Socially Distant Beer Festival will support laid off brewery staff in Iowa

Socially Distant Beer Festival

Saturday, March 28 at 2 p.m.

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The Iowa Brewers Guild is holding a virtual beer festival to support brewery staff who have been impacted by the shutdown of taprooms and brewpubs.

J. Wilson, the guild’s minister of beer, is inviting beer lovers to virtually attend the Socially Distant Beer Festival from 2–6 p.m. on Saturday, March 28, by buying a ticket online, tipping back their favorite Iowa beer and posting about it on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #virtualbeerfest. All proceeds will support the staff at guild breweries who have been laid off.

Along with helping furloughed brewery workers, Wilson says the virtual festival will also give beer drinkers a way to connect with friends and other enthusiasts across the state during a time when social distancing is necessary. Though everyone would rather be meeting over pints in person, he says the festival and other online gatherings are as good as it will get for the time being.

“We wanted to give everyone a chance to get together in some way,” Wilson says.

Though breweries are still able to sell beer in cans and bottles, they have been hit hard because, like restaurants and bars, they are currently unable to serve thirsty customers on-site in taprooms and attached restaurants and pubs. Without the ability to sell pints, fill growlers or serve friends meeting for drinks on the weekend or after work, breweries have lost a major source of their revenue, says Quinton McClain, the founder and head of brewery operations at the Lion Bridge Brewing Company in Cedar Rapids. As a result, breweries have had to lay off bartenders, waitstaff and kitchen workers.

With 25 to 30 percent of breweries reporting, Wilson said 450 jobs have been lost in Iowa’s brewing industry as of Monday. McClain says his whole front house staff of 18 to 20 employees has been furloughed since the taproom was forced to close. “It’s awful to have to do that to everyone,” McClain says.

Lion Bridge Brewing Company, 59 16th Ave. SW in Cedar Rapids. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

According to Wilson, Iowa has 105 breweries. Data available from the Brewers Association says Iowa breweries had a $1.007 billion economic impact on the state in 2018.

Margins for breweries are already thin, Wilson says. Without revenue from taprooms, he expects some breweries will not survive this crisis.

On the bright side, McClain said there has been an outpouring of local support through pick-up orders for both beer and food. Those sales have allowed the brewery to keep eight staff members employed full-time. He even had to rehire a member of his kitchen staff to meet demand. “You can actually see those dollars helping,” he says, so he expects money raised through the Socially Distant Beer Festival to help as well.

Along with buying a $5 ticket, the festival allows drinkers to also donate money they would normally spend to attend an in-person festival, such as gas money for a designated driver or ride share, snacks at the festival, meals before or after and a hotel stay.

“It gives people a way to help if they are looking for a way to help,” McClain says — especially for those who are unsure how to help.

“Even if it’s five or ten bucks per person, it’s something, and the thought counts,” says Wilson.

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Though Wilson says he and many others drink beer online with friends, this is the first virtual beer festival he is aware of. Wilson says the idea has been in the back of his mind for a few years. It germinated after seeing memes about people giving money to local causes in lieu of participating in fundraising events like bake sales and car washes. He originally thought about using it as a way for breweries to contribute money to the guild without having another festival, avoiding festival fatigue among brewers and staff.

Though Wilson and McClain are unsure what to expect, they are excited about participating and connecting with the community and about the potential impact. McClain says he will be participating through Lion Bridge’s Twitter account, @LionBridgeBrew. Wilson is sure there will be lots of photos and conversations about what everyone is drinking. People will be having a beer together, Wilson says, but not in the same place physically.

Along with attending the festival and continuing to buy beer, Wilson says Iowa beer drinkers can support their local breweries by purchasing gift cards and brewery merchandise, including shirts and glassware.

“Those gift cards can definitely be redeemed later,” he says. “You can drink those beers later. That will be a huge help.”

The Iowa Brewers Guild is providing information about breweries offering curbside service and delivery, which can be found on their website.

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