Homestead Beer Co. hunkers down for a long winter

Joel Oliphint
The empty, frozen patio at Homestead Beer Co. in Heath

On an early Wednesday evening in November, Homestead Beer Co. CEO Joe Wilson was getting ready to leave his Heath brewery for the day when he looked over at the taproom. About a dozen people without masks were seated at socially distanced tables, drinking Homestead beer while a single bartender served them. In that moment, he couldn’t justify staying open.

“It really hurt me emotionally. I was saying to myself, ‘What are you doing, dude? How could you do this?’” said Wilson, who closed the taproom in late November. “That was probably the most unpopular decision I've made since I became CEO. Internally, my bartenders want to murder me because now they're not making any money. … That was a really, really hard decision to make. The business move says, we tough it out and we keep exposing you guys to more and more potential COVID, but the moral decision is, I'm not doing that.”

The decision isn't just hurting the bartenders; it’s taking away one of Homestead’s easiest sources of revenue.

"Making the beer in one room and putting it on a dolly and selling it at retail prices in another room — it doesn't get any better than that. … So I'm losing all that business. I'm losing my best opportunity for [profit] margin, and I am really hurting my employees that work on that side of the building,” Wilson said by phone in early December. “Our layout is unique, in that if you want to come and drink, you have to walk through the production area. So I've got brewers who are living hermit lives at home because that's what they're supposed to be doing, and then I've got a table set up in the brewery where unmasked people can just sit for a couple of hours. That's unfair to them. … Am I stopping the tide of COVID? I don't think so, but I'm doing what I believe to be the morally correct choice. And it's punishing me.”

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Homestead will turn eight in January, and before the pandemic hit, Wilson said it was doing better than ever. The brewery bought a canning line and planned to open an additional location in Delaware, seeking approval for the new site from the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). "We submitted in early March and then never heard a word. There was no one to answer emails. That agency [seemed to] completely shut down,” said Wilson, who more recently has begun to hear of TTB approvals moving forward. “Now I'm in a position where I'm about to get what I wished for, which is for them to answer me, and they're going to say, ‘You can open a brewery in Delaware,’ and I'm going to say, ‘Great. No one is going to come.’”

Wilson also recently partnered with a distributor, which helped get Homestead’s beer into grocery stores like Kroger. But normally, the brewery’s main source of revenue comes from supplying kegs of draft beer to Central Ohio bars. “If you put the right beer in the right place, it moves fast, and then they'll order more,” said Wilson, who referenced Quinn Fallon, owner of Little Rock Bar in Italian Village. “Quinn is a great guy. Little Rock is kind of a bastion in the local music scene and the local beer scene. You want to be on tap at Quinn's location. … But my brewery only does as well as Quinn’s bar.”

Wilson also said the sales impact of the 10 p.m. curfew has trickled down to local breweries like Homestead. “It severely curtailed my ability to sell someone beer because they're not selling it as fast, so they're not as eager to pick something up when a keg kicks, because they are uncertain about what's going to happen,” he said. “I’m going to do everything I can to make it until March. That's all I think about all day, every day: How do I get through this winter? But the scary thing is, on the other side of that, how many places will I have to sell to?”

Wilson is fairly confident Homestead can survive until March, when the weather (hopefully) begins to turn warmer and outdoor patio imbibing returns. But to do that, he’ll have to lay off workers and cut back brewery hours. During the statewide shutdown at the beginning of the pandemic, Homestead received a PPP loan and employees had stimulus money. (“My driver was making more money than me,” Wilson said.) That extra padding isn’t around this time.

“Do I lay workers off and say, 'Best of luck to you,' or do I keep paying them at a rate I can't sustain? It's really tough,” he said. “I had a conversation with a guy who said, 'Look, man. If you need to lay me off, lay me off.' … He can handle it. He's talked with his partner, and it’s something that they can manage. But I got other guys that are like, ‘Dude, for the love of God, please don't cut me.’”

In March, customers had stimulus money to spend, too. Wilson recalled people sending him cellphone photos of their fridges stocked with Homestead and other local beers. Government assistance, customer goodwill and warm weather helped breweries like Homestead stay afloat. Now, the landscape has changed, and the rest of winter looms. “It’s the same COVID, but a very different scenario,” Wilson said.

At this point, though, Wilson isn’t looking to the government for help. He’s on his own. “I know that the right move is to shut my taproom down. I wanted DeWine to do it for me. I wanted him to make the hard decision and shut us down, and then I can blame him for my [bad] numbers. But the truth is, at a time like this, you keep looking outside for answers, and there either aren't any, or they're the same answers now for nine, 10 months, and they're not the correct answers,” he said. “I don't look to leaders anymore because they don't lead. They just talk. … When leadership fails, be your own leader.”

Homestead's closed taproom in Heath