This is the second installment in The New Normal, a series about the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on Kentucky businesses and organizations. Check out last week’s installment about bourbon distilleries here.
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Through good times and bad, we stick together. Last week we looked at how the uniquely Kentucky industry of bourbon came together from the very early days of the pandemic, dropped everything, and helped the community in a unique way only they could: making hand sanitizer. It wasn’t an easy task, but it’s what had to be done. Buffalo Trace and Town Branch production took a back seat to the sanitizer we needed desperately at the time, but despite production shifts the demand for bourbon remained high and it seems like the industry is going to be just fine.
But is that the case beyond bourbon? Just barely half a mile from that Town Branch sanitizer line in downtown Lexington sits another alcohol production facility, but this one with a much different brand and culture. The new wave of Kentucky drink production swaps old money vibes for down to earth realism, and perhaps nobody does this better than the brewers over at Country Boy. Country Boy is down-home Kentucky through and through. Whether you drink a Cougar Bait on Lake Cumberland or have a Shotgun Wedding while camping in the hills of Appalachia you’ll realize there’s no better encapsulation of the Bluegrass State in the shape of a can out there. We talked to the country boy himself: Daniel Harrison, Co-Founder and Brand Manager.
DH is a fun, genuinely good, guy. “All my college professors were like ‘Daniel DH Harrison,’ actually no the DH is for Daniel Harrison, it’s no big deal, I’m not bent out of shape by it, it’s whatever.” It’s clear DH lives and breathes the brand he manages, and he’s true to himself through and through. But given all this, his (and the brand’s) beer making origins are actually pretty surprising.
“You see us four owners and all the guys that work here and you wouldn’t think ‘Hey, these guys have their roots in Japan, but absolutely we do.”
Due to the influence of Toyata’s factory in Georgetown, one of its sister cities in Tahara, Japan. DH took a job teaching English in Tahara where he met another one of his co-founders, Nate, and together they discovered a love for Japanese craft brewing. “I like to say I’m a reformed craft beer blogger,” DH admits. He met Brian Baird of Baird Brewing Company in a town named Izu, and in a very traditionally Eastern way he received Brian’s blessing.
“He charged us to take this, what you’ve learned of how to make great craft beer in the Japanese mindset and go back to Kentucky and do it. We were so dumb back then. We were like ‘Hey, let’s just do it. Let’s start a brewery. What, it can’t be that hard. All we gotta do is sell beer, and we’ll make the money, take the money, buy more stuff with it, make more beer, and just roll with it.’ No business plan.”
Ten years, two facilities, and a hell of a lot of beer later it must not have been a bad plan. I asked DH about the stark contrast between the Japanese origins and the heavily country brand of the company, and he had some great insight: “There’s countryfolk everywhere right? I had more in common being from Sadieville, KY with those people in a Japanese mountain town than sometimes I would with somebody from Chicago or New York.” To the co-founders, a “Country Boy” is a roughly translated, localized version of the Japanese word “Shokunin” which is best described as a working artisan, somebody who dedicates their life to working at their craft.
So with such deeply personal dedication, how has the pandemic impacted the brewery? “We knew we were dealing with something that none of us had ever dealt with before. And yeah, we’ve really got no roadmap. So we were just gonna try to be as prudent as we could and operate out of an abundance of caution. All at the same time, trying our best to read the tea leaves when it’s dark.”
While still down in Florida for an industry conference that ended up being cancelled, the Country Boy co-founders announced on Sunday, March 15th that they were shutting their taprooms and brewing facility and became a first mover at the time. It was hours before any word came from the Governor about restrictions or stay-at-home orders. Mixed emotions came in from the public and nobody was sure if they were making the right move, but it was important to DH that the safety of his fellow Kentuckians was the primary concern, far before profits or politics or personal motives.
“We ended up laying off basically all of our sales staff, kitchen staff, and bar staff that next day. That was another moment too, where we were like, ‘I don’t know if this is the right decision, but the Governor is saying you get unemployment, so we’re going to do this right now. Don’t waste time. Don’t stop by the store on the way home. Go sign up. We don’t want to get you backlogged.’ Thank goodness, most of our folks were able to get in immediately before that backlog came. So I know that was the right decision. We ended up being closed on the front until June the eighth.”
