With many of California's COVID-19 restrictions lifted, breweries and taprooms are fully open for business, which means no capacity restrictions and no social distancing protocols. Masks indoors may still be encouraged or mandated, depending on the location, and proof of vaccination is required for indoor imbibing in a handful of counties, most notably Los Angeles and San Francisco. But when it comes to being able to gather in a bar and order a round, a threshold has been crossed—and that’s plenty reason enough for beer lovers and brewers to raise a pint in celebration.
"Since the June 15th reopening, we're able to operate basically the same way we did pre-pandemic, and we're doing everything in our power to get back there," says Gregg Frazer, vice president of hospitality at San Diego–based Stone Brewing. "For people visiting our brewery or taprooms, the experience will be very similar to what it was before the pandemic—and hopefully even a little better."
During much of the pandemic, most California breweries made major adjustments to their indoor and outdoor spaces to accommodate social distancing rules. Now many brewpubs are choosing to retain those modifications because guests like them.
Stone Brewing added extra outdoor seating at their two largest locations in Escondido and San Diego's Liberty Station, and with social-distancing mandates lifted, they can now accommodate even more guests.
"We're fortunate enough to have amazing, beautiful grounds that we could utilize,” Frazer says. “Now that it's no longer reservation-only, people don't have to stay in their seats. They can just stroll around our beautiful grounds. People can come in, walk to the bar, and enjoy a beer. There are no longer any mandates about social distancing—that's a big difference from before."
During the pandemic, Stone Brewing instituted contactless ordering so guests could order beer and food without interacting with a server, and that service will remain.
"We're continuing to use that as part of a hybrid model," Frazer says. "You can order beer or food the traditional way—through a server who comes to your table—and you have the added ability to order additional drinks, food, or merchandise from your phone. It's great for people who don't want to wait."
"The wonderful thing is that the pent-up demand is significant. It feels like people are ready and demand is growing. There's been a huge backlog of events—birthday parties, bridal showers, weddings. The demand is off the charts, and we're letting it roll," he says.
California’s craft beer community has grown to more than 1,000 breweries spanning every part of the state, including pioneering brands with multiple locations like Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. and Firestone Walker Brewing Co. From a geographic perspective, the offerings range from the Humble Farmer Brewing Company near the Mexican border in the Imperial Valley to SeaQuake Brewing, almost 1,000 miles north in Crescent City.
CEO Collin McDonnell says the beer industry has entered an entirely new phase.
"There's no going back to 2019. We're doing things differently in 2021 than we were in 2020, but we're never going back to the way we were doing them in 2019," McDonnell says.
"On a basic level, customers are really focused on spaciousness and cleanliness, so we've adapted to that. We were already focused on outdoor seating, and we'll continue to create bigger outdoor spaces and make sure our indoor spaces are ventilated and airy."