the same boat. So it’s really a matter of common sense among partners.’ (Călin Ignat, Bere Noah)

Other breweries also used these trying times as a way to give back to the community, through charity. One of them was joining Other Half‘s All Together initiative to support hospitality professionals. Hop Hooligans brewed a (yet to be launched) beer and will use the sales proceeds to support the Buoni e Bravi pizza restaurant in Bucharest. Blackout Brewing teamed up with Espresso Studio in Cluj, and will use the money made from the sales of their All Together NEIPA to provide coffee for the front line medical staff. Bereta have also jumped on board, and while doing so, they’ve also announced an exciting development at their brewery: a spankingly shiny canning line.

bereta

While their All Together beers won’t be going live for another week, you can check out Bereta’s other canned offerings on their website (photo credit: Bereta)

Most breweries are, however, mainly relying on social media to spread the word, and it seems to be working so far. Admittedly, advertising on other platforms requires a budget breweries don’t have at the best of times, let alone now. Yet there have been some initiatives that help locals get a bit more visibility, and one such example is Made in Cluj, a platform that lists local producers that can provide you with anything from eggs and fresh vegetables to clothing items. It’s the kind of project that was whipped up by a very enthusiastic team, and has already helped breweries such as Hophead, Kutuma and Bere a la Cluj – here’s hoping we’ll see something similar in other cities as well.

Breweries that sell their beers in supermarkets had access to not only a wider clientele, but also received much needed support. The Kaufland supermarket chain has been stocking a selection of Romanian craft beer for some time, but in the light of current events, they’ve decided to pay for the beers within 7 days, as opposed to the standard 30 days. It’s the kind of welcome decision that will ease the financial difficulties most breweries encounter recently, and it might just be the kind of lifeline that keeps them afloat.

‘What helped us was the fact that we’re listed in several Carrefour shops. We had some orders come in from them, and they allowed for a bit of a breather.’ (Bere Gloria)

For others, being available on the supermarket shelves was something they hadn’t considered just yet:

‘As far as sales go, it would have been a plus, but from the get-go, we’ve always wanted to take things one step at a time and grow naturally. We didn’t want to force things, so this has not been a priority for us up until now, and we have no regrets on this front.’ (Bogdan and Anca Puia, Patos Beer)

But not all brewers feel the same way about supermarket presence:

‘Generally speaking, we don’t want to make it on to supermarket shelves. Maybe if they had more control over storage, and we had the certainty that our beers will be looked after: in a refrigerated space, with organized shelving, and so on. It’s not the case for us any time soon.’ (Cristian Mihai Dinu, Hop Hooligans

‘Honestly, I have mixed feelings about supermarkets. I don’t have any feedback from the other brewers who sell to them, so I can’t tell how much it helps their sales versus damaging their reputation. Has the craft beer market share grown because of supermarkets? Has it stayed the same? Who knows? If you can brew a relatively cheap beer that can make it on the shelf at a “supermarketable” price and can remain stable even if improperly stored, then yes, I guess it’s worth having your beers in a supermarket. Elitist attitudes such as craft not belonging in a supermarket or hyperbolizing the price of craft just so consumers know it’s a niche product don’t belong on the current market conditions.’ (Dana Marmorstein Jovik, Hophead Brewing)

The price of craft beer has come up a lot on social media discussions, and while orders are still coming through, it does beget the question of long term feasibility. This pandemic is bound to affect both brewers as well as those buying their beers, so we were curious if they’re considering brewing cheaper beers, such as lagers, less hoppy pale ales or beers with a lower ABV.

‘Well, sort of. Though I wouldn’t say cheaper, necessarily. We wouldn’t want to make a rebate on ingredients and quality. Instead, we’ll be brewing more accessible styles as far as costs go. We have a lager that’s been almost ready for some time now, and hoppy pale ales are a must during these months.’ (Cristian Mihai Dinu, Hop Hooligans

‘We won’t be brewing cheaper beers because we weren’t making expensive beers up until now either. Yes, they are higher quality, but we’re not selling them at a higher price. […] If you can make cheap beer during the pandemic, then you could have done the same before. We have a plan for the future and we’re going ahead with it, not speculating the market. […] In fact, we’re trying to put a bit more work in our label design to give the beers something extra, which is costing us a lot more.’ (Călin Ignat, Bere Noah)

‘We have no plans to change our range for the upcoming period of time. With summer on the way, we’re actually planning to bring out our fruited beers, the mango ale and sour cherry lager.’ (Peter Dezso, Bere a la Cluj)

