Pouring Their Hearts Out

Author: Steve Lowe

Photo by Matt Cashore ’94

Day Four of the great coronavirus shutdown was a rough one.

As the owner and head brewer of South Bend Brew Werks, a nanobrewery in the heart of downtown South Bend, I’d already found that mid-March week rough, but it all seemed to hit home on Day Four of St. Joseph County’s mandatory stay-at-home order.

That was the day I had to lay off my assistant brewer.

I’ve never laid off an employee before. In fact, before last year, I’d had to expand the brewery staff. After nearly three years of doing basically every aspect of brewing myself in our tiny, two-barrel brewhouse, it had to be done. I couldn’t keep up anymore. Business was good, growing each year, and Erin came along at just the right time.

Then it all came crashing to a halt.

Telling Erin I had to lay her off was one of the hardest things I’ve done. I cried. We both did. She had stopped by the brewery that day to give me an early birthday gift, a personally inscribed mug made from a baseball bat. Endlessly thoughtful. I broke down.

In the spirit of supporting other downtown restaurants struggling with the same new reality we were, I grabbed dinner for the family that night from Cambodian Thai, just across the street from Brew Werks. I asked the woman working the register how they were holding up. She said they were trying, but it was tough.

“I cried today,” I told her.

She pointed to her mother, who was standing in the back, working a wok. “She’s cried every day.”

But the day wasn’t all bad. A couple weeks earlier, Erin and I had brewed our 1,000th batch of beer. On that fourth day of the shutdown, I transferred the entire batch into a bourbon barrel from The Indiana Whiskey Company, located just over a mile away on Sample Street.

Barrel-aging beer is a commitment to the future. The beer needs time to rest, undisturbed, to soak into the wood and extract amazing new flavors, to mature and transform. You can’t rush it.

Doing that on a day when I wasn’t even sure if we would be open one month later, let alone one year later, when it would be time to share that beer with the world, was a promise. I wrote on the barrel, “See ya in 1 yr.”

Then something amazing happened on Day Five. The phone began to ring with carryout orders, and it barely stopped all day. We made payroll for that week, and then the next one, and then the one after that. Business isn’t what it was, for anyone, but it’s enough to get us through, I hope, until life can get back to something resembling normal.

In normal times, Brew Werks is an in-person experience. We’re small inside, with one of those vibes that’s hard to describe without being there. You get to know each other pretty quick. It’s a place to stop in for a beer and walk out with a new, lifelong friend or two. These days of social distancing have turned that business model on its head. Handshakes and hugs are out, which is hard to accept when that’s what you’re known for.

Despite this, South Bend and the greater Michiana area came through for us, and continue to do so, now that we’re months into the strangest, most difficult time to be a small-business owner. It’s impossible to express how thankful I am for all the local people, friends and family, regulars and Mug Club members, who have gone out of their way to support us, even when times are just as tough for so many of them.

That’s a lot of words to say: I have no words.

As of this writing, we’re still brewing beer. An April loan as part of the federal Paycheck Protection Program came through at just the right time. Erin is back and brewing for us again. The rest of the staff is back, too, along with a couple of new faces, slinging pints and smiling behind our masks. We’re still here. And pretty soon we’ll all be hugging it out on the patio in the sunshine.

That also was a promise I made on Day Four.

Steve Lowe and his wife, Michele, bought the South Bend Brew Werks in 2017.