Ryan Lavery gained insight maybe earlier than most that 2020 was not going to be a normal year.
“We had full-on plans for growth,” Lavery, co-owner of Braintree’s Widowmaker Brewing Co., said of his pre-pandemic view of the world. “We had three, 30-barrel tanks that were scheduled to be here in December or early January, but early COVID in China delayed those. That was sort of our first inclination that, like, ‘Oh, something’s happening.’”
Call it prescience, luck, or a little bit of both, but Lavery doubled-down on his growth plans when he saw the initial delays, ordering three more tanks to increase production capacity.
“I just felt like cans and distribution were gonna be the name of the game pretty early on in 2020,” he says. “We invested in a team just dedicated to packaging.”
The pandemic has been detrimental to some business and devastating for others; in September, the Massachusetts Restaurant Association estimated that nearly a quarter of the state’s restaurants have not reopened since the pandemic started. Breweries who relied heavily on taproom sales have also been hit hard. In April, the Mass. Brewers Guild reported an average decline in sales of 56 percent among members. While sales ticked back up over the summer, the industry is bracing for a long, cold winter.
Widowmaker represents the rare small brewery that has not only survived 2020, but appears to be thriving. The story of how it got there could be described as a lesson in perseverance.
Since opening three years ago, Lavery made it a point to get Widowmaker’s beer on tap in as many locations as possible.
“I just always fell in love with beer on draft,” he says. “In the first year our distribution company [Night Shift] pushed us to do a lot of draft. That way when the cans hit the market there’s some familiarity with it, and it’s not just one of millions of cans on the shelf.”
Before this year, Lavery would also travel up and down the East Coast, introducing his beer in new cities like Tampa, Miami, and Washington, D.C., during beer events.
In 2020, those cities and contacts went from being bonuses to essential parts of the business. Before COVID, Lavery says 85 percent to 90 percent of Widowmaker beer was sold from the taproom.
“We had kind of hit our stride,” says Lavery of entering the new year. “The taproom was outrageous. The whole shock of COVID was, like, ‘Oh, [expletive]. How do you make up for $20,000 weekends?”
The answer was to leverage contacts and chip away. Packaging more beer than ever, Widowmaker began shipping to places like Georgia and Florida, sending a case each of beers such as the IPA Blue Comet to boutique stores in each state. Ecstasy of Gold, another IPA, and Candymaker, a peanut butter stout, also sold well.
“It just seemed like a good avenue for us to keep moving beer but not oversaturate Massachusetts,” Lavery says. “We were growing our brand in places I never really expected to distribute.”
The plan worked. Widowmaker shifted its business model so that 40 percent of its beer was moving through distribution. When the taproom opened back up for curbside sales, the Braintree brewery would end spring weekends with almost no leftover beer to sell. Backup plans like selling through home delivery weren’t needed.
Another new revenue stream came from a relationship with the Adams Inn in Quincy. With many weddings canceled, the inn opened a beer and drink garden from its perch on the Neponset River. All summer, patrons came to drink at 100 socially distanced outdoor tables. In addition to Widowmaker, local brewers Vitamin Sea, Second Wind, and Untold poured their products.
“It was just, ‘How do we keep everybody working? And how do we keep full production?” says Lavery. “I noticed a lot of people let it come to them, and we kind of went out and got it.”
And one more COVID-adjustment: In July, Widowmaker installed three garage doors to its brewery space, making the air flow healthier for our current times. The taproom, for now, remains open. Which leads to a surprising total outcome for 2020: more business than the year before.
“We’re up,” says Lavery. “Thankfully.”