Breweries, distilleries pivot to crafting hand sanitizer to meet immense need

(Courtesy Big Storm Brewing)

Back in January, L.J. Govoni started to hear the rumblings. He had a cousin who was teaching English in China, and word was starting to filter out that a new virus was starting to have a dramatic impact on day-to-day life. 

Govoni, the president of Big Storm Brewing in Clearwater, Florida, then began hearing that the federal government might just start relaxing rules on the creation of alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Putting those two strands together, he got on the phone with local and elected officials to see what Big Storm could do to help in what was clearly a growing crisis. 

Fast forward to the end of March, right when panic-buying of toilet paper and hand sanitizer was at its peak. Store shelves were bare, with little hope for quick replenishment. At that point, breweries and distilleries began to realize they had a unique skillset that could address a pressing local and national need. 

On a normal day, the tap room at Big Storm Brewing — just like those at craft breweries like Yellowhammer Brewing in Huntsville, Alabama; SanTan Brewing in Chandler, Arizona; and Creature Comforts in Athens, Georgia — would be packed, aficionados and day drinkers alike enjoying beers with names like “Trampoline Dream,” “Moon Juice,” and “Tropicalia.” 

But in these days of lockdown and fear, breweries and distilleries across the United States have pivoted away from beer and spirits, turning their alcohol acumen to blending hand sanitizer. The breweries share some common characteristics — they’re deeply connected to their local communities, they’re creative, and they’ve got people on the payroll ready and willing to work — and they’ve put all these to use. The switch may not be as dramatic as car manufacturers switching over to build planes and tanks during World War II, but in a national crisis, every bit of ingenuity helps. 

“We felt we had the ability to make hand sanitizer, because of our experience handling alcohol, which is a key ingredient in the product,” says Robert Hall, CEO of Ole Smoky Moonshine in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, “and after closing our distilleries to visitors, we also had Ole Smoky employees that were available to assist with production.”

(Courtesy Ole Smoky Distillery)

On a broad scale, the processes necessary to brew beer and create hand sanitizer are roughly the same, with different elements such as hydrogen peroxide and glycerol blended into the alcohol at different points in the process. Some breweries started from scratch, sourcing out the necessary materials and firing up the production line with few of their usual concerns. 

“Flavor and taste is no consideration,” says Govoni. “It’s all about efficiently extracting as much alcohol as possible.” Hand sanitizers are 80 percent to 95 percent alcohol, far more than beer or spirits. 

Others, including SanTan Spirits, recalled much of its unsold beer and blended it into sanitizer. SanTan keeps a strict sell-by policy on its beer, and as much of its IPA stock was nearing that 90-day sell-by date, the brewery recalled 16,000 gallons, to be blended into 400 gallons of “SanTanitizer.” The IPA base gives the sanitizer what the company called a “pleasant tropical hop aroma.” 

(We cannot stress this enough — do not drink hand sanitizer, not even if it comes from a craft brewery. The federal government requires the addition of a denaturing agent to make the hand sanitizer bitter and unfit for drinking, no matter how good it smells.)

As the scope of the coronavirus crisis grew more clear, breweries across the country began picking up on the need for hand sanitizer, and on March 18, the federal government formally waved the green flag to allow breweries and distilleries to ramp up production. The Bureau of Alcohol and Tobacco’s Tax and Trade Bureau waived taxes and permitting requirements for the production of hand sanitizer, and facilities all over the country began repurposing their operations to meet the vast need. 

“Within the industry, we saw a couple of distilleries start producing sanitizer and, when we saw a need for it in our community as well, we challenged ourselves to utilize our existing resources to begin offering it from the brewery,” says Chris Herron, CEO of Creature Comforts in Athens. “We were able to re-pivot to start making hand sanitizer in about three weeks.”

SanTan's distillery is now being repurposed for hand sanitizer. (Courtesy SanTan Brewing)

It hasn’t gone entirely smoothly. Maui Brewing ran afoul of county officials zealously prosecuting a no-gifts-with-alcohol regulation when it began giving away hand sanitizer. But for the most part, local governments have welcomed the unexpected influx of assistance. 

Switching over manufacturing processes from brewing/distilling to hand sanitizer production takes anywhere from a few days to a couple weeks, depending on the size of the operation. Sourcing materials and finding necessary packaging was a challenge, but ingenuity runs in the bloodstream of brewers and distillers.

Ole Smoky, for instance, repurposed the five-gallon pails that it receives filled with cherries — for their “Moonshine Cherries,” of course — into containers for large-scale distribution. The company sells personal quantities of hand sanitizer in 50ml glass mason jars once meant for moonshine. Big Storm used some old tap towers left over from its earliest days to fill multiple jugs at once. 

Most of the first batches from breweries went to the places that needed it the most — first responders, hospitals and the like. Others provided sanitizer for their own employees and their families. With production now largely ahead of demand, many breweries are looking at ways to sell to the public; some are selling curbside, while others ship online orders. 

“The hospitality industry has been hit pretty hard,” says Ethan Couch, co-founder and general manager of Yellowhammer Brewing. “Now that we’ve got first responders taken care of, we’re reaching out to our former clients for beer and spirits and getting them sanitizer. We’re all in the same boat right now.” 

As a side benefit, keeping the breweries in operation has allowed companies to keep their employees — almost always referred to as team members or even family — employed. Many of these are small operations, with less than 100 employees, and the ability to keep members of the “family” working and on the payroll can’t be overstated. 

“We thought we could sell a couple hundred gallons a week,” Big Storm’s Govoni says. “We’re up to thousands of gallons. We’re keeping the team together as we come out the back side of this. I feel better about our business today than I did last year.” 

(Courtesy Yellowhammer Brewing)

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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