After 8-year run, this major Delaware craft brewery announces it will close after Saturday
By Ryan Cormier, Delaware News Journal,2023-09-27
For the second time in two months, a major Delaware craft brewery has made headlines for closing its doors.
This time it's Ronnie Price, the owner of Blue Earl Brewing Co ., breaking the surprising news that his nearly 8½-year run in Smyrna would be coming to a close at the end of this week.
"It's with a heavy heart and overwhelming sadness that we announce the closure of Blue Earl Brewing Company," the brewery posted on its Facebook page Monday. "This is the last week of service at Blue Earl. Stop in and say goodbye.
"We love you Delaware, Blue Earl family, friends and fans everywhere."
The 11,535-square-foot brewery's final day in operation will be Saturday.
Said Smyrna Mayor Robert Johnson of the closure: "It's unfortunate that we're losing a great business. They have provided a wonderful service to this town."
Reasons to quit
In an interview Tuesday, Price pointed to both after-effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and a more competitive alcohol market for his decision to pull the plug.
Prices for materials needed to both make and package beer have risen and his Smyrna Business Park taproom sales never recovered from the pandemic due to changing habits of customers now more likely to drink at home.
While that same societal change also caused the production brewery's beer sales in stores to jump by 50% in 2020, by last year it had dropped by 25%. At the same time, taproom business was half of what it was in 2019 after having steadily grown ahead of COVID-19.
In addition, the crowded alcohol market also took a bite out of sales, especially this year with the rise of popular cocktails-in-a-can and alcoholic seltzers.
Combine that with a more than 450% increase in the number of craft breweries in the state ― from seven to 40 ― since opening in 2015 and you have a lot more options out there for people chasing a buzz. Nationally, the number of craft breweries has more than doubled in the past eight years from 4,225 in 2015 to 9,552 last year, according to the Brewers Association.
"The craft beer market is being challenged these days with all of the economy issues and the overcrowded marketplace," said Price, who has silent partners, but largely runs the business himself. "The cost to sustain operations as a production brewery these days is an uphill battle. And I don't see it getting better any time soon.
"I think we're going to see more of this, unfortunately. I could have kept going, but the cons outweighed the pros, and I feel it's going to get worse before it gets better."
Delaware beer historian John Medkeff Jr. called the loss of Blue Earl "devastating news" due to its large size, highly rated beers and the well-liked, community-focused staff.
"There are some really fantastic people involved in that brewery ― some of the nicest people that you would ever want to meet," said Medkeff, author of 2015's " Brewing in Delaware" ($21.99, Arcadia Publishing). "It's a real loss also due to their longevity and how much other breweries in the state look up to them."
Freshly brewed beers & music collide
When Blue Earl first opened, it was the seventh microbrewery in the state. It took only a few months for Blue Earl to sign with NKS Distributors, bringing its beers from its handsome blue-and-gold taproom to stores across the region.
Price, also a musician, always tied music to his day job at the brewery, which is decorated with musical instruments and features a guitar with a hop body in its logo.
Many of his brews featured names music fans would recognize, including its popular 7.2% ABV Belgian blonde Honeysuckle Rose, sharing the name of a 1929 Thomas "Fats" Waller song, also used as the title of a 1980 Willie Nelson film.
Other Blue Earl beers over the years have included Walking Blues IPA, When Doves Cry, Stardust, Blues Power, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, Dark Star and We're on a Mission from God.
With a large stage dubbed The Juke, Blue Earl doubled as a bustling music venue, featuring a blues-heavy line-up of local acts on Friday and Saturday nights in an area where such stages are hard to come by.
Price says to be sure to keep your eyes open next time you see a local band performing in the area. He'll soon be picking up his bass and playing with an act, although it has not yet been totally confirmed.
The Artisan Drive brewery also has become a community hub of sorts thanks to its busy event schedule, ranging from food truck festivals, 5K races, car shows and open mic nights to comedy shows, movie nights, cigar nights and music festivals over the years.
'There were babies born after visits to Blue Earl'
Back in 2014, Price was already a longtime home brewer with barrels and mini-kegerators that acted as taps taking over the basement and garage of his home.
