By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Apr 24, 2020 at 1:02 PM

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In recent weeks, news reports about dairy farmers being forced to dump milk and produce have been joined by stories of craft brewers in Portland, Oregon, and South Carolina facing the same horror of seeing their product and profit go right down the drain as sales tank during the coronavirus shutdown.

Fortunately, there are also people working to raise money to purchase some of that milk and produce get it to people in need.

But what of beer? Are brewers in Milwaukee dumping?

The short answer appears to be: not yet.

Not all beer goes stale, says Tim Eichinger of Black Husky Brewing, and needs to be dumped.

"We have kegs of beer that are six years old that I am cellaring," says Eichinger. "Beer stored properly can last a long time. It may change over that time as it ages but it won’t go bad – IF – it is stored properly."

The problem, says Eichinger, is not necessary kegged beer, and some of the news reports from around the country point to out of code beer.

"Out of code usually applies to packaged product – cans and bottles," says Eichinger. "These are items that are usually not stored cold (and) so tend to stale more quickly – unless you pasteurize. Even then if you drive around with a case of Hamms in your trunk for a few months it will probably not be at its best. A 60-90 day (expiration) date is pretty young. Its usually around 120."

This packaged beer limitation doesn’t affect a small brewery like Black Husky all that much, says Eichinger, though he and his partner Toni Eichinger have had to roll with the changes.

"We’ve had to adjust with no taproom glass sales and almost no keg sales," he says. " I have noticed that growler sales are increasing each week. I have kegs of beer and beer in fermenters. Kegged beer goes into the taproom and into growlers for carry out. Beer in fermenters goes into cans.

"Beer is being canned and bottled depending on your set up. Out of date beer points to a business model of high distribution. There may be some breweries who rely heavily on keg sales (to bars and restaurants, which are closed) and have no taproom to do carry out growlers but that is not going to be the case for everyone."

Still, says Eichinger, in Milwaukee, "no one I know is dumping beer."

Not yet, but it is a real fear for some, like Andy Gehl, who is a co-founder of Third Space, which does have much larger – and ever-growing – distribution, and, therefore, more beer on hand. It sold just under 9,000 barrels of beer in 2019.

Third Space’s situation is not the same as Black Husky’s and dumping is something he fears Third Space might face.

"Absolutely," says Gehl. "We have hundreds of kegs of draft beer right now that will be very difficult to move through while it is still fresh, even if things start to open up next month. I think some level of dumping may be inevitable if we want to maintain quality, which is very important to us."

As an example of how big distribution – which has been a benefit for Third Space, a brewery that has been growing almost non-stop since it opened a few years ago – can come back to bite a brewer, Third Space has for a couple years enjoyed brisk sales of 16-ounce cans of its Happy Place ale at Miller Park and Fiserv Forum.

But, of course, there is neither baseball nor basketball (nor big concerts) and so all that beer brewed and specially canned for the stadium and arena – Happy Place is otherwise packaged in 12-ounce cans for retail sale – is sitting in the Third Space warehouse.

That beer, says Gehl, is still well within its freshness period, but the brewery is offering customers cases of the tall boys at a discounted price to try and move it along.

"(The pricing) is a proactive step to get that beer in people’s hands while it is still fresh rather than having it sit in a warehouse waiting to see if the stadiums ever open," he says.

"It’s also a fun thing for people to be able to enjoy the beers they would have had at Miller Park or Fiserv Forum right now and we are constantly looking for ways to engage in a fun way with our customers."

Is this an example of something that could lead to dumping?

"If we didn’t find another outlet for the Happy Place 16-ounce cans like we are doing now that could have been an issue," he says, "but thankfully there is an outlet for them while still fresh. That is not the case for the draft beer. We were in a major ramping up phase both for expected growth and getting ready for summer so we are sitting on a lot of draft beer. So yes, it is a concern that we are working on solutions for."

One option suggested to brewers as a solution by the Brewers Association – an organization of craft brewers – is diverting the beer to distillers who can use it to create sanitizing liquids and gels.

"It is likely that some craft distilleries in your area have transitioned to the production of hand sanitizer," suggests a post by the association’s sustainability subcommittee.

"Fermentation time and capacity are the limiting factors in this process and unsaleable beer can help alleviate the bottle neck. If possible, brewers and distributors should reserve out-of-code beer to support the production of hand sanitizer."

While this sounds like a good and obvious solution, Eichinger says it might not be widely practicable.

"You need a lot of beer to make 190 proof wash (required for sanitizing purposes) and you need to find a distillery willing to tie up capacity with your beer instead of getting corn sugar and making their own hand sanitizer."

Evan Hughes, co-founder of Central Standard Distilling, agrees.

"We’d love to do this for brewers," he says, "however, it is super inefficient because of the low alcohol content of the beer. Three hundred gallons turns into about 15-20 gallons of sanitizer. We need to run our high-proof through to keep it cranking."

Brian Sammons, of Twisted Path Distillery, has already begun working on collaborative whiskies made with local brewers' excess beer.

"A few years of barrel-aging down the road, we'll have some interesting joint-release whiskies," he says. "I'm distilling 300 gallons of beer from 1840 into whiskey right now.

"Not all beer will make good whiskey, but then we'll redistill into sanitizer."

If the thought of beer running down a floor drain in a brewery hurts your head and your heart, support your favorite local craft brewers, and, remember, breweries aren't the only ones in need.

"It's portrayed as breweries are in a different situation than other small businesses and that’s just not true," says Eichinger. "We consider ourselves fortunate to be able to operate at some level and create some revenue. So rather than looking at what we can’t do we look at what we can do.

"Please keep on buying cans and growlers from your local craft brewer, but if you are looking for something altruistic I think there are many other businesses in more dire straits than breweries."

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.