Brew News Spotlight on 603 Brewery: Hard seltzer to the rescue?

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The 603 crew = survivors. Courtesy Photo

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603 Brewery in Londonderry is making only 30 percent of what it was making in sales before the COVID-19 shutdowns, and had to lay off most of its staff, but can sales are up and some federal relief aid has helped.

And this week, the company has diversified its product line by offering one of the first locally-produced hard seltzers.

Rewind one year, and 603 Brewery had just opened its doors at its new 18,000-square-foot building at 42 Main St. The facility was a multi-million-dollar project, which enabled them to expand their brewing capacity and serve more food in an expanded taproom space called the Beer Hall.

“We took on a big risk in 2019 by essentially opening a restaurant,” said co-owner Geoff Hewes.

They hired a chef, tripled their staff in less than a year to about 50 people and ramped up production to over 7,000 barrels a year. But after the state ordered the end of dine-in services, taproom sales and keg sales disappeared. 

In the ensuing weeks, the company had to pivot. They laid off about two-thirds of their employees. The brewery did virtually zero food takeout before the closures. Now, they have a brand new online takeout ordering system.

“We got it up and running within a couple weeks,” Hewes said.

And with no way to sell draft beer through restaurants, they moved to package more beer in cans, something they were able to do more easily because they own a canning line.

Some kegs they were able to empty into growlers and sell off.

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603 Hard Seltzer now available at 603 Brewery. Courtesy Photo

Initially, can sales were “screaming,” Hewes said. Grocery sales in the last two weeks of April saw a decline. But the wholesale side of the business was not as diminished as the taproom sales.

“Definitely in the front end is where we took most of the hit,” Hewes said.

He estimates overall sales are only 30 percent of what they used to be.

And as kegs continue to languish in unopened restaurants, between about 200 accounts, Hewes said they will likely be forced to dump thousands of gallons of stale beer.

603 applied for and was awarded enough Payroll Protection Program money from the Small Business Administration to survive for eight weeks. While Hewes has used some of that to re-hire some key people and get ready for outdoor service on May 18, he is still considering using some of the money for other expenses.

Considering the debt the company already has, Hewes said that it isn’t an ideal solution to turn the PPP money into a loan (if they don’t use most of it for payroll), but if they need to do that to survive, they will.

In the meantime, the company on Wednesday launched a new line of hard seltzers with a variety of flavors, such as lemon limeade, black cherry pomegranate and tangerine, each 5 percent alcohol by volume.

Hewes said the idea is to diversify the product line, which is a good thing right now. While most hard seltzers are sold in 12-ounce cans in 12-packs, 603 will be doing 9-packs of 16-ounce cans.

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Ryan Lessard

Ryan Lessard is a freelance reporter.