How four Kingston breweries are handling the pandemic

By Jordan Whitehouse

At last count, there were 276 craft breweries in Ontario, and seven of them are in Kingston (another is on the way) 

That’s more than most cities our size in Canada, so when COVID-19 forced breweries to close taprooms and drastically reduce sales to restaurants and bars, it impacted a lot of employees and a lot of bottom lines.   

Like Kingston’s restaurant sector, though, our breweries are a resilient bunch. Many have shifted to online and delivery models, and some are still selling beer to go.  

Here’s how Stone City, Daft Brewing, MacKinnon Brothers, and Riverhead are trying to weather the pandemic storm and keep us quenched. (Note: interviews were edited for length and clarity.)    

Stone City Ales — Ron Shore, Owner  

How are you and your employees doing?

We are doing well, and staying safe. We have four staff fully employed, and may be able to add more depending on the government supports and the number of orders we receive. We miss all of our kitchen and serving staff, though. There is no public access to our brewery, and we decided to not do on-site retail sales (bottle shop) because I don’t think it is necessary or safe. So we are spacing ourselves out, sanitizing the crap out of everything, and all of our staff are committed to social distancing. We also only ever have one driver at a time in the truck. We have a great little team right now.  

How is business?

It’s good! We are very grateful for the love and support coming from the local community. We are doing free local contactless delivery only in Kingston, deciding to focus on our home community, the people who have breathed life into us for close to six years now. Lots of loyalty and support for local economy in this town. I think all breweries should focus on their home communities — that is what craft is all about, in my opinion. Local beer, made by local people, reflecting their local culture. It’s about community. As a small brewery, our margins are super-tight and we don’t have any economies of scale. So it’s about contributing somethings to local culture and helping to build a new, sustainable localized economy. And we all reduce our carbon foot print that way. The pandemic is only the start of adjustments we make due to climate change. 

What have been the biggest challenges switching to 100% online and delivery?

It’s a totally different business model. It’s now all about logistics and efficiency, whereas before it was about hospitality. But we are enjoying this and getting better at it every day. It’s radically different now how we plan, order, move goods around, and staff. It is simpler, and more focused. It seems to be working and we don’t plan on changing it. I don’t really think restaurants will go back to the previous normal for some time, so we are really focusing on bringing quality beer in a safe, trusted manner to people in our community. 

Any new releases coming up?

Yes. Look for the return of Elder Statesman, a British mild with earl grey tea. It used to be available only on draft in our tap room but we tweaked it a bit so we could bottle it and meet the demand for this muchloved beer. We also have a collaboration called All Together coming out. It’s a project started by Other Half Brewing in the U.S., and the idea is for breweries around the world to brew iterations of their base IPA recipe and help raise money for hospitality worker relief. It’s a great project and will be super yummy. Plus another sour, and more IPAs of course. 

Stone City Ales 
275 Princess Street, Kingston 

Daft Brewing — Adam Rondeau, Owner

How are you holding up?

We’re all doing okay, but unfortunately in our industry a lot of our employees are parttime bartenders, so right now aren’t getting any hours of work. Some are continuing to volunteer with us to make hand sanitizer to donate to healthcare workers, etc. But we’re all getting by! 

Why did you decide to make hand sanitizer?

We initially decided to do it because unlike many other breweries, we have a still, so it was actually possible for us to make our own ethanol to use. So we were in the fortunate position of having the ability to do it, but ultimately, we’re doing it because we feel it’s the right thing to do. We’ve also had many generous donations of isopropyl alcohol that has greatly increased the volume and pace at which we were able to supply the extremely high demand for sanitizer.  

How has the community support helped you through this challenging time?

The customer and community support have been amazing. Customers are still coming in to buy beer, which is certainly helping us to navigate through these unknown seas with hopes of coming out of the storm on the other end as unscathed as possible. The community support has also been more than we could have imagined. We posted a picture on our Instagram a while back asking for sugar for the purposes of making our own hand sanitizer to be donated to healthcare groups, and since then probably 20 local businesses have chipped in to help us in one way or another to make that a possibility, which was very humbling. 

Any upcoming beer news to share?

