From car dealerships to legal pot shops, Nevada's “nonessential” business shutdown to mitigate spread of COVID-19 has seen a fair share of tweaks and clarifications since it was announced by Gov. Steve Sisolak last month.
After a period of uncertainty, the list of “nonessential” businesses can now add a new category: the state's small craft beer industry.
Although not initially listed on the state's list of essential and nonessential businesses, subsequent clarifications published by the state have led municipalities to direct breweries that don't serve food to cease direct sales, curbside pickup and delivery of all ales and lagers, and stick only to wholesale.
While craft beer isn't “essential” in the sense that it's needed by people to survive, many of the 48 craft brewers in the state have complained that halting curbside pickup or beer delivery is a step harsher than those taken by many neighboring states — including California, Arizona and Colorado.
Nevada Craft Brewers Association President Matt Johnson, who owns and operates IMBIB Custom Brews in Reno, said Nevada's beer industry is already feeling the effects of the pandemic, with most businesses (including his) forced to do layoffs. He said that wholesale shipping was not a realistic way to keep the industry afloat in a turbulent time.
“The distribution game only works financially if you're a much larger brewery; it's really marketing for us,” said Nevada Craft Brewers Association President and IMIB Custom Brews owner Matt Johnson. “While it's allowable, unless we negotiate a new contract, there's no way for us to get beer out of doors right now.”
Nevada's craft brewing industry — a broad term that typically applies to any small and independent brewer — has grown substantially over the past decade. According to data collected by the Brewers Association trade group, the number of Nevada craft brewers grew from 18 in 2011 to 43 in 2018, and produce 72,000 barrels of craft beer per year.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Steve Sisolak's office provided The Nevada Independent with a copy of a response email sent out to inquiring breweries, stating that they are considered “non-essential businesses that must close to the public” under emergency regulation approved by Sisolak.
The email does note that employees of “beverage production facilities” are considered critical infrastructure workers under federal guidelines, meaning that breweries can continue brewing beer as long as they follow COVID-19 risk mitigation policies.
But beer produced by small brewers is limited to wholesale only, and brewers “may not sell direct to the public for the duration of this Directive.”
“Each beverage production facility must still comply with all local liquor laws, including but not limited to distribution, transportation, and sale,” the email states.
A spokesman for the City of Reno forwarded an email detailing the city's “Business Operations Supplemental Guide,” developed in concert with Washoe County and the city of Sparks, which states that onsite pickup of packaged alcoholic beverages “is only allowed in conjunction with meals provided by appropriately licensed facilities in accordance with restaurant/food establishment guidelines.”
“The breweries, wineries and distillers are still allowed to manufacture their respective products and sell that product through a licensed alcohol distributor,” city spokesman Jon Humbert wrote in an email. “Onsite pickup of packaged alcohol is prohibited for facilities not appropriately licensed as a restaurant/foodservice.”
Johnson said many breweries in the state had preemptively closed taprooms and started sanitary curbside pickup or delivery of beer to continue operating during the business shutdown. He said the craft brewers association had tried to work with the governor's office and was disappointed by his decision, yet understanding of why the state had ordered the shutdown.
“I'm conflicted about it. We know we can do it safely, we know we can be responsible. We know we have sanitary conditions,” Johnson said. “I understand the position the governor's in. He's in a tough spot, trying to keep people safe, (but) the reality is that people are buying beer, and that is not going to change.”
Although craft breweries have grown exponentially over the past decade, market conditions (300 breweries closed their doors in 2019) and the COVID-19 pandemic have severely hampered the industry, which makes most of its profits off of sales in taprooms, not cans or bottles sold in liquor or grocery stores.
Liquor stores in the state were officially deemed “nonessential” by the governor's office shortly after the formal shutdown order was released, but grocery stores are still allowed to operate and sell alcohol.
However, Nevada operates under a three-tier system where producers, distributors and retail sales must all be separated and not controlled by the same company. Johnson said that system put them at the mercy of distributors who are hesitant to take on new clients amid the pandemic.
Two Reno-based craft brewers — Revision Brewery in Sparks and Lead Dog Brewing in Reno — published a letter critical of the decision on social media and urged customers to contact Sisolak's office to protest the decision.
The letter argues that curbside pickup direct from a brewery “greatly reduces” the amount of people handling alcohol before it gets to the consumer, helps grocery stores avoid spending more time restocking and “provides Nevadans with product that may help boost morale, calm nerves and anxiety.”
“It is understandable that Nevada brewery owners and employees are feeling deflated,” Revision Brewery owner Jeremy Warren said in a Facebook post. “The order has resulted in having to layoff more employees while trying to withstand this. Meanwhile, other ‘essential' businesses such as ice cream, coffee, pastry, chocolate, and recreational marijuana are able to offer curbside pickup and/or delivery. Not to mention public golf courses are still permitted to remain open.”
Johnson said he was disappointed but trying to stay positive; planning to spend the next few days building a patio at IMBIB's location in Sparks and facility deep cleans. He's also planning an event on Friday evening to give free beer to healthcare workers and first responders, as a way to show the brewery's appreciation for the community and to make the best of a bad situation.
“We don't have cash, but what we have is beer,” he said.
The Nevada Independent is a 501(c)3 nonprofit news organization. The following people or entities mentioned in this article are financial supporters: IMBIB Custom Brews - $157.79; Jonathan Humbert - $25; and Steve Sisolak - $3,200.