Since late March, Warren’s own Kuhnhenn Brewery has been helping local businesses & residents by providing a highly sought-after commodity. Currently working with a skeleton crew, the Kuhnhenn brothers (Eric & Bret) have been hard at work fulfilling the demand. We asked Bret about the current operation.
For many, it might seem odd that hand sanitizer became such a rare commodity immediately following the announcement of the coronavirus pandemic. How did you discover you had the means to produce it?
We received an e-mail from the United States Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). We have a small distiller license and it normally would be required to get approval to make “denatured spirits” at distilleries. Essentially, this involves adding an ingredient to make ethanol unpalatable. Denatured Alcohol is not taxable.
It seems a number of breweries & distilleries across the country have followed suit. What, if anything, has to change in the still room to make it happen?
There is a label change, an FDA instead of the normal TTB label. Hand Sanitizer is not handled like booze. More like pharmaceuticals. We do have to process the alcohol using our copper distilling column to make the ethanol as strong as we can. About 92-95%. We are working on modifying our still to produce quadruple the amount of ethanol per day.
I saw on your Facebook page the plan was to produce sanitizer “for hospitals and municipalities.” Not long after, a photo was posted by Warren Firefighters 1383 thanking you for donating sanitizer. Who else have you helped to provide, so far?
We just received a purchase order from Clinton Township for 200 Gallons. Because of the township, we are now in production of 5 gallon “Head Pack” containers that make it easy to fill smaller containers. We have lots of nursing homes, UPS drivers, Fedex drivers, companies making PPE, restaurants, home caregivers. We try to prioritize when we get a request by those who are in the most dangerous situation.
To make this work, if you don’t mind, how many in the production staff are working?
We are all working voluntarily. The brewery cannot afford to pay any payroll at this time. There are five of us. Two are there 6 days a week for about 8 hrs a day. Not very profitable. We really want to do our part for the community and to produce the hand sanitizer, we need to make a strong alcohol based beer. Think of it this way: It takes about 10 growlers of 9% beer (about $150 worth of beer), to make one growler of hand sanitizer. We’re selling a growler of hand sanitizer for $25, not $150.
When this eventually subsides, are there any plans to continue sanitizer production?
When we finish our still modifications it will be more profitable. We’ll see. After the stay at home order is lifted, the need for hand sanitizer may increase by 5 to 10 times, when almost every place of employment will need some kind of hand sanitizer at the front of each doorway. Could be a full year before demand and production will be down. I am sure the big producers will be able to overfill the market at some point. The modifications we are doing will help us produce way more vodka, whiskey, bourbon and gin.
Off-topic, and you may have heard this question before: When the brewery opens back up, and I bring a first-timer to Kuhnhenn, what would you recommend from the tap?
I recommend the Fluffer, and the Dripa as I just made fresh batches.
For more information on how you can purchase hand sanitizer from Kuhnhenn, visit them on Facebook at Facebook.com/KuhnhennBrewingCo.