The pint glass is half full and half empty for Maine beer makers this week, so to speak.
This Friday, breweries in rural Maine counties can welcome back customers to their tasting rooms, coinciding with the reopening of bars in the same areas as the coronavirus lockdown continues to lift.
But for brewers in southern Maine, including cities like Portland and Biddeford, tasting rooms have to stay closed until at least July 1 under Maine’s economic reopening plan.
That’s meant a significant cut to brewers’ bottom lines, especially as Maine moves into its relatively short summer season.
“The majority of Maine breweries are making somewhere between 60 and 80 percent of their revenue from the tasting room,” said Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild.
Sullivan explained that, while about half of Maine breweries will benefit from rural Maine entering its next phase of reopening, the other half, concentrated in southern Maine will not, and some beer makers close to the New Hampshire border are already losing some customers because New Hampshire has already opened tasting rooms up.
“Because New Hampshire is open ... they’ve lost some of that curbside delivery customer base that they had picked up during the pandemic,” he said.
One of the brewery owners waiting to get his tasting room open is John LeGassey, one of the founders of Fore River Brewing in South Portland.
“What’s happening is happening and the fact of the matter is you have to look for the positives,” he said, of having to switch to curbside and home delivery while leaving the tasting room closed.
Asked if he wished it were open, LeGassey replied, “of course, but we know how to make beer. I’m not in a position to say [reopening] is or isn’t the right thing to do,” and that his optimal mode of operation does not supersede the advice of public health experts.
“There are a lot of people making decisions and a lot of things to weigh that I don’t know enough about,” he said.
LeGassey did explain that breweries are beginning to feel a bit of financial strain after months of operating without a core piece of their business model and said he was looking forward to serving people face-to-face as soon as possible.
“We’re all at a critical point for sure,” he said. “The adaptations we’ve been able to do have kept us in business but the lost revenue of not being able to have folks come into the space and the loss of the experience of them not being able to come in is big.”
Some breweries in southern Maine are finding ways to bring back that experience by switching business licenses to operate as a restaurant.
But the Brewer’s Guild, which says it's in regular communication with Maine’s governor’s office, reports that option isn’t practical for many owners.
“The majority of our breweries aren’t going to be able to afford to switch their license to a restaurant license in order to be open two weeks earlier,” said Sullivan, who added most Maine brewers were simply looking ahead to July 1 and getting ready to do more business.
“There’s some optimism out there, we’re getting into warmer weather and looking forward to what the future may bring,” he said.