A Spirited Response

Posted on March 26, 2020

Navigating the adult-beverage industry is challenging, especially in San Diego County, where more than 150 breweries, 115 wineries, and nearly 20 distilleries compete for attention against one another as well as with national and international brands. Over time, owners of those companies have learned to roll with the punches and adapt to an ever-changing market, but the COVID-19 pandemic threw them an unprecedented, perilous curveball in the form of government mandates shuttering their tasting rooms as well as bars and restaurants.

With most of the places where their liquid wares are sold unable to do so in any significant way, beverage producers retooled to offer online sales, curbside pickup, shipping, and home delivery options. Even with that, revenues would be only a fraction (typically less than 10 percent) of normal figures and, even with mass layoffs and other cost-cutting measures, barely enough to stay afloat. But in the midst of such dire circumstances, a number of craft-beverage manufacturers found a way to make a positive difference for their fellow San Diegans during this crisis, adapting their operations to produce disinfectant agents to help stem the spread of coronavirus.

Two early initiators of this movement are Barrio Logan’s Liberty Call Distilling Co. and Miramar’s Seven Caves Spirits, whose owners worked jointly to produce hand sanitizer from denatured alcohol in accordance with World Health Organization specifications handed down to distillers by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“Liberty Call owner Bill Rogers and I started doing this to make small batches to give away to our family, friends and customers, and we’ve given away hundreds of bottles,” says Seven Caves owner Geoff Longenecker. “Now, we are focused on helping first responders and hospitals in dire need. We believe we are helping solve a problem due to an extremely scary shortage, using alcohol we have on hand or can source quickly.”

San Diego’s breweries are a major resource for distilleries as the latter can extract ethanol from the former’s out-of-code (expired and unsuitable for sale) beer. Pizza Port Brewing, Belching Beaver Brewery, Amplified Ale Works, and Latchkey Brewing have all donated product to Old Harbor Distilling Co., in downtown’s East Village. But not all breweries are stopping there.

Mike Hess Brewing is about to roll out brewery-produced sanitizer at its locations in North Park, Ocean Beach, Imperial Beach, and NorCal’s Walnut Creek community. Made with 80 percent denatured alcohol, it is being produced in 55-gallon batches, which equates to roughly 7,000 four-ounce units, a size selected for its ability to be used on the go.

“Breweries are proficient at putting fluids into containers. The process of filling four-ounce containers is a bit of a learning curve, but we have a motivated crew who are going above and beyond because we all care so much about being part of the solution to ending this pandemic,” says owner Mike Hess, who is taking the opportunity to help others in need as well. One dollar from each sanitizer sale will be donated to MIB Agents, a leading osteosarcoma research foundation.

Kearny Mesa-based non-alcoholic and THC-infused beer producer Two Roots Brewing Co. is working on similar efforts, but distilleries are better set up for this type of production. And the firewater faction is pitching in big time with Old Harbor Distilling, Pacific Coast Spirits, Misadventure & Co., Malahat Spirits, Henebery Spirits, Copper Collar Distillery, and San Diego’s largest distilling interest, Cutwater Spirits, all donating or selling sanitizer.

“We are leveraging our production resources to make an ethanol and glycerin-based sanitizer that we will donate to local nonprofits, including our Miramar neighbors at the San Diego Food Bank,” says Cutwater general manager Shreyas Balakrishnan. “We are also working on additional initiatives to support and give back in San Diego with more news to come.”

“San Diego distilleries are definitely stepping up,” says Longenecker, who has been in close communication with his contemporaries in his work as president of the San Diego Distillers Guild. “When this is done, there will be an amazing story that will be told about the efforts of the San Diego beverage community.”   Brandon Hernández