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For an upstart brewery, even the best of times can be a rollercoaster, and weathering the effects of the pandemic on the service industry is another matter altogether.
For Lorton’s Fair Winds Brewing, this has been especially true. Just a few months after opening in 2015, they won a Gold Medal at the Great American Beer Festival for their excellent Siren’s Lure Saison. The following years saw core lineup beers like Howling Gale IPA and Quayside Kölsch become mainstays of local draft lines and shelves.
Then, in January of last year, co-founder and CEO Casey Jones passed suddenly, not only breaking the hearts of all of us who knew and loved him, but leaving the young brewery without one of its guiding voices at a crucial time.
Over the rest of 2019, Fair Winds found its footing and then, well, you know — all of this. Fair Winds has managed to keep beer moving, however, thanks to a loyal fanbase, a great brewing team, and a lot of work from Sales and Operations Manager Chris Banich, who I got to catch up with during the past week.
Banich started in the beer business as a part-timer at the old Rick’s Wine & Gourmet in Alexandria (where I spent my 2007-2009) and became the beer buyer and eventually the store’s GM in its final months. After stints with a couple local wholesalers/distributors, Chris spent over three years as the Mid-Atlantic Manager for Colorado’s Avery Brewing. Following his time with Avery, Chris did some consultation work for Crooked Run and has been in his position at Fair Winds for close to a year and a half now.
I wanted to ask Chris about how the brewery is doing, how its sales have been affected, and how they’ve had to adapt. The biggest difference is, of course, the dramatic shift from kegs to packaged beer. “We really had no clue what this was all going to look like,” he said.
Initially, the Fair Winds team expected to have to dump a large amount of their kegged beer as many others have had to, but they were able to convert it all to package and sell it. Their flagship Howling Gale IPA has been “averaging double digit cases sold every day out of the tap room and almost 7 times that amount per day in the market.”
“We are still brewing a ton,” Banich tells me. “Our wholesaler is begging us for more beer. We have unfortunately had to short them beer a few times” as they try to keep up with Howling Gale sales. Banich credits that wholesaler network with keeping Fair Winds beers on grocery shelves and in independent accounts.
Looking forward, Chris is trying to see the opportunities in the world that emerges on the other side of this. While many key accounts may be lost, he says, “if a thousand or so breweries close, that means a lot more open draft lines. Do we immediately make up that volume in other places?”
Also, the breweries that do manage to survive will have the pick of a wealth of talent that is suddenly on the market. Here’s to the Fair Winds team continuing to persevere.