WILMINGTON — During a pandemic that has shuttered taprooms and canceled large events for much of the year, Michelle and John Savard used their spare time to boost beer distribution and begin building a 220-person event space next to their midtown brewery.
According to Michelle, Wilmington Brewing Company is one of several breweries in the region still playing it safe by not reopening its outdoor space to customers, even after Governor Roy Cooper signed an executive order last week that would allow for it. She said they’ll stay with their to-go model for now — while canning a much larger portion of their beer to pick up the slack in lost taproom sales.
The Savards were prepared for an increase in production. In August 2019, they added eight 30-barrel fermenter tanks and two 30-barrel lagering tanks, doubling their brewing capacity. Typically, about a third of the brewery’s overall sales came from on-premise pints and cans and growlers sold as to-go options.
“Even though we’ve taken a hit in sales as most everyone has in 2020, we are thankful we were able to shift our business model a bit and keep on cruising,” John said.
“It feels like everything’s shifted,” Michelle added. “But I’ll take the shift — we’re a lot luckier than many businesses.”
The brewery’s distribution ratio in 2019 was roughly 80% keg sales to 20% canned beer sales, according to John. In 2020, those numbers have balanced out at about 55% and 45%, respectively.
In June they rolled out a new ‘Beer with a View’ series. Instead of the usual four-packs of tallboys (16-ounce cans), these sessionable beers were canned in standard 12-ounce six-packs and made for easy summertime drinking, with each beer brewed at about 5% ABV. The labels feature aerial photography of iconic Wilmington coastal landscapes from local drone photographer Aaron Koenig.
Labels of the new cans capture the summertime vibes of Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach: the Palm Tree Island Pale Ale features a photo of the popular college sandbar hangout next to the Wrightsville Beach Bridge, the Blonde Session Ale shows beachgoers sitting beside colorful umbrellas, and the Sup Bräu Pilsner shows turquoise ocean water and foam. The next beer in the lineup will be the increasingly popular hoppy lager — a style Michelle describes as “a lager walking towards an IPA” — with the label featuring an aerial shot of the marsh on the Intracoastal Waterway.
An upcoming Halloween release is a spinoff from the brewery’s most popular beer, Tropical Lightning IPA, one bartenders and restaurant managers around town often describe as Wilmington’s most consumed local craft beer. The new Tropical Frightening is brewed at a higher gravity with blood oranges and will be sold in four-packs of tallboys, according to Michelle. This year they also began canning their pumpkin ale, which is essentially their amber ale brewed with pumpkin meat and spices.
In addition to scaling up canned beer production, the pandemic has allowed the Savards more time to focus on the design and construction of the new event space, tucked into a densely wooded property adjacent to the brewery. The new 5,000-square-foot building will serve primarily as an event space for live music, private receptions, and can-release parties. It will also serve as an offshoot expansion of their brewhouse (Michelle said they’re planning to house barrels in the new facility).
Michelle is most excited about a wooden deck that will sit above a stream running through the property. The building is designed to include three glass garage doors running along each of its two long sides, creating an open-air feel for customers when they are opened. Instead of the modern concrete look found in many brewery taprooms across America, she said they have designed something different.
“We’re doing a lot of wood design inside,” Michelle said. “The interior ceiling will be wood-paneled. Even though it’s a big 5,000-square-foot building, we just want it to feel warm and inviting.”
Nothing is certain in the age of the Covid-19 pandemic, but she suspects they’ll have at least a year to make things right before they open the building. When the state’s capacity restrictions lift, however, the Savards will be able to throw quite a party.
“All said and done, it will be able to hold 222 people — but of course in a different time, in the future,” Michelle said.
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