Crisis Management: Breweries Persevere Through a Year of Natural Disasters

Beer It Forward by | Jan 2018 | Issue #131
Illustrations by Thom Glick

What do you say to someone who’s lost everything? That was literally the first question I asked Rob Kent, head brewer at Bear Republic Brewing Company, who had just lost his home and all of his possessions to the wildfires that raged through Northern California in October.

Beer writer Jay Brooks was on the same flight as Rob and his wife Cami as the three returned from the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. According to Brooks, they had “no inkling” what awaited them at home.

“[Rob and Cami] fly home on Sunday, get home about 6:00 p.m. from the airport, go to dinner, go to bed, and about 2:00 in the morning they’re banging on his door telling them, ‘You’ve got to get the hell out,’” explains Richard Norgrove, co-founder of Healdsburg’s Bear Republic.

Storms Brewing
Before California’s wildfires hit, several southern cities were impacted by a trio of hurricanes: Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

Harvey was the first to barrel up from the Gulf of Mexico, where it veered to the west and made landfall at Rockport, Texas. Days of slow, unrelenting rain and wind collapsed the infrastructure across the area, including Houston. Remarkably, the city’s oldest brewery, Saint Arnold, emerged unscathed from the flooding because founder Brock Wagner built it on high ground 20 years ago.

The kicker was, once the storm settled down, no one could reach Saint Arnold through the surrounding floodwaters. “One of our brewers actually kayaked over to get to the brewery on Sunday,” Wagner says. “For about a week, we had no operations. Mainly because only 40 to 50 percent of the crew could get to the brewery. With that, you can’t do anything.”

Although the Florida Keys Brewing Company (FKBC) in Islamorada didn’t suffer serious wind damage or flooding from Hurricane Irma, the vulnerability of the island chain meant that prolonged power issues and the continuing fallout from the storm’s severity affected the brewery, many local accounts, and the entire hospitality industry in a trickle-down effect. Months later, the tourist-based economy of the Keys is still struggling to recover.

“We have a long way to go as far as the Keys and our company [are concerned],” says FKBC owner Craig McBay. “With the major resorts closed down, probably 1,000 workers will be out of work and [will] more than likely leave. It’s really been amazing the entire impact we’ve [felt] and how long we’re going to feel it.”

The Tampa area wasn’t hit as hard by Irma, and the Tampa Bay Brewing Company knew they had to help their neighbors in the Keys. “It’s an area that’s near and dear to our heart,” says Mike Dyer, Tampa Bay Brewing’s director of community engagement. “When the storm came through, we started hearing from some of our business partners down there about the devastation and the lack of infrastructure.”

On the other side of the state, Miami was also battered by Irma. John Falco, co-founder and brewmaster of Lincoln’s Beard Brewing Company, says that the large-scale evacuation of southern Florida created a major challenge for every business in the area as thousands of people were displaced by the storm. Power was out at the brewery for more than a week and the air conditioning units were damaged, resulting in the loss of beer, food, and brewing ingredients.

However, Falco adds, his hardship was nothing compared to what Puerto Rico suffered under Hurricane Maria. The complete collapse of the island’s infrastructure, from electricity to drinking water to shelter, has been well documented.

To help, Lincoln’s Beard and Miami’s J. Wakefield Brewing teamed up to create a beer with locally sourced, Puerto Rican-inspired ingredients: kumquat, guava, and bay leaf. The beer’s name, Coqui Rechazado, roughly translates from Spanish to “discarded frog,” referring to the federal government’s slow relief response. All of the sales will go to rebuilding efforts in Puerto Rico via the nonprofit aid organization Direct Relief. “We bumped up the yield [to 100 cases of cans] so we’ll be able to raise $10,000,” says Falco.

Hopping to Help
Back in Northern California, collaboration between breweries for a good cause is driving the “Sonoma Pride” campaign started by Russian River Brewing Company owners Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo.

While the fires raged around the city of Santa Rosa, Natalie Cilurzo says their first instinct was to figure out how to best assist friends and neighbors. “How can we use our prominent status in the community and popularity to mobilize some efforts to help? We thought Sonoma Pride [a beer brewed for charity] would be a great way to raise funds, raise awareness, and maybe get some other breweries involved.”

According to Cilurzo, the original plan was to enlist a few dozen local breweries to make their own version of a Sonoma Pride beer (Russian River’s, released on October 31, was a Hoppy Blonde Ale) to sell for the benefit of fire victims. “We had to cap it at 50,” she says, rattling off names of breweries from around the country—and one in England.

“I’m not surprised the brewing community has reached out and wanted to help, but I was overwhelmed at the magnitude of the people reaching out to help out,” Cilurzo says. “It’s a true testament to the continuing family spirit and the camaraderie in the craft beer industry, which is one of the reasons we love being in [it].”

Similarly, while McKay and FKBC reeled from the damage of Hurricane Irma, his friends at Tampa Bay Brewing Company were there for them. On October 7 and 8, co-founder David Doble arranged a fundraiser at his brewery featuring Keys-inspired food and “trop-rock” music, with plenty of beer from both breweries, and a silent auction. The event raised $10,000 and increased awareness for the long-term predicament of the Florida Keys.

“At the end of the day, when our friends are in pain, you feel very obliged to do whatever you can to help,” Doble says.