Almost every beer we’ll be releasing over the next month will be new, so we’ll keep them a surprise for now and announce them as they get released. 

Daft Brewing 
768 Princess Street, Kingston

MacKinnon Brothers Brewing Company — Dan MacKinnon, Owner

How are you weathering this? Have you been able to keep everyone employed?

We’ve been able to keep everyone on boardWe had to transition a bit. The farm’s getting busy this spring, so one or two of the guys might help out on the farm getting ready for spring planting. And we’ve been doing direct delivery from Napanee to Kingston, which is going pretty wellbut it’s logistically a bit more complicated and more man hours. So our Toronto rep has come down and, with one of the other guys, is doing all of the direct deliveries. So nice to keep them busy as well. And those sales are going surprisingly well.  

What have been the biggest challenges with local delivery?

Logistically, having an online system set up. There are a lot of skilled people at the brewery, but no one is particularly skilled when it comes to computersThere’s a lot of manual entry right now because our system wasn’t set up for direct delivery. Using the mapping system can be difficult, too. We use Google Maps, but on our busiest day I think we did 45 or 50 stops, so there are a lot of pins on the map and trying to find the quickest way has been a challenge. But we’re getting the kinks worked out.  

How is business?

The direct delivery has been a lot busier than we expected. The retail store here has also been pretty steady. We’re doing window service, so you just pull up in your car, give a knock on the window and we open it up and sell you whatever you want. A few people have bought keg fridges and installed them in their house, so we’ve helped with a few over the phone/Facetime installation issues, which has been fun. A lot of the restaurants are doing takeout, and now that they’re able to sell cans as well they’ve been buying cans from us and including that as an option for the takeout, so that’s been good too. And it’s nice to drop those off, chat with the manager, see how everything’s going for them, and keep that camaraderie we’ve built up over the years.   

What are you most looking forward to when things get back to “normal”?

Just getting back to business as normal. We’re opening up a new retail store, so we’re just finishing the renovations on our old timbreframed barn here at the brewery, so that event space and new retail store is going to open up. So whenever the pandemic restrictions are lifted, we’re looking forward to having people come out and see that and have a beer with us and have a chat. Hopefully it’s soon.  

MacKinnon Brothers Brewing Company 
1915 County Road 22, Bath 

Riverhead Brewing Company — Aaron Martin, Brewmaster

How are you and staff there doing?

Like many places, we’ve had to reduce staff. We just have our cook on that sells beer and cooks as well, and we have Holly here helping out with deliveries. And as far as the production area, it’s basically just myself on production. And I have a few packaging staff. But we’re producing the same amount of beer almost. Basically, we’re going from kegs to cans, which is much more labour intensive.   

How is business?

It’s going better than expected. I mean you’re operating a business during a pandemic so you don’t really know what’s going to happen. Before all of this, we were gearing up for the busy season and I put out a lot of cash to make sure we were ready to go. So that was scary until the government supports started kicking in. But one of the things that has been good for us is that we do sell beer to go, out of our taproom, and we’re in the LCBO and Beer Store, which has been doing really well. And before the pandemic, we bought a new piece of cooking equipment which allows us to do pizza, so we’ve been doing pizza takeout that you can order online for pick up or you can get it through Uber Eats. So we’re looking at different ways to grow our revenue. And the customer support has been great. A big thank you to them. We really appreciate it during these times, and they are why we do this.  

What else are you doing to try to grow revenues?

We’re really trying to expand and pivot a little bit. One example is our food boxes. So it’s restaurantquality meats that we get from our distributor. So you can get a protein box, which consists of chicken, steak, peameal bacon, regular bacon. We also have vegetable boxes as well as fruit boxes. And we have all of that available on our website.   

Do you have any new beer releases coming up?

We just released our Cascade IPA and a Belgian Blond. The Belgian Blond [4.7%, 22 IBU] is a beautiful beer to ease you into spring. It’s a light beer packed full of flavour with a slight grainy sweetness accompanied by traditional fruity characteristics created by the hardworking Belgian yeast during fermentation. It’s a perfect anytime beer. 

Riverhead Brewing Company 
631 Fortune Crescent, Unit 10, Kingston 

Check out our full list of food, drink, and retail businesses available during the pandemic.