I want to stop there for a moment and think through this. It’s hard to think back to March with the lifetime we’ve lived since then, but try to put your mindset back in that extremely uncertain time. Nobody knew what was going to happen, or how long this would last. In our heads the virus might as well have been a monster that was lurking around every corner, but also we were second guessing that because it was so unprecedented. Next, imagine you’re a business owner at that time and everybody has an opinion on how you handle it. Now, let your staff go, shut down a major revenue stream, and tell people they can’t come have a drink. Yikes. Despite all that, DH truly felt like he did what was right for his people and for the public, so none of the struggle of the decision mattered.
When we asked DH about the business impact all this had, he was pretty blunt: “We’re down.” On-premise sales used to make up 30% of Country Boy’s revenue, and to this day they are still down by half. Luckily they have a pretty robust distribution network to take care of the demand for beer in grocery, convenience marts, and liquor stores across the state that remained steady throughout the pandemic. DH credits consumers for this, and in the same way he thought of fellow Kentuckians when shutting down, he believes they thought of Country Boy when shopping.
“People really stepped up,” DH says with a grateful smile, “I think, you know, due to what was being said everyday on TV as well as a lot of the social media messages: ‘Hey, support local, your restaurants, your breweries, everybody needs you. When you’re out, grab a six pack of that local beer or a growler on curbside, get a crowler.’” DH credits the community for keeping Country Boy afloat during the pandemic, which is a sentiment that another local brewery echoed as well.
We talked to Katelyn O’Connor, Blue Stallion’s Sales and Marketing Manager: “We have kind of a collective feeling that things are going to keep going and we’re going to be alright. Local support has been the biggest part of that. It’s been really astounding to see so many people supporting us and other local breweries and, you know, coming and getting beers, talking about it on social media, promoting us to all their friends. It’s been really heartwarming and really great. So that has definitely helped keep our spirits up and keep us looking toward the future.” While Katelyn won’t say it directly, that local support not only kept spirits up but kept the balance sheet up as well. “Kegs sales have dipped, of course, as businesses aren’t having the table turnaround that they’re used to, but cans have definitely gone over really well.”
Blue Stallion has its annual Oktoberfest happening now and things look different this year with limited capacity, social distancing, and everything else we’ve come to know from pandemic-era foodservice. The carefree jollyness that usually comes with the German drinking festival will undoubtedly be tampered this year, but Katelyn doesn’t think it’ll always be that way.
“I think that a lot of people miss sitting at the bar and chatting with their friends and their bartender. So I think after COVID, a lot of people will be excited to be able to go out again,” Katelyn said, “and I expect that we’re going to have a lot of on-premise business then. Personally, I really want to go sit at the bar and have a beer somewhere. And I know a lot of people do. I think people tend to hold local businesses and breweries kind of close to their heart. And I fully expect that once it’s all over they’ll come back, whether that takes a little bit of time or not, I’m not really sure, but I think it’s going to happen.”
DH at Country Boy isn’t so sure: “The industry will change. I don’t know how, I mean we’re still in the middle of it. We have talks daily about what we think we’re going to do? We’re looking at all options. People’s buying habits have changed, how they consume beer has changed, the type of beer they consume has changed, and where they consume it has changed. Consumer confidence? I don’t know how you bring that back, even if there’s a vaccine or whatever we have. There’s no blueprint for that.”
Like every industry the future of brewing is uncertain. Nobody knows what the craft beer space is going to look like in a month or a year or five years. Nobody knows how revenue streams are going to continue to evolve. But the one thing that is certain is that people will want beer, and the people making it will continue to do so with a smile. To wrap up our call with him, DH told this story of how he found his great grandmother’s ration book from WWII and how it hit him deep as a very real indication that we’ve been in a similar situation before, and we made it through.
“I know we’re gonna make it. I got this ration book, right? Look, it’s still full of rations on the inside because my great grandmother knew, like she ain’t gotta use everything. We’re going to get through it, we’re all gonna make it. And here’s why: as a country, we’ve gone through this kind of thing before, and we all banded together. We’ll do that again.”
Stay tuned next week, we’ll talk to Kash Daniel, the Dean of the Gatton College of Business and Economics, students, and professors about a place that may not be totally banded together: the University of Kentucky. Make sure to subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.