He was working a corporate job and skeptical whether or not his plans for a microbrewery, then named Warlock Brewing, would ever get off the ground. The town of Smyrna, which eventually embraced the brewery, also was skeptical at first, blocking his plan at a crucial planning juncture.
The issue with the town eventually was resolved and another problem was soon solved as well, a dispute over the Warlock Brewing name. That's when the Blue Earl name first appeared, a reference to an old Price nickname.
According to the popular beer-rating app Untappd, Price's beers are tied for eighth place against all other breweries in the state .
He called the decision to close "heartbreaking" and "very sad" after building a tight-knit community one pint at a time.
But he quickly turned his attention to the good times he created for so many. And, boy, some had a really good time.
"I mean there were babies born after visits to Blue Earl," he said. "It was God's plan for me to build this brewery and create awesome experiences for thousands upon thousands of people. I'm proud of that."
Other brewery closures in recent years
Over the past three decades in the Delaware craft brewery world, there has been plenty of boom and little bust.
The loss of Blue Earl will drop the number of craft brewery locations in the state down to 38, coming a little more than a month after Delaware Online/The News Journal reported Dover's Fordham & Dominion would be closing after 20 years, according to its staff.
Fordham & Dominion's ownership did not respond to calls and messages from Delaware Online/The News Journal at the time and later disputed that the brewery was closing on its Facebook page. No one answered the phone at their taproom Tuesday.
Medkeff said Blue Earl's closure and Fordham & Dominion's cloudy future is a double punch for mid-state craft beer lovers.
"There's not going to be much of a brewery presence in Kent County and that's extremely unfortunate," he said. "It does open a good opportunity for someone to move in and take advantage of that gap, though."
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The demise of Blue Earl and (seemingly) Fordham & Dominion were preceded by the closure of Newport's Twin Lakes Brewing Co. in 2021 and the shuttering of Delmar's 3rd Wave Brewing a year before that. Previously, Georgetown's 16 Mile Brewing closed in 2018 , as did Frozen Toes, the in-house brewery at Greenville's Pizza By Elizabeths.
Price: Owning a brewery not for the 'weak-hearted'
A few months after opening in 2015, Blue Earl was among a rising wave of new breweries popping up across Delaware with the state's tourism board jumping on the trend for the first time with its then-Delaware Wine, Ale & Spirits Trail. At the time, Price dismissed any concerns that the craft beer bubble was about to burst.
He was right. More than 30 more brewery locations have opened in the state since.
"I understand there are some folks who think this bubble may burst and maybe sooner rather than later. I don't think that's necessarily the case here because we're seeing a change in culture," Price said at the time . "I don't think craft beer drinkers are going to all of a sudden say, 'You know what? This is not for me.' This is a renaissance."
He also warned that it's a tough business, one that is certainly not for the faint of heart: You have to juggle business plans, investors, bank loans and construction, along with an unholy trinity of city, state and federal officials who are all making sure the operation is following regulations.
"I think people should pursue their dreams, but opening a brewery is a daunting task. It's not for a weak-hearted or -minded. It's extremely painstaking," he said at the time, nearly sighing at the memories. "It takes every bit of your blood, sweat and tears to do it."
A silver lining to this week's closure news has come in the form of large crowds that have been streaming into the taproom since Monday. On that night, the brewery equaled the sales of an entire week in one night, Price said, with Blue Earl diehards starting a weeklong wake for one of their favorite haunts.
"Some people were carrying out three or four cases of beer to go," he said, adding that for him this week is not a funeral, but rather a celebration.
For Price, he knows another door will open now that Blue Earl's is closing. He just doesn't know what it is.
"God has another plan for me right now," he said. "I don't know what my next mission is yet, but it's going to happen."
Blue Earl's schedule for its final week is Thursday (noon-10 p.m.) and Friday (noon-11 p.m.), along with Saturday with doors opening at noon and taps turning off for the last time at 11 p.m.
This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: After 8-year run, this major Delaware craft brewery announces it will close after Saturday