New Jersey’s craft beverage community, left with barren taprooms due to the social distancing provisions of COVID-19, saw a glimmer of hope last week: per March 16’s Executive Order 104, and for the first time, they were allowed to deliver booze to patrons—or so it seemed.
Breweries and distilleries jumped on board. Last weekend, Death of the Fox Brewing Co. in Clarksboro achieved 75 percent of the sales it would achieve on a normal weekend, with 42 percent of those sales being home delivery.
“I had this one guy last week, I showed up to his house with five beers, and he looked like The Dude from Big Lebowski. He said ‘Yes! This is the best! This corona thing is horrible, but beer to my doorstep?’ It kind of put a skip in their step to have something like this,” owner Chuck Garrity said.
Permission for home delivery was “a pleasant surprise, but it made a lot of sense,” Garrity said. “It’s just safer to delivery to people’s houses than having them driving to the brewery.”
Garrity spent two days updating the brewery’s website and marketing.
“There was a lot of effort that went into that,” he said.
But on March 21, the wording in Executive Order 107 changed what was permissible for the sale of alcohol from craft producers.
“All retail sales of alcoholic beverages by limited brewery licensees, restricted brewery licensees, plenary and farm winery licensees (and associated salesrooms), craft distillery licensees and cidery and meadery licensees must be in original containers and must be sold through customer pick up and/or delivered by licensees in accordance with their existing licenses,” it read.
The words “in accordance with their existing licenses” had been added. This changed things.
“It comes down to a rush to make sure everyone stops doing what they’re not supposed to do. Everybody but wineries couldn’t deliver as it is, that’s not something our license provides,” said New Jersey Brewers Association Executive Director Alexis Deegan. “An interpretation of EO104 we thought opened up the possibility to deliver, which was unexpected given the state of our licenses. It was like a boon, like a little present. But with the clearer wording, we couldn’t deliver before, so now we can no longer deliver.”
Members of the craft beverage community expressed disappointment via social media, with some speculating that the move to take delivery away was politically motivated. But according to Deegan, seeing the clarification as taking delivery away is myopic, and it highlights the hurdles that the craft beverage industry feels when it comes to growth and sustainability.
“The governor’s office immediately got on the phone with me saying they were looking to find a way within the confines of the law to allow for home delivery. In a 24 hour period, we’ve gone from we can deliver to we can’t deliver to this really highlights the craft production laws in our state right now,” Deegan said.
“I’m hopeful that we can get something going that would allow us an unexpected privilege that can get people jobs, and that would get people back to jobs that had to be laid off, and allow craft producers to do what we do best,” Deegan said.
Time’s a ticking for producers, though. Garrity had to lay off three employees Thursday, and he’s among many. Jersey Spirits owner John Granata said he employs five full-time employees and isn’t currently selling enough to support them.
“Last Monday when they did the shutdown, many if not most distilleries laid off almost their entire staff. We did not, we said we’d keep taking this day by day,” Granata said. “But if we’re not able to give them a good position, we lose good people. We value our staff in a big way. As much as they’re very loyal to us, we try to be very loyal to them.”
At the end of the day, Granata said, it’s not just the tasting room that’s been shut down, but any walk-in traffic that comes through for bottle sales.
“The liquor stores, which is the only place we can sell to, they’re having their own problems. They don’t want people in their stores, so that’s been restricted even more just by circumstance,” Granata said.
Currently, 75 to 80 percent of Jersey Spirits’ ability to sell is restricted, he said.
The Alcoholic Beverage Control and the governor’s office did not return request for comment by press time.