How Watertown Hops and Atwater Brewery turned into hand sanitizer manufacturers almost overnight: ‘This is what America is all about’

During times of crisis, brewers have shown a knack for demonstrating ingenuity.

The brewers that survived Prohibition and the Great Depression did so in part by shifting from brewing beer to making tonics, ice cream, cheese, peanut butter and, in the case of Coors, ceramics. During World War II, as result of a push by American brewers, the U.S. government requested that 15% of beer production in the U.S. was set aside for servicemen, much of which was shipped overseas.

Breweries are continuing to run amid the coronavirus pandemic (indeed, brewing is considered a critical industry by the federal government). But as the nation struggles in the face of the outbreak, brewers once again have rallied to the call, proving that this generation of brewers possesses the resourcefulness and shrewdness of their predecessors to help in the fight.

Facing a vast gap in supply for needed safety items like hand sanitizer, brewers are flexing their manufacturing capabilities to help fill the need.

Here’s a look at how two operations adjusted on the fly — for the benefit of Molson Coors employees and first responders.

Watertown Hops

Availability of hand sanitizer at the Molson Coors breweries was a constant topic during the COVID-19 leadership team calls that Martin Brooks, vice president of brewing, beverage and quality for Molson Coors, joined every day. A quick look at his suppliers caused alarm: “In the markets, there’s just nothing there. In the open market, it’s just impossible to find, and it’s crucial that it is always available to our employees to help keep them safe.”

Brooks quickly came to the conclusion that the best way to ensure a steady supply of hand sanitizer for the company’s breweries and supply chain employees was to figure out a way to make it internally.

So at one of Brooks’ daily staff meetings, Tim Koel, who runs Watertown Hops, a Molson Coors-owned hop processing facility about an hour west of Milwaukee, raised his hand. Watertown Hops, he said, had the distillation capability and capacity in place to make hand sanitizer. The facility, which uses ethanol to make light-stable hops used in beers packed in clear bottles such as Miller High Life and Miller Genuine Draft, also had thousands of gallons of hand sanitizer’s active ingredient – high-proof alcohol on hand to bring the hand sanitizer project to life.

And Koel knew he had the team to make it. “There was a lot of talk about how our breweries could partner with distillers in the area, but we had enough ethanol – and the equipment – here to do this on our own,” Koel says. “We were uniquely positioned to help.”

Koel and team were able to quickly find a source for hand sanitizer’s other primary ingredients, glycerin and hydrogen peroxide, and set about designing a batch big enough to supply each of the major Molson Coors breweries, as well as its craft breweries and its barley operations in Idaho, Montana and Colorado.

And it had enough left over to donate to first responders, including police and fire departments in Milwaukee and Watertown, Wis., as well as a hospital near the Molson Coors brewery in Albany, Ga.

“Once we had all the ingredients, it literally took us an hour to make it and two hours to pack it,” Koel says.

Within days, the 15-employee, 32,000-square-foot plant churned out 4,000 pounds of hand sanitizer made to World Health Organization standards and began shipping it in 35-pound buckets to facilities across the country.

“Our employees are always top of mind for all of us, and it’s pretty cool we were able to do our little piece to help our company and our employees and first responders in our communities,” Koel says.

Watertown Hops plans to make another batch of hand sanitizer next week.

Atwater Brewery

Meanwhile in Detroit, a city known for its transformation during World War II from an automaker to a manufacturer of Jeeps, tanks and bombers, an email from Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau hit the inbox of Atwater Brewery’s Mark Rieth.

While Reith receives dozens – if not hundreds – of emails each day related to his sprawling craft brewery, distillery and taproom operations, those from the federal alcohol regulator, known colloquially as the TTB, are opened immediately.

“It basically said that we, as a distiller, can start making hand sanitizer as long as we follow certain guidelines,” Reith says. Coupled with word from the FDA, which spelled out regulations for making the product, his team was spurred into action.

“So we collectively sat down and I started asking questions: Can we make this? How fast? Where can we find glycerol, hydrogen peroxide, bottles, bottle tops, jugs, labels? And how are we going to fill them? And do we have enough staff to do this?”

Over a frenzied 48 hours, Atwater assembled all of the required ingredients, bottles and labels, and its brewing team and operations staff set up a makeshift hand sanitizer manufacturing and bottling facility capable of pushing out some 40,000 4-ounce bottles a week.

As the first hand-bottled batch rolled off the line, Atwater put up a post on social media. Since then, the phone hasn’t stopped ringing, Reith says. Demand far outstrips supply.

“I’ve already got 100 calls today, and it’s only 11 a.m.,” Reith says. “We can’t even get close to filling all of the orders, but hospitals, first responders are our top priority, especially in the Detroit area, which is a hotbed right now for (COVID-19).”

The pivot from making and bottling spirits to making hand sanitizer helps keep the lights on during a time when Atwater has been forced to close its three taprooms, helps keep much of its key workforce employed at a time of cutbacks, and, most importantly, helps form deeper connections with the community by supporting front-line first responders amid a national health crisis, Reith says.

While the vast majority of Atwater’s 2,500-gallon-per-week output is earmarked for hospitals, police and fire departments and essential infrastructure workers, Atwater has reserved some bottles for consumers who visit its locations so they can pick up a six-pack of beer and some hand sanitizer to go.

“Right now, we’re a hand sanitizer company that happens to make beer and spirits,” Reith says. “This is what America is all about. We’re proud to be able to provide something that’s helping keep others safe. This is all about community. It’s about giving back and helping Detroit out. You’ve got to pay it forward, and that’s what we’ve always been about.”