A customer makes a purchase at Friendly Discount Beverage in Westbrook. The store’s owner says beer and liquor sales rose in late March and early April, as his regular customers bought larger quantities. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

With bars, restaurants and taprooms closed, Mainers are making sure they have plenty of liquor while they stay at home to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But the shift is coming at a cost to craft breweries.

Retail sales of liquor increased by 16 percent in March and April from the same period in 2019, according to state data. The increase mirrors national trends showing Americans are stocking up on booze during the pandemic.

The biggest increase came right after Gov. Janet Mills issued her stay-at-home order March 31. In the first two weeks of April, retail sales of liquor increased by nearly 19 percent from the same period last year.

That has not trickled down to local craft brewers. While retail beer sales are up nationally, evidence suggests that many Maine breweries are suffering. Twenty percent of the state’s breweries have temporarily stopped making beer, while another third have cut their production in half, according to a group that represents them.

At least one brewery in Portland, the hub of Maine’s craft beer scene, is reporting strong sales through delivery and curbside pickup programs. But breweries in rural areas are struggling, as fewer people are replacing pricey draft beers with those in cans, bottles and growlers.

Alpesh Patel, owner of Friendly Discount Beverage in Westbrook, said both beer and liquor sales rose in late March and early April. That increase was driven by his regular customers purchasing larger quantities, he said.

“It was busy in March and then up to the first week in April. It’s flattening out now,” Patel said, speculating that people are beginning to feel a financial strain. “People don’t have money right now to spend.”

Alcohol sales were up nearly 26 percent nationwide over a six-week period ending April 11, compared with the same period last year, according to the national research firm Nielsen.

Sales of spirits for off-site consumption led the way with a 33.3 percent increase, followed closely by wine, which increased 32 percent. The spike in wine sales was likely attributable to Easter, Nielsen said. Beer sales were up 13 percent.

Bissell Brothers employee Nate Travis hands beer to a customer in the drive-through outside the taproom in Portland on March 24. Peter Bissell, co-owner of Bissell Brothers Brewing Co., said sales in March were better than the previous year, even though the taproom was closed for several weeks, because of the popularity of curbside pickup. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Those figures, however, do not take into account the loss of sales at bars, restaurants, events or the like.

“The fact that grocery stores are reporting higher sales fails to account for the fact that the crisis has funneled all the consumers into just a few retail outlets for beer,” said Lester Jones, chief economist for the National Beer Wholesalers Association. “The reality for the total marketplace is total beer volumes are basically flat to down for March.”

In Maine, retail liquor sales in March were up 14 percent by volume and up nearly 16 percent, or $2.1 million, by revenue to nearly $16.8 million, according to data provided by the Maine Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery.

State and local officials began in mid-March to adopt restrictions meant to slow the spread of coronavirus. The city of Portland ordered a curfew and closed bars for March 17, St. Patrick’s Day. And Gov. Janet Mills ordered nonessential businesses to close March 24, but deemed liquor stores essential. And she issued a issued a statewide “Stay Healthy at Home” order on March 31.

After that, liquor sales surged.

Liquor sales by volume increased about 18.5 percent through April 17 compared to the same period the previous year, and nearly 18.7 percent by revenue, according to state data. That’s an increase of nearly $1.5 million in revenue to more than $9.4 million.

Glenn Simpson, a certified alcohol and drug counselor in Portland, said he’s not surprised that alcohol sales have increased, as people deal with the boredom and isolation of quarantine, or the stress of working from home, home-schooling their children and an uncertain future.

“Those are all really triggers for substance use – either an increase in substance use or a return to substance use for those in recovery,” Simpson said.

CRAFT BREWERS STRUGGLE

The state could not provide sales information for wine or craft breweries, many of which have adopted curbside pickup and delivery services after being forced to close their taprooms.

Many craft brewers, especially those in more rural areas, are being cut out of the stay-at-home drinking market, said Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild, which represents over 150 breweries in Maine.

“Majority of brewers are having a tough go of it,” Sullivan said. “We haven’t seen any closures yet, which is great.”

Taprooms, a lifeline for many breweries, have been shuttered since mid-March. That has deprived breweries of important revenue.

“The closure of tasting rooms is hurting our brewers,” Sullivan said. “People haven’t made that trip to a tasting room on Thursday or after work and picked up a four-pack there.”

Some breweries quickly adapted to the new environment by offering delivery and curbside pickup.

Peter Bissell, co-owner of Bissell Brothers Brewing Co. in Portland, said sales in March were better than the previous year, even though the taproom was closed for several weeks. He predicted sales in April would be on-par with the previous year, once wholesale orders are invoiced and new beers are released.

Bissell said he originally cut production in half in response to the taproom closures and uncertainty about the future. But because of the popularity of curbside pickup and delivery, the brewery is operating at 85 percent of capacity, and Bissell expects to resume full production soon.

“Taproom staff have transitioned to delivery drivers and curbside specialists,” he said. “Office staff, especially our skeleton crew of sales, marketing, and taproom management, have transitioned beautifully to our new models. I really couldn’t be more proud. But I am also very concerned for smaller breweries without the packaging power of Bissell Brothers.”

A representative of Allagash Brewing Co. declined to share specific information about its production and sales. But Jeff Pillet-Shore, Allagash’s marketing director, said the brewery has had success pivoting to no-contact delivery and pickup.

The Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Alcohol issued new rules Thursday allowing bars and restaurants to sell their existing inventories of draft beer in to-go containers, as long as it accompanies a food order.

Amid all the uncertainty, Sullivan is sure about one thing.

“Beer is going to be there on the other side of this pandemic,” Sullivan said. “People are going to want to and will come together and go places to drink beer together. We’re all looking forward to that.”

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