For several of the hottest summer months of 2020, Tampa’s BarrieHaus Beer Company operated without air conditioning.
The brewing facility’s large walk-in was also powered off, necessary supplies crammed instead into the taproom cooler. These sweltering circumstances were deliberate decisions — money-saving maneuvers aimed at keeping the lights turned on at the whitewashed cinderblock building near the corner of 14th Street and 5th Avenue in the historic Ybor City neighborhood.
Opening a small business is rarely a sure thing, and it would be hard to argue the coronavirus pandemic could have hit at a worse time for the lager-focused microbrewery.
“We were open for half of December , for January and February, and it was going great,” says BarrieHaus co-owner and brewmaster Jim Barrie. “And then it was, ‘okay, shut down. Done.’”
Barrie adds, “At the time we were ready to ramp-up, everyone was starting to hunker down.”
With more than five years of preparation from concept to opening (and almost 150 years of brewing tradition in his family), Barrie and his co-owners – wife Brittney Barrie and his best friend Junbae Lee – felt they were ready to face almost any obstacle. But then, the pandemic hit. When the trio made the difficult decision to close the taproom, they did not know when, or if, it would reopen.
They began cutting costs wherever possible, including powering down the air conditioning and the walk-in cooler. As they and bartender Evan Chavez would sizzle and sweat through suffocating days, brewing continued and service moved to curbside carryout in the form of 32-ounce crowlers, tap-filled and machine-sealed.
“The sales and marketing strategy had to change. It took me a while to shift gears and figure out a new way to do stuff,” says Lee, who is director of sales and relationships. “I noticed that everybody was scared and bummed and didn’t know what to do. So my thought process was, what do we do?
“We had to make sure everyone was happy any time they interacted with BarrieHaus, with us. That was the goal. Any time people ordered crowlers, any time people came to pick-up, we made sure we still had a positive interaction with them.”
BarrieHaus began offering a buy-two, get-one-free promotion that drove sales and created repeat customers – some of whom, Lee said, would get an extra crowler tossed into their order “just because.” It was about finding joy and spreading joy, and the same change happened in the company’s social media marketing campaigns. Moving the focus away from simple promotion of the product, Lee began posting impromptu, behind-the-scenes videos from the brewery in an effort to provide followers with a bit of levity.
“Keeping people’s spirits up was the main goal,” Lee says. “The idea isn’t to just keep selling beer. It’s selling that happiness-moment, so that when people think of us they have a memory, they have an experience.”
Lee and Jim met in the sixth grade and grew up together in Tampa, then remained best friends despite Lee attending Auburn University while Jim played football for the Florida Gators 2006 championship team. Both got into careers which ended up not being the right fit—Jim had gone to law school in Gainesville, and Lee was climbing the hospitality industry corporate ladder in Vail, Colorado. They stayed in touch throughout it all. Around the same time Jim was leaving law to pursue professional brewing with First Magnitude, Lee had skipped out of Vail before getting roped into another ski season and was visiting family in Korea. When Jim and Brittney decided they were ready to move forward with opening their own brewery, Jim emailed Lee to ask if he wanted to come on board with the project. Lee had a simple response.
“I told him, ‘I’ll see you stateside,’” Lee says, laughing. He spent a couple of years working at a local startup while everything was being put into place, and Jim convinced him to begin home brewing on the side as an introduction to the industry. “It was a very steep learning curve. I dove in full-heartedly, learning everything I could about brewing. I started with home brewing kits, with extracts, and it was awful. Jim got me to invest in the equipment to brew full-grain, and once I started brewing drinkable beer it was a lot of fun.”
The uncertainty surrounding the shutdown was a difficult time for the new brewery. Eventually, though, the brewery’s taproom was able to once again allow guests – albeit with face mask requirements and socially distanced seating.
“It was a very big relief,” Lee says. “The biggest thing was hearing laughter in the taproom. Hearing people laughing was such a good feeling. It made me so happy. It means everyone is having a good time, and that’s all I need.
“Everything we do here, it revolves around people. We just provide the liquid.”
As BarrieHaus Beer Company celebrates a one-year anniversary that once seemed uncertain, the ownership trio views the milestone as a starting block rather than a finish line. They are looking forward to the future, hoping eventually to be able to host more events – especially those aimed at promoting local charities. And they’ve begun canning more products with an eye toward distribution, especially within the neighborhood.
“It has been tough, but everyone is going through the same thing,” Brittney says. “We’ve been able to really rely on our friends in the brewing industry.”
Jim’s love of brewing, especially lagers, comes naturally. His great-great-great grandfather Philip Kling immigrated to the United States in 1863, and founded a brewery in Michigan. Kling’s descendants kept the tradition going, even when the law didn’t allow it.
“If we can make it through this, we can essentially make it through anything,” he says.
“My great-grandfather got shut down by Prohibition. That was an even harder thing to go through. They were running beers illegally to pay some of their bills. Maybe this is destiny. I view it as an opportunity. We’re still going strong, and we’ve got a strong fanbase to show for it.”