We made it: 2020 is over. Despite the PTSD the year caused, I want to take stock of what happened in the world of craft beer—and look forward to what might happen in 2021.

I feel somewhat confident in this look back, even though I physically visited just three breweries during the entire year—one of which was where I work; another visit happened pre-lockdown; and one trip was just to pick up beer to-go.

The good news locally is that all five Coachella Valley-based breweries are still in business. Seeing as we’re in the midst of the third lockdown, this is a relief. I’ve heard rumors that one may have remained open for in-person consumption despite the new stay-at-home order—which is no surprise, considering we have a county sheriff who vowed to not enforce any COVID regulations, and the Alcoholic Beverage Control folks are swamped. That leaves it up to all of us to avoid businesses that selfishly flout the law. (You know you can get anything to go and take it home, right?) I’ve fully detailed how tough times are for local breweries in my past columns, and it’s certainly a huge worry to the owners of these businesses—but thanks to supportive customers and quick-thinking adjustments by the businesses, all of our breweries remain open and will hopefully make it through this nightmarish home stretch of the pandemic.

It’s been fascinating to track and take advantage of the fact that many breweries have become well-oiled machines with regards to shipping, delivery and to-go orders during the haunted-house ride that last year was. I documented some of what I knew several months back, and since then, more breweries have climbed aboard. With a visit to the websites of many breweries in SoCal, you can have their craft beer at your door in less than a week. I’ve left Riverside County only once since March, yet I have been able to try many beers from areas across this great state. You can also order online to pick up at a scheduled time or at your convenience, depending on the brewery—sometimes even in the parking lot. (Modern Times’ newest location in Anaheim does this, and I applaud them for taking the extra step to protect their employees.) Beachwood BBQ and Brewing in Long Beach has been offering all of this and its fantastic food to go; locally, Babe’s BBQ and Brewhouse is doing the same. Of course, every local brewery is open to pick up beer in various packages as well.

Let’s talk business. We won’t know the full extent of the impact the pandemic has had on the beer industry for a while, but it has not been good. According to the Brewers Association, 907 craft breweries were in operation statewide as of 2019—with more than 150 in San Diego County alone! This translated to almost $10 billion in economic impacts, and 3.9 gallons brewed per state resident of legal drinking age.

I don’t have reliable statistics on how many are in operation as of this moment, but I do know there have been some notable brewery closures. In Southern California, Brew Rebellion, Inland Empire Brewing, Iron Fist, Intergalactic Brewing and others shut down this year. San Diego’s Rip Current Brewing is for sale after winning tons of awards in recent years. Not all of the closures have been primarily due to the pandemic, but some definitely were.

Numerous people who have come into the brewery where I work have expressed their willingness to support their local breweries in whatever ways they can—but as this pandemic grinds on, it is getting tougher and tougher to draw people in with only to-go beer being offered. But for every sad story in this vein, there is a story about a brewery that has transitioned and is doing well. Societe Brewing in San Diego has one such story—and deservedly so. (Try The Pupil IPA if you can find it—a lovely beer.)

Of course, things didn’t have to be this way. We didn’t need to re-open after the first lockdown so early. We could have all actually done our part, avoided personal contact, and not allowed a highly contagious virus to be politicized … I could go on, but that’s not what you’re here for. However, you’ll have to forgive me: If I suddenly found myself out of work, I honestly don’t know what I would do—and I know I’m not alone. This might be the worst time ever to be seeking a job, and I don’t know that I would want to work in beer locally again. Our beer scene was not very strong before March, and it obviously has not improved.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I love the Coachella Valley. I’ve spent many years here and am still surprised by its beauty regularly. I have many family members and friends here (even if I haven’t seen most of them in months). I so badly would love a comfy, friendly, welcoming beer scene to sprout. For a little while, we showed some promise. But I’m just not sure we have it in us.

But, hey, it’s early in 2021, and vaccines are getting shot into arms. Who knows what this year has in store for us? I sincerely hope to be look back on this and think, “How could I be so mistaken?”

Come on, 2021 … prove me wrong.

Brett Newton

Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He can be reached at caesarcervisia@gmail.com.