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Local Breweries Look Back on Those Who Made 2020 Less Terrible

To properly look back on the year that has been 2020, you need to start in 2019.

For many of us, there hasn’t been a more extreme difference between one year and the next as the change from last year to this year has presented.

For Peticolas Brewing Co., New Year’s Eve going into 2020 was a rather easygoing night. A handful of patrons milled around, with some watching the University of Texas football team play on television.

While there were plenty of parties beginning to get underway around town by  7 p.m.,  the Peticolas taproom was calm, even sleepy. The brewery had already hosted its biggest annual shindig three days prior to celebrate its eighth anniversary. New Year’s Eve seemed to be a casual night for a few folks looking for a quiet pint or two.

I was one of those sorts. I hadn’t been able to make it to the anniversary party, but I wanted to get my hands on the limited-edition cherry vanilla stout Peticolas brewed especially for the big day. Besides, I figured, I’d be sure to catch the party in 2020.

Talk about the calm before the storm, even if this particular oncoming storm would bring about a new type of calm than we had never seen before.

If there were a local craft brewery that had every right to feel like 2020 was set to be an even better year than before, it was Peticolas. Highly respected, award-winning, crowd-pleasing and well-established, owner Michael Peticolas’ brewery has been seen as a leader in the local craft beer community since he brewed his first batch of beer in the brewery on New Year’s Eve 2011.

Now about a week away from his brewery’s ninth anniversary, Peticolas looks back on the year with a refreshing sense of perspective that was surely tougher to come by a few months ago. What he’s learned from this unforeseeable year has reinforced the ideals he’s long held tight.

“Twenty-twenty seems overwhelming as we live through it,” he says. “But it will merely be a blip in history by the time we ring in 2030. More than anything, 2020 is reinforcing the foundational beliefs upon which our brewery was built and operates. Consistent quality beer is paramount. Culture is king. Debt kills. Moving properly is more important than moving quickly. Long-term is greater than short-term success.”

While Peticolas had more than a solid history to help sustain itself during the pandemic, other, newer operations entered into the North Texas beer space with a relative amount of blindness. Odd Muse Brewing in Farmers Branch had only been open for two weeks before 2020 began; and by the time the pandemic hit, three months had barely passed for Odd Muse with its doors open.

Bobby Diaz, Odd Muse Brewing Co.’s co-owner and brewer, calls 2020 “a rollercoaster, for sure,” yet has plenty of positive memories to lean on when remembering some of the challenges the pandemic presented his young operation.

“I quickly realized that it’s more of a community than a competitive industry,” Diaz says. “Breweries want other breweries to succeed, and I feel that’s what sets craft beer apart from other industries. Having that strong communal foundation allowed our industry to have a better chance for success during the pandemic.

“Seeing brewers work together to address supply chain shortages, navigate bureaucracies and adapt to the new normal made me not only realize why I got into this industry but also appreciate how quickly craft brewers are willing to step up and help one another to ensure everyone’s success.”

Three Nation Brewing’s owner and head brewer Gavin Secchi guided his brewery through a move from its original Farmers Branch location to a massive new downtown Carrollton location only a few months before the spread of COVID-19 forced so many bar and restaurant shutdowns. He also points to the human side of the equation when recalling the past few months.

“As much as this industry is about beer, it is also about people,” Secchi says. “So many people lost their jobs, and breweries struggled to adjust their business plans to survive as TABC rules changed, as keg sales tanked and as taprooms were closed. As much as it has been a time of pain, it was also an opportunity for us to show how much we care for our employees and customers. Without the faithful, loyal employees and customers of 3 Nations, the pandemic could have been much worse for us.”

For its own part, 3 Nations took advantage of the downtime as much as they could. Citing a number of developments, Secchi will look back on the pandemic as a time when his brewery somehow blossomed.

“We took time during the first shutdown to take a good look at ourselves,” Secchi says. “We have made some bold changes. We hired local artist/muralist Joe Skilz to redesign our cans; we launched a number of new beers and updated our portfolio; we launched Symbol Brewing, which is our innovative, rotating, limited-edition beer line, and we redesigned our website to get current information to our customers.”

Of course, Odd Muse was still searching for sure footing when the COVID spring rolled around and “blindsided” them, Diaz says. With a business model focused on taproom sales and only the beginnings of a presence in the marketplace, reassessing their entire operation was one adventure he hadn’t planned on. Within respectably short order, Odd Muse built an online ordering platform and began selling its beers in can form, something that wasn’t in the works originally.

In September — again, well ahead of its original schedule — Odd Muse added an outdoor beer garden with the help of a grant from the city of Farmers Branch. And with the addition of a Food and Beverage certificate from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, the Odd Muse taproom reopened with all the safety protocols in place.

In July, a report from the Texas Craft Brewers Guild estimated that two out of every three craft breweries in the state would close before 2021. While it’s yet to be seen if that ominous survey comes to fruition, it’s safe to say the breweries that remain will likely apply some of the lessons they’ve learned from 2020.

What may have seemed like temporary pivots a few months ago will likely become permanent modes of operation in the immediate future.

To hear Peticolas tell it, independent brewery owners are well-equipped to handle the dips and swells a global pandemic can bring. Evolving is essential to a craft brewery, regardless of what is going on in the world around it.

“There’s that word again,” Peticolas notes when asked if any pivot his brewery made this year will become standard moving forward.

“Pivot. Until 2020, I mainly heard it during basketball games, but now it’s the newest and hottest business term. ‘Pivoting,’ aka ‘change,’ is built into our normal course of operations,” he says. “Plan formulation is followed by implementation, execution, then review and reformulation. A repeating cycle with change ingrained within it existed before, and will be around after the pandemic.”

As complicated as this year has been, perhaps the not-so-secret key to survival was simply putting out a good product and a good faith effort all along. Pandemic, pivot, curbside. These are a few of the terms that entered our everyday lingo in 2020, but Peticolas hits on the term that’s long been vital for small business owners navigating an uncertain future and that’s ushered so many local breweries through the most traumatic year imaginable: resilient.

“Being unconventional and genuine trumps artificial and contrived every time,” Peticolas says. “Meanwhile, our industry as a whole remains strong and extremely resilient.”