The week leading up to St. Patrick’s Day is usually a festive one for Left Hand Brewing. Not only is the taproom at 1265 Boston Avenue in Longmont packed with green-clad revelers, but the brewery sells thousands of kegs of its Milk Stout Nitro to bars and restaurants across Colorado and in others states, many of which have adopted the dark, creamy ale as the perfect American craft replacement for the still-iconic Guinness.
But the luck of the Irish wasn’t with Left Hand on Saint Paddy’s Day 2020. That’s the same day Governor Jared Polis ordered restaurants, breweries and bars across the state to stop serving dine-in customers in an effort to slow the spread of the burgeoning COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, there were no pub crawls, no half-and-halfs, no green-costume contests, no Left Hand swag and no Milk Stout Nitro — or any other beer — served on draft.
“There were much grander things to be concerned about on that day, with COVID in the world, but for us, it translated into a lot of our distributors and retailers being geared up for a St. Patrick’s Day celebration that didn’t take place,” says Left Hand sales director Jason Ingram. “There was an absolute panic — and rightfully so.”
For Left Hand, it eventually meant dumping out around 1,000 kegs of delicious beer. “The good part is that Milk Stout Nitro has a nine-month life span as opposed to an IPA, for instance, which is shorter, so [bars] were able to sell through some of it. But ultimately, yes, we had to take back a lot of beer," Ingram adds.
We've nearly come a full year since then, and bars, breweries and restaurants aren't faring much better. The good news for Left Hand, though, is that it had time to prepare for part two of Pandemic Paddy’s Day. “Maybe the silver lining is that it allowed us to slow down and reconsider some ideas,” Ingram says. “We asked ourselves what’s a way to have a huge impact anyway.” The answer, they decided, was to "get shamrocked.”
Although most bars and restaurants are open now to some degree, the amount of draft beer that's being served is nowhere near that in a typical year — and another shutdown isn’t out of the question.
So Left Hand has shifted its strategy away from on-premises drinking and toward liquor and grocery stores, by producing shiny green Milk Stout Nitro cans and bottles emblazoned with shamrocks on the side and a marketing campaign with the tagline “Get shamrocked.” The green labels are replacing Left Hand’s familiar black labels for a two-month period, and they represent the first time the brewery has directly tied its packaging to the holiday.
Left Hand first debuted Milk Stout Nitro during the Great American Beer Festival in 2011, becoming the first U.S. craft brewery to package a nitro beer. Like Guinness, the beer is packaged with nitrogen — the cans have widgets while the bottles are filled with the gas itself — so that its bubbles cascade up the sides of the glass with a hard pour, offering a rich, creamy mouthfeel that is just like what bartenders can offer on tap. Since then, the inky brew has become the brewery's flagship — and Left Hand is now known primarily for its stouts.
For customers, the association between St. Patrick's Day and stout is natural, as Guinness and other creamy Irish stouts are already the beverage of choice on the heavy-drinking holiday. In fact, stout sales in stores during the two weeks around March 17 made up 5.1 percent of the style’s total annual sales in the U.S in 2019. This compares to an average two-week period during that year when sales ran at 3.8 percent, says Bart Watson, chief economist for the Boulder-based Brewers Association.
“It isn’t necessarily the high point in the year; you often see a week around Thanksgiving or Christmas where stout sales are higher than St. Patrick’s day,” he explains. But “it is definitely a bump at a time of the year that is slower for beer. And I’m sure that it's bigger for breweries that have an Irish dry stout or a nitro stout.”
“It’s a huge spike for us — especially if St. Patrick’s Day falls on a weekend,” Ingram confirms about Left Hand. “We start seeing an increase thirty days out, and it goes up from there.”
In a normal year, more than 30 percent of Milk Stout Nitro’s production is for draft beer. For 2021, though, Left Hand cut that in half, to around 15 percent. The rest of the beer is being canned and bottled.
Will the strategy work? Ingram hopes so: Left Hand brewed about 52,000 barrels of beer in 2020, down from 60,000 the year before. But after a struggle over the summer when the brewery’s bread-and-butter beers — most of them stouts — aren’t as popular, sales picked back up to pre-COVID levels in the late fall and winter (thanks in part to the new Peanut Butter Milk Stout, which made our list of the best new beers of 2020).
And although most people in Colorado will be staying home once again on March 17, at least Left Hand can meet them there this time, with green cans — but without all the drunken blarney.
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