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'Tremendous loss': Pandemic staggers Cayuga County craft beverage producers
'Tremendous loss': Pandemic staggers Cayuga County craft beverage producers
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BUSINESS

'Tremendous loss': Pandemic staggers Cayuga County craft beverage producers

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I edit The Citizen's features section, Lake Life, and weekly entertainment guide, Go. I've also been writing for The Citizen and auburnpub.com since 2006, covering arts and culture, business, food and drink, and more.

Like most industries, craft beverage production has felt the crippling effects of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Though producers in New York have been deemed essential businesses, the state's PAUSE executive order to enforce social distancing has closed the tasting rooms where those producers introduce many to the beverages they make. The order has also closed the state's bars and restaurants except for takeout and delivery, so those producers have lost places to sell their beverages as well.

Producers can still sell beverages to go, and the state Liquor Authority is temporarily allowing breweries to ship beer via FedEx or UPS anywhere within New York. 

Still, the pandemic has indeed paused what has been a surging industry in New York state. In Cayuga County, that industry has grown to the tune of six breweries and two cideries opening since 2014, when there were none of either. The county's 10 wineries, meanwhile, enjoy a place in the world-renowned Finger Lakes wine region.

To see how these craft beverage producers are coping with the effects of the pandemic, The Citizen reached out to all of them, as well as some producers just outside the county.

Here's what they had to say:

Breweries

The Cayuga County brewery that's been hit the hardest by the state's PAUSE order just might be its biggest: Prison City Pub & Brewery.

That's because the award-winning Auburn brewpub is also a restaurant. As a result of the executive order and the subsequent 50% drop in business, Prison City had to pare its staff of 45 down to about six, said Marc Schulz, who owns the brewpub with his wife, Dawn. The move was also made to reduce the number of people in the State Street building. But Prison City is continuing to serve food and cans of both its own and other breweries' beer, both for curbside takeout and delivery via DoorDash. Both are available online through prisoncitybrewing.com.

The suspension of on-premises consumption, as well as a national run on Crowlers (32-ounce cans), has forced Prison City to package its beer more conventionally. It is working with a mobile canning line to produce four-packs of 16-ounce cans of beers like bourbon barrel-aged coconut imperial stout Wham Whams, and also bottling sours like Folsom Bluesberry. Prison City's profit margins on four-packs and bottles are lower than those of Crowlers and draft sales, Schulz said, but shifting to more affordable formats "just felt right" to him and Dawn. He added that decision-making at Prison City — namely, ordering the thousands of dollars of ingredients it takes to make just a single batch of beer — has become a day-to-day process due to the uncertainty of the pandemic.

"Not knowing how long this will last, we are tasked with brewing our core beers and less experimentation so we can move inventory as quickly as possible," Schulz said.

Construction of Prison City's new production facility at 251 North St. is also continuing, Schulz said. It stopped due to uncertainty about the state's order, but resumed after conversations with the city and state that also involved the New York State Brewers Association. The facility was slated to open this summer, but its construction, like everything else, could be slowed down by the pandemic.

"We miss seeing our family/co-workers each day, our regulars and even the new faces that pass through our doors each day," Schulz said. "We will continue to be diligent and ready to rock and roll when the time is right. Dawn and I would also be remiss not to extend our sincerest gratitude to our Auburn neighbors for their continued support."

The expansion of Lunkenheimer Craft Brewing Co. in Weedsport has given owners Derric and Kristen Slocum a reason to keep making beer on the same scale as usual, Derric said. Even before the pandemic, they had been planning to build up their beer reserves for the downtime they'll experience when transitioning to their new facility about 50 yards up North Seneca Street in the village. Lunkenheimer has also fast-tracked its wood-fired pizza oven in order to give the Weedsport area another takeout option, Derric said. More information about ordering from Lunkenheimer's Weedsport or Sodus locations can be found at facebook.com/lunkenheimercraftbrewingcompany.