For some brewers, cheaper beers were met with a definitive NO…

‘The financial aspect was never factored in when designing a recipe. It goes against the principles behind our endeavours.’ (Horia Ciocan, Addictive Brewing)

…while for others, easy drinking beers like lagers were in the making for some time:

‘We’ve actually just bottled a lager. It’s been on our list for some time, but we only just got around to doing it. We actually brewed it before the current emergency ordinance was set in place [March 16]. As gypsy brewers, we don’t always have the freedom to choose when we brew, so we often have a long list of beers we’re can’t wait to make. The strange thing was not having the traditional launch party.’ (Raluca Baran-Candrea, Anagram Brewing)

anagram

Cinco de Quatro – Baja lager; when you can’t get your dose of sunshine and beaches in real life, a canned alternative will work just as well (photo credit: Anagram)

‘On March 17, we were planning to brew our first batch of Pilsner, a style that we’ve been meaning to add to our range for some time, so the decision to brew [a cheaper beer] didn’t stem from wanting to provide a cheaper option, but actually having a more diversified range, to meet the demands of as many beer lovers. In fact, for us, a lager type beer isn’t cheaper to brew, but we’ll endeavour to make it as affordable as possible.’ (Bogdan and Anca Puia, Patos Beer)

With bars and restaurants closed, demand was bound to decline, so we were also curious if brewers are still making beers as often as before. Some of them have temporarily halted their operation, especially brewpubs like Klausen Burger. Bere Cazino stopped brewing as early as March, while Bere Gloria decided it’s time for a break at the beginning of April. But not all of them are in the same boat.

‘We brew as the Poet allows, as in, whenever our fermenters are empty. We had a short break due to the lack of CO2, but now we’re back to brewing at full capacity. In fact, we’re planning to release some new beers. The first one will be “Arrogant Brewer”, a West Coast IPA. And it really will be an arrogant brew, as it will be a bit more expensive since we’re using a yeast strain that the guys at White Labs assured us has never been used in Romania.’ (Călin Ignat, Bere Noah)

‘Although we took a short break at first, lately we slowly eased back into brewing 2, maximum 3 beers a week. We also had the time to focus on more heavy beers and tweak their final details (see the latest batches of Time and Koschei, and the newest version of Mat Øl, soon to be released).’ (Cristian Mihai Dinu, Hop Hooligans

‘We topped up our core range stock right before the emergency ordinance, and we were going to have a brew day on March 17. But then we decided to postpone it until we get a real feel for the situation we find ourselves in. Right now, we can say that we’ll definitely continue to brew, both our current recipes and new ones, as well as some collaboration brews.’ (Bogdan and Anca Puia, Patos Beer)

‘We’ve reduced production to a minimum, enough to have a starting stock when commercial activities pick up again. This means about one, two brews per month. On top of that, we offered the two gypsy brewers we’re in close relationship with [Blackout and Acan Brewing] to make their own beer. We’re also thinking about starting a collaboration project with homebrewers, to launch beers based on the recipes they’ve tried.’ (Peter Dezso, Bere a la Cluj)

For some breweries, the current pandemic halted long awaited expansion plans, bringing them to a stalemate:

‘We’ve currently stopped production. We’re coming towards the end of the contract on our old location, but we don’t have the authorizations to start brewing in the new one yet. It’s a catch-22 courtesy of the Romanian customs authorities, who like seeing you small and desperate. If we get the authorizations next month (although I wouldn’t dare to dream it would happen, because they’re very resourceful when it comes to finding reasons to delay you), then we’ll start brewing on our new setup.’ (Dana Marmorstein Jovik, Hophead) 

Meanwhile, other brewers haven’t been impacted much in terms of production:

‘We’re still brewing because our beers need a lot of time anyway, and take several months before they’re ready. […] We have more experimental beers coming up, as well as a collaboration with Sunstone Alehouse.’ (Ioana Coca, Oriel Beer)

oriel

Oriel Beer are still coming out with new releases, such as the latest version of their Quadrupel – Raspberry Vanilla, also available on their webshop (photo credit: Oriel Beer)

‘These wicked times favour beers that take a long time to mature. Therefore we’re looking at fruited beers.’ (Horia Ciocan, Addictive Brewing)

But what about the consumers themselves? We were curious to see if their buying habits have changed at all in the past month, since the third emergency ordinance went into effect. So we conducted a small poll on the Bere România closed group, and our findings were very encouraging. Out of 139 voters, the following numbers emerged:

