Cairn Brewing is a community brewery located in Kenmore. For those not familiar with the area, you’ll find the small city of Kenmore nestled between Lake Washington’s Northshore and Bothell on the outskirts of Seattle. You can access Cairn via the Burke-Gilman Trail, along with two other neighboring breweries that make up Kenmore Brewery Row.
On a normal afternoon at Cairn, the taproom is abuzz with locals. Friends roll in on bikes, families bring the kids, and neighbors make the brewery a dog-walking destination. An assortment of seating — from comfy couches to communal tables and an inviting beer garden — makes everyone feel at home. Staff are genuinely friendly, greeting many of their regulars by name. Food trucks park outside; the beer is consistently great. Cairn is the quintessential community taproom.
Adjusting to a New Normal
Of course, nothing is normal anymore. During Washington’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” response to the coronavirus pandemic, breweries like Cairn have been forced to change their business model or close up shop. So how is Cairn — a community-focused brewery dedicated to selling beer across their own bar — keeping the beer flowing? To find out, I spoke with Cairn beertender and blogger, Rachel Wood.
“We went from a brewery that was 100% community focused — your neighborhood brewery that is serving all of their beer over the counter — to being a brewery that is 100% production-based,” Rachel said. “Now we are canning upwards of about 200 cans a day.”
Throughout April and May 2020, Cairn shifted operations to online ordering and curbside pickup only. Many breweries in this position have been forced to lay off employees. But because of their small size and dedicated community following, Cairn has been able to keep all of their employees busy.
“We have seven members on the Cairn team,” Rachel said. “And we are able to pivot as needed. Cairn’s owners (husband and wife, Bill and Jen) made it a priority to keep all of the staff employed.”
Serving the Community
While beer enthusiasts are unable to sit down and drink a pint at their favorite breweries, the shift to takeout and delivery beer is keeping many local watering holes afloat. It’s also a benefit to community members who can find a bit of normalcy in picking up their preferred brews to-go.
“We’ve always been a place where people could come and bring their lives and gather,” Rachel said. “We’re still seeing that — just in a different way. We have a food truck every day that we’re open, so you can still get takeout and beer for the night. It’s kind of a nice little escape from your house — if only for 20 minutes.”
Of course, Cairn is just one example of a neighborhood brewery keeping the doors open during these trying times. Across the state, over 400 breweries have faced the tough decision of closing or pivoting their business model.
One example of a much larger brewery making the shift is Fremont Brewing in Seattle. As the third-largest brewery in the state by production volume, Fremont was in a better position to weather the storm than many smaller breweries. Much of their beer is canned, kegged and distributed to grocery stores and bars across the region. Like Cairn, they offer beer to-go at their taproom.
Limited Release Beers
Another way that breweries are staying busy and supporting their communities is through limited beer releases. Reuben’s Brews kicked off the trend in Seattle by creating a special beer, You Are Not Alone IPA, to support food and beverage industry workers affected by the shutdown. Reuben’s invited other breweries throughout the state to create their own versions of You Are Not Alone. So far, at least 10 Washington breweries have stepped up to the challenge including Bale Breaker Brewing, Urban Family Brewing and 5 Rights Brewing.
We’re also seeing some classic Washington craft beers in cans for the first time. Anyone who’s been to a bar or restaurant in Western Washington has seen Mac and Jack’s African Amber and Georgetown Manny’s Pale Ale on tap — but never in cans at the grocery store. These brews have made their way across Pacific Northwest bars in pint glasses for decades and are finally seeing a limited release in cans. Get them while you can!
Check with your local brewery, or consult the Washington Beer Blog for an updated list of beer to-go options around the state. Stay safe and healthy, and support your local brewery!
Featured photo: John Gateley. Additional images by Brandon Fralic, Cairn Brewing, and Reuben’s Brews.