In downtown Auburn, both Good Shepherds Brewing Co. and Next Chapter Brewpub are also canning more beer for takeout sales. Good Shepherds completed its first mobile canning run last week, and is offering growler sales on the beers and ciders it has in stock. Next Chapter is selling its own and guest beers in 16-ounce cans and 32- and 64-ounce growlers, plus local wine and spirits by the bottle, cocktail and pizza kits for preparation at home, and a reduced food menu. Next Chapter co-owner and brewer Scott DeLap said the brewpub is keeping busy with maintenance projects, and he's preparing to age some of his beer on wood until the fall. But with business about 20% of what it would normally be, he continued, he has to slow down his brewing in kind. 

"We miss the music we offered a lot," DeLap added. "To go from four days a week to none, just like that, is painful."

For more information, call Good Shepherds at (315) 406-6498 or visit Next Chapter's Facebook page at facebook.com/nextchapterbrew.

On the southern end of Cayuga County, Aurora Brewing Co. and Summerhill Brewing are also making do with the state's order. Aurora is continuing can releases on an almost weekly basis, and recently began offering to ship its beer anywhere in the state. More information is available at facebook.com/aurorabrewco. Summerhill, after closing March 15, reopened for curbside growler pickup (no used growlers) last weekend. Customers can also order online at summerhillbrewing.com, and follow updates on the brewery on its social media accounts. 

And just outside the county's borders, the new Skaneateles Brewery is dealing with a 75% downturn in sales due to the closure of its tasting room. The brewery has a drive-through window for selling Crowlers, which can be ordered along with other merchandise at skanbrewery.com.

"Losing our tasting room has been a tremendous loss. Tough for a new business and sad for everyone, as the 'tasting room family' loves the environment — a unique, warm, friendly, homey, secure and celebratory feel," Skaneateles Brewery co-owner Dorothy Krause said in an email. "Life will be very different after all this is over."

Cideries 

Sales have also plunged at the county's two cideries due to the pandemic.

For Sterling Cidery, which doesn't distribute its beverages, the loss of its tasting room has meant the loss of 100% of its sales. Additionally, owners Brandon Furber, Jana House, Lesley Gould and Craig Arnold, who took over the cidery in 2019, accepted no personal income that year so they could invest in the facility, they said. They planned to reopen the tasting room this spring after remodeling in January and February. But now, without that business, they face low reserves for costs like utilities and taxes.

"To quote a friend, now it seems we are all dressed up, with no place to go!" the owners said. 

The cidery is offering limited bottle sales for pickup through sterlingcidery.com, about every other weekend, but the owners believe that business was driven to the tasting room by its communal atmosphere. So they don't anticipate pickup sales to be more than 20% of their normal gross sales, they said. Without those sales, Sterling's production has ceased since all its fermentation and storage capacity is full. The loss of income has also suspended the cidery's plans for expansion, including a walk-in cooler and a covered outdoor pavilion. And the cidery hopes it will still be able to pay the balance on an order of 2,000 custom budded apple trees it plans to plant in spring 2021, the owners said.

"Our concerns are the long-term economic impact that will extend beyond the several months following the restoration of normal business," the owners said. "On top of this, just about the time that business is anticipated to resume, Fair Haven is expected to again be severely impacted by new record lake level flood concerns."

On the opposite end of Cayuga County, Grisamore Cider Works has lost all its business from local breweries and bottle shops that carried its cider, owners Simon and Jesse Ingall said. The Locke cidery's retail location isn't scheduled to open until May, so that has yet to be affected, but the brothers are already worried they may not be able to open then. In the meantime, the Ingalls are bottling and kegging their 2019 ciders, and will soon plant trees they recently received from a nursery. They're also taking care to wash their hands and soak everything in sanitizer, they said.

Grisamore is offering free bottle delivery (four minimum) via Facebook Messenger (@GrisamoreCiderWorks) or info@grisamoreciderworks.com

The Ingalls' family also owns Grisamore Farms in Locke, which is where their biggest worries about the pandemic lie, they said.

"(We) worry that people will be too scared to come out and buy plants," they said, though they added that they believe "customers are thinking very seriously about how they can grow their own food in their own gardens, which we are prepared to help them with at this very moment."

