America's breweries, like restaurants and retailers, have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Many have changed their operations to deliver beer and food, and even make hard-to-get hand sanitizer.
But Sierra Nevada Brewing escalated its contributions to combating the virus by making the much in-demand viral transport medium needed to preserve COVID-19 tests.
Early on in the outbreak, the brewery's founder and president Ken Grossman, connected with Mike Wiltermood, the CEO and president of Enloe Medical Center – the brewery and hospital are within four miles of each other in Chico, California. Grossman asked if there was anything the brewery could do to help the hospital.
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Once there were COVID-19 tests, Wiltermood said there was a need for the medium, which preserves the testing samples, which are on a nose or mouth swab. "The lack of testing capability was the issue he raised up to me most and we have a pretty sophisticated lab staff and facility," Grossman told USA TODAY.
In its quality assurance labs, Sierra Nevada Brewing regularly tests batches of beer for unwanted bacteria and wild yeasts that can spoil beer. At both of Sierra Nevada's breweries – it opened one in Mills River, North Carolina, in 2014; the Chico brewery opened in 1980 – the breweries' quality control measures involve using high-end PCR (polymerase chain reaction) machines to quickly process samples.
The labs create their own transport medium already to do those tests. After the scientists looked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recipe for the substance, the told Grossman that for them "this was easy, we do this every day," he said. "So we donated all the time and ingredients."
The hospital, which will perform a sterility check on the medium Sierra Nevada provides, got its first batch of 1,000 vials last week and the brewery has the capacity to make up to 10,000 more, Grossman says.
Enloe Medical Center serves as the largest emergency room in a 90-mile area and was designated as a COVID-19 response center. With Sierra Nevada's contribution, "we can have more confidence that we can provide all the tests that need to be done," said David Fercho, director of lab services for the medical center.
A COVID-19 collection kit includes a swab and a vial of the liquid transport medium to preserve the sample in. "The liquid transport medium, in particular, is hard to obtain," he said. "The global supply is impacted and we can't order it reliably from our normal suppliers."
Smaller breweries have been impacted more than a large operation such as Sierra Nevada, with about six in 10 concerned that the pandemic's effects could drive them out of business, according to a Brewers Association survey in April of 525 brewers earlier this month.
Still, Sierra Nevada, which the trade group ranks as the third-largest independent brewer, took a hit, too. The company lost about 20% of its business, that from beer sales at bars and restaurants across the U.S.
"It’s had a pretty dramatic impact on that part of our business and we’ve got literally million of dollars of beer out in kegs in warehouses, bars and restaurants and that all is going to start coming back," Grossman said. "We are going to refund the money back to the wholesaler, who hopefully will refund the money back to the retailer to help them out."
Sierra Nevada also has worked with a distillery to make hand sanitizer and has donated beer to make sanitizer production.
Like smaller, local breweries, Sierra Nevada has begun selling food and beer for takeout at both of its breweries and is pursuing permits to sell the bread it makes at both restaurants in stores.
"We’re trying to figure out how to change our business to work in this new dynamic," Grossman said. "We are not expecting on-premise (beer sales) to come back overnight. It’s going to be a long slow process to get the bars and restaurants back up and running."