Brew News Spotlight on Rockingham Brewing Company: Online beer ordering may be here to stay

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Rockingham Brewing Company in Derry weathered the storm relatively well with an increase in canned beers and support from local customers, but it’s been a whirlwind to keep up with the changes.

“Just as you start to get into the swing of one thing, it changes,” co-owner Ali Leleszi said.

She said the taproom usually makes up about 30 percent of their overall business, but when dine-in services ended on March 17, they had to come up with another way to keep the business going.

Like many brewers during this time of pandemic-related shutdowns, Rockingham turned to packaging for wholesale and retail sales, particularly with cans. Leleszi said they went from originally canning anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of what they brewed, to canning nearly 90 percent.

“We had to flip our business model on its head a little bit,” Leleszi said. “We started to can beers we had never canned before.”

They even canned beers designed to be sold on tap exclusively at certain restaurants, like the Red Sky IPA which they brew for Dockside Restaurant in Alton Bay.

The gamble paid off as members of the community turned out to buy the canned beers out of the taproom to-go, to the point that canned sales made up for draft sales by volume, albeit with narrower profit margins.

“I couldn’t believe it, how much beer people were buying to-go,” Leleszi said. “Our community really values small businesses and wants to see us survive.”

She said they were able to keep up with their rent and utility bills and didn’t need to defer anything. But they went from six employees — including Leleszi and her husband Rob, co-owner and head brewer — to just the owners and the assistant brewer.

Leleszi said they applied for the Small Business Administration’s Payroll Protection Program but since she and Rob were not on payroll, they received less than $10,000 from that.

“The payroll protection program wasn’t the best fit for our specific business, I think,” she said.

They also applied for a New Hampshire Main Street Relief Fund grant, but expects less than $1,000 from that.

In the beginning, Leleszi said they brewed with hesitation. They didn’t slow down production, but they decided to focus less on hoppy beers which have shorter shelf lives, and more on longer-lasting styles.

IPAs just made a comeback at Rockingham in early June.

“We had to flip our business model on its head a little bit,” said Ali Leleszi, left, co-owner of Rockingham Brewing Co. in Derry.

The downtime of a closed taproom meant they could focus on some beers that take longer to ferment, such as a couple German style ale-lager hybrids.

These include a new kolsch called Pig Knuckle (5.3 percent) and an altbier called Alternate Reality (5.3 percent), both of which have been very popular and may have the staying power to be returning seasonals. 

The kolsch sold out quickly and a new batch is coming out in a few weeks.

Rockingham opened its outdoor seating area as soon as they could on May 18, and so far it has worked out well, Leleszi said.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised each step,” she said.

They have a capacity of about 24 people outside and at first only allowed customers to get a seat through reservations. Now that indoor seating is available at 50 percent capacity (which translates to about additional 28 seats in practice), they have done away with the reservations.

Some of the new things the brewery added has gone away, while others may become a lasting legacy.

For instance, they had been doing deliveries every Friday for minimum $40 orders within Derry and Londonderry since the shutdown, but stopped doing that when indoor seating opened up.

But a new way to order beer online may likely stay a part of the business model.

“One thing that I hope sticks around is the online ordering because that has been very beneficial for us,” Leleszi said.

Overall, Leleszi says she thinks the business fared pretty well through the crisis, but is apprehensive about what’s to come.

Moving forward, Leleszi said she is worried about people not taking social distancing seriously, resulting in a second wave of COVID-19 cases, and what that could mean for the business. She hopes it doesn’t happen, since it could be disastrous for the industry and harm people’s consumer confidence and mental health.

Rockingham Brewing Co. is located at 1 Corporate Park Dr. Unit #1, Derry, NH 03038. Find them on the web here or follow them on Facebook and Instgram @rockinghambrewing.

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