  • 55 people buy craft beer as often as before, regardless of the price;
  • 25 people buy craft beer more often than before;
  • 22 people buy less craft beer than before;
  • 14 people buy as much as before, but prefer to buy from producers directly;
  • 8 people buy as much craft beer as before, but are looking at cheaper options;

These figures look great, but do they hold their weight against actual sales figures? In order to find out, we had a chat with Ioan Mitroi, founder at online shop Berero Store. Looking over his sales, even though the median value of an order has dropped by a negligible percentage, the number of people buying beer online has seen a significant increase since the start of the pandemic. The number of orders has grown by 141% from February to March, and has continued its upward trend in April (a 10% M-o-M growth). The emergency ordinance going into effect on March 16 has caused a drastic increase, with orders spiking by 200% compared to the first half of March.

Another thing we wanted to find out from Ioan was whether folks are ordering cheaper beers, yet it doesn’t look like it’s the case. We made a top 5 of the most popular beer styles that sold on Berero lately, and the chart toppers are both breweries and styles that aren’t exactly cheap:

  1. IPA
  2. NEIPA
  3. Imperial Stout/Porter
  4. Pale Ale
  5. DIPA

One thing we found humorous was the fact that, even though most of us are working from home these days, we still seem to be suffering from the Monday Blues, as one fifth of the orders on Berero were placed on a Monday.

We also asked Ioan what safety measures he took to protect both his team and his clients:

‘Gloves, masks, and most importantly, we’ve stopped delivering the beers ourselves. I started using courier services, so that I can keep my boys in the warehouse and package the orders safely. We tried not to increase the delivery costs for our clients, even though our costs have gone up.’ (Ioan Mitroi, Berero Store)

berero

One of the ways Berero sought to differentiate from other online retailers was their collaboration with Ground Zero, aimed at promoting their beer packs through the exclusive release of their latest XperimentALE beer (photo credit: Berero Store)

We also had a brief chat with Cătălina-Adina Mugescu from The Beer Institute, to find out how physical beer shops are tackling the current situation, especially in the light of brewers selling beer online themselves.

‘Given the situation we all find ourselves in, our only solution was moving the entire shop activity online. We’re taking orders that we deliver all over the country. […] We’ve used social media to the fullest, communicating in real time with all those placing orders, or just asking for more information. Given the fact that we also have corporate clients, we managed to prepare customised orders for them, something larger, for the holidays, so this direct interaction has turned out really well. However, we’re planning to launch a website shortly, which we’ll start using for orders and the monthly subscription packages. […] It’s a difficult time for all of us, but I believe that everything will start to stabilise slowly.’ (Cătălina-Adina Mugescu, The Beer Institute)

And while most of us will keep calm and carry on buying beer online, there’s no denying that everyone, brewers and drinkers alike, are looking forward to the lockdown coming to an end.

‘Like everyone else, I think, we miss having a party! We miss hanging out with people for a beer. And we miss travelling.’ (Raluca Baran-Candrea, Anagram Brewing)

So then, what’s the first thing you’ll do once this is over?

‘We’re going to have a Friends of Noah Party! To thank them for always supporting us!’ (Călin Ignat, Bere Noah)

‘We’re gonna go to a bar and grab a draft beer, maybe on a terrace.’
(Dana Marmorstein Jovik, Hophead Brewing) 

‘We’re going to head down to the production hall without a declaration and a protective mask.’ (Horia Ciocan, Addictive Brewing)

‘We’re going to Leuven Innovation Festival, which will be rescheduled once the pandemic is over. Our beers have already been sent over, sitting in cold storage in Belgium and waiting for us.’ (Ioana Coca, Oriel Beer)

‘We’re going to have the opening party at Planetarium!’ [new location, guys, keep an eye out for the relaunch] (Peter Dezso, Bere a la Cluj)

‘We’re in the mood for a massive fest, full of sunshine and good beer. I’m really hoping we can organize something with the other local breweries, once we get an idea about when this lockdown period might be coming to an end.’ (Cristian Mihai Dinu, Hop Hooligans

Well, it looks like we have a lot of excitement in the works for when this is over. So let’s stay home, buy beer online, follow safety recommendations, and make sure that we don’t have to wait too long before we can enjoy a cold one together. Cheers!

feels

Yup, we miss this just as much as you do. See y’all soon!

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