by Kevin M. Smith
For most of Frederick County’s breweries, the March quarantine meant scrambling to adjust their business plan. Throughout the Beer & Loathing series, a common theme has been the shift from a tasting-room centric business plan to a focus on distribution. Concerns abounded, ranging from sourcing packaging, to the not-so-simple question of “how do we do this now?” For the Milkhouse Brewery at Stillpoint Farm, owner Tom Barse, and general manager Sarah Healey the questions were a little different. “Tom and I were very closely monitoring the CoVID situation and had discussions at length about all possibilities,” explained Healey. “With our small staff and the business located on Tom’s home farm, our decisions had a few extra layers of consideration. We brought in our tasting room staff – we have 4 part-time employees, 2 full-time – and met with them in person to talk about having to lay them off due to virus concerns. It was extremely difficult and emotional as we are a very tight knit team-more like a family. We are so fortunate to have such a great team that was very understanding.” Healey added that all of Milkhouse’s staff has since returned to work.
Healey said that there were a lot of considerations, making for a complex decision that she described as both difficult and easy. “We are…incredibly fortunate to operate without carrying debt as the business has grown very slowly,” she said. “So, from a business standpoint, it was pretty easy to just hit the pause button but, from a personal perspective, it was difficult to not be able to provide for our staff. All sales and brewing operations stopped. We only had a Lager in the tank which worked out well for conditioning.”
Healy, who is also the current president of the Brewer’s Association of Maryland spent much of the spring shutdown on a series of Zoom conference calls as part of the reopening task force working out recommendations for best practices and procedures for when breweries would be able to reopen their doors. As for Milkhouse, she explained that, “When we decided it was time to re-open, we let our tasting room staff know of our planned date as well as new procedures as early as we could so that they could decide for themselves if they felt comfortable coming back to work. We then had everyone come in to work through our new processes to get feedback and work out any unforeseen issues. Of course, we also brought our brewer back to start up production again prior to our actual reopening.”
Even though Milkhouse has a history of bottling their beers, Healey noted that around two years ago the brewery stopped bottling, deciding to focus on the expansion of tasting room offerings and to build out a barrel-aging program. “Though CoVID has been difficult, we have been able to take this slowdown in production to actually get beer back into bottles that will be available soon!” Healey added, “This [barrel] project has been in the works for over four years and we are excited to have something new and very unique to share with everyone.”
As Maryland brewing has moved into the next phase of reopening, so too has Milkhouse. There are changes that can be expected, explained Healey, when patrons visit the brewery. “We have moved to a totally outdoor model with our tables and umbrellas socially distanced in the hay field, and tables are first come first served. We are not taking reservations [and no] call-ahead seating. Masks are REQUIRED anytime guests are not seated at their tables. Customers are greeted as they arrive and are given information on our procedures. Each of our tables have an umbrella, a bottle of hand sanitizer and a wooden block that is half red, half green. Customers are allowed to choose any table with the block green side up-green [which] means [the table is] clean. We ask that the block is flipped to red once they sit down so that our staff and other customers know that the table is no longer sanitized. Our tasting room is closed for inside seating but the restrooms are open. They are sanitized at the top and bottom of every hour. As customers close their tabs, tables/chairs/umbrellas/sanitizer bottles are all sprayed with 70 percent alcohol surface disinfectant from either McClintock Distilling or Tenth Ward Distilling Company…. We’ve moved our beer menu outside so that it is easily visible to customers or they can view our menu on Untappd right from their phones. Cash is not accepted at this time but, we can take credit cards or contactless payment. Our point of sale is sanitized between each use and sanitizer is provided at the bar for customer use as well. We are still offering our 16 draft lines and we do have a hopped cider as a gluten free option. Beer is available to-go in crowlers.”
Conspicuously absent this year was the Festival at the Farm. Started as the anchor to the now defunct Frederick Beer Week, the small festival at Stillpoint Farm evolved into one of the region’s premier beer festivals. A family-friendly event, held every June since 2011, the powers that be thought it best to cancel this year’s edition. Healey said, “while it was sad to not be able to see all of the amazing Maryland breweries and beer lovers enjoying a day on the farm, cancelling was not a difficult decision. The health and safety of our community is paramount and having 1,000-plus people in a relatively small space was just not something we wanted to pursue given everything going on. While we are missing our ‘normal’ business and events at the farm, the health and safety of community and staff remain our top priority. We are not in a hurry to move back to large gatherings until science shows that they may be done in a manner that is safe and responsible.”
With limitations on how tasting rooms can open, Healey said that local customers have really stepped up. “Maryland craft beer supporters have truly blown me away with their unwavering support during these unprecedented times. Supporting small local businesses is more critical now than ever. I can’t speak for how other businesses need to make decisions for themselves going forward but Milkhouse is continuing to prioritize health, safety and science when making business decisions. Although we are not out of the woods, we are hopeful that all Marylanders will continue to be vigilant in order to move forward through this crisis.”