Distilleries

Like many distilleries across the country, Last Shot in Skaneateles has shifted its resources to making hand sanitizer during the pandemic. The distillery distributed free bottles from the first batch to Gateway Senior Apartments, Skaneateles village offices for the police, M&T Bank, the Marcellus Fire Department and Camillus Ridge Terrace Senior Housing. Bottles are 200 milliliters and $5 to cover the cost, with a two bottle limit per person. The distillery is also open for bottle sales. For more information, call (315) 554-8241 or visit facebook.com/lastshotdistillery.

Hidden Marsh Distillery, part of Montezuma Winery in Seneca Falls, is also offering pickup, delivery and shipments of its beverages and fudge. The winery is hosting a virtual tasting series as well. For more information, visit facebook.com/montezumawineryandhiddenmarshdistillery.

Wineries

Cayuga County's wineries would usually be preparing their tasting rooms for their busy season around this time of year.

Instead, they're bracing for the impact of losing that business for as long as the pandemic lasts — or even beyond that.

Susan Higgins, who owns Heart & Hands Wine Co. in Union Springs with her husband, Tom Higgins, said they're tending to the vineyard as ever, but their cellar is another story. Because of the loss of business from visitors, some of the winery's staff has been furloughed and spring bottling has been put on hold until they return. Heart & Hands wine is available for carry-out and curbside pickup, and online orders, with free shipping on orders of $100 or more, can be made through heartandhandswine.com

Higgins said her biggest concern about the pandemic is "the overall uncertainty and its impact on how comfortable people will be to begin resuming normal activities this summer."

That concern is shared by Chris Scholomiti, owner of CJS Vineyards & Aurelius Winery. The winery offers curbside pickup and shipping outside of central New York through cjsvineyards.com.

Though production and vineyard work continues as planned, Scholomiti said, April is usually a good traffic month for the winery

"April through December is prime time!" he said. "You can't make that up."

Down Routes 5 and 20 in Cayuga, Izzo's White Barn Winery is feeling another effect of the pandemic: event cancellations. Since the winery is a seasonal business, owner John Izzo said, the impact has been minimal so far. But if the state's PAUSE order extends beyond April 30, "we'll be scrambling to reschedule private events and the lost revenue from wine sales will begin to be painful." The winery could open for additional midweek hours during the busy season to compensate, Izzo said. It could also begin offering curbside pickup later this month.

Both food and wine are available from Colloca Estate Winery in Fair Haven at collocawines.com.

But, like other winery owners, Dr. Chris Colloca would rather be serving those items, and live music, to customers in the tasting room.

"Customers are not able to taste our wines before purchasing them, which takes away our unique advantage over liquor stores," he said.

Though Colloca's business is hurting, he said production has not slowed and he remains committed to keeping his full-time employees. He planned to add a sales position and an event planner this year, and the award-winning winery began building a 7,000-square-foot ballroom in January. But Colloca still can't help worrying about the economic impact of the pandemic on his industry.

"Our biggest concern, of course, is the health of our community," Colloca said. But after the pandemic ends, he continued, it's likely that "people will not have as much discretionary income to spend. ... Without expendable income, it is difficult for everyone to have money to go out for meals and entertainment."

Being a smaller winery has been to the benefit of Bright Leaf Vineyards in King Ferry, said Donna Wilson, who co-owns the winery with her husband, Mike. All four vineyard employees are still there, maintaining both their usual level of productivity and social distancing. The winery is offering deliveries and pickup through brightleafvineyard.com. Wilson said that thanks to Bright Leaf's loyal customers, business is only down 10%. She also thanked the government for their efforts to support small businesses, and craft beverage producers in particular, during the pandemic.

"I think we all need to support one another, not only now, but in the future of this terrible event," Wilson said. "Who knows what the next few months will be like and if we'll be able to remain optimistic about our economic future."

Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or david.wilcox@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.

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I edit The Citizen's features section, Lake Life, and weekly entertainment guide, Go. I've also been writing for The Citizen and auburnpub.com since 2006, covering arts and culture, business, food and drink, and more.

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