Bad times for a good beer

Anthony Gladman is feeling uninspired, and suspects the UK’s beleaguered breweries feel the same

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January is a bad month for beer. Brewers take a breather after the Christmas rush. Bottle shops often close for a spell as there aren’t enough punters to open for. Pubs feel eery and subdued. If you’re not doing Dry January there’s a dearth of interesting beer to enjoy. Even in the best of times — and I don’t think many of us would claim 2022 to be that — the year opens as if with a tawdry hangover.

Beer’s malaise seemed to start a little sooner this time around, like an early-evening slump that creeps over the unwary day-drinker. Bottle shop shelves had looked rather drab for a while by the time I noticed, late last year, that it was perhaps A Thing Going On. And it has lasted a little longer than usual too, much like the repercussions of your 30th or 40th birthdays compared to your 21st. So it’s not just the January Blues for booze.

At first I wasn’t sure. Maybe it was just my low mood that soured the usual joy with which I greet John Barleycorn. There has been much to feel down about of late. The weather, of course; gloomy at best and often much worse. The Covid pandemic trundling on, even as certain ghouls try to convince us all is well. Our government, a corrupt shambles full of liars and piss-artists. Russia fronting like it wants to start a war.

But no, beer did hit a dull patch for a while. The main problem facing the inquisitive drinker was one of narrowed choices, of crowd pleasers muscling out niche styles. Fridges filled with NEIPAs, pastry stouts and lactose-packin' pastry sours. Fewer wild beers turned out for parade. There were no fruity little kettle sours to speak of over Christmas. Saisons went AWOL. It seemed like the world of beer closed in on itself. It didn’t look as though anyone was having much fun brewing, which I’ve found is often the precursor to the rest of us having fun drinking.

It was even worse for those who like a foreign beer now and then. I don’t think I can recall a time in the last few years when I’ve seen as little on offer. Many Belgian and German beers disappeared from our shelves, and it grew harder at the same time to find homegrown versions to replace them. We still had US beers coming over the Atlantic, but changing regulations meant orders for beers from elsewhere were often cancelled. Sad times, my friends. Sad times indeed.

What’s going on?

I won’t claim to have all the answers here, but I think I have a few. Let’s begin with an easy one. Despite the bullshit spouted by everyone’s least-favourite haunted Victorian lamppost, a lot of this is down to Brexit, which has fucked our trade with our nearest neighbours and will continue to do so for years to come. Thanks, lads.

Export and import costs have skyrocketed, and the paperwork involved is, by all accounts, a total and ever-changing nightmare. What was once a reliable and lucrative market is now just a headache, or a clusterfuck stuck somewhere on the M20 outside Dover, if you prefer.

It’s not just trade with the EU that has suffered. If you live in England, Scotland or Wales and have wondered why you’re not seeing many beers from Northern Ireland of late… yup, Brexit. I’ve heard from brewers in Belfast that sending beers over to the rest of the UK is not worth the trouble involved.

On top of which, beer is more expensive to make than before the pandemic. Prices are up for almost any ingredient you can think of: hops, malt, yeast, adjuncts. Overheads have increased too. Most brewers have had to pay more for staffing costs, for water bills, for packaging costs, for courier costs. Rent is up for most. Brewers are also paying more for their back-office systems like accounting software, cloud storage, bank charges, and insurance. The cost of carbon dioxide has gone up twofold. You might say brewers are literally paying double-bubble.

Perhaps the biggest hit comes from climbing energy costs. These have hurt us all, and brewers are no different. Energy is often the biggest expense a brewery has to cover. Picture for a moment how much it takes to boil a kettle for your cuppa, then size that up to hundreds of litres of liquid day in and day out. That’s a lot of coins in the meter.

Little wonder some brewers have felt compelled to change their beer’s recipes, swapping out speciality malts for something cheaper, or choosing to forego some of the more expensive imported hops. Some have even decided not to brew certain beers at all. Many are brewing fewer individual beers than they did before the pandemic. For some, it’s definitely survival mode.

Nor is this doubling down on core range beers coming entirely from the brewers. It’s partly down to us drinkers also. There just isn’t the same demand now for one-off brews that there was before the pandemic. There are probably a few things going on here: first, people are becoming jaded with the haze-parade that so dominated craft brewing for the last few years. Second, prices have gone up, and people are less likely to drop cash on unfamiliar beers in case they pick a lemon. Third, lots of us have become used to ordering direct from breweries over lockdown, which puts a squeeze on bottle shops, particularly when brewers pass on price increases to trade customers but not direct sales. And fourth, people are craving a spot of comfort and familiarity. We opt for a half-dozen lagers perhaps where once we might have bought a handful of oddities instead. After all we’ve been through lately, who would blame us for that?

What can we do about it?

My first suggestion is to embrace a stoic attitude. Remember nothing in this world is permanent. We have medieval Sufi poets to thank for the old adage “this too shall pass”. And it does look, in the arse-end of February, as though things may be improving. Best bitters, milds and doppelbocks are breaking through like the first snowdrops of spring.

While we’re at it, why not also try some mindfulness? If a beer selection bores or frustrates me, it’s better for my blood pressure if I remember it is but a fleeting emotion that will pass before long, making way for the next. Experience it and let it go. Take a deep breath. Move on.

Now that we’re all Zen, some action: turn again to the classics. Cask ale is still there for us to enjoy, still glorious when done well, and still in desperate need of our help. We may see fewer niche German lagers on our shelves, but when was the last time you had some Orval? That’s still available, and still delicious.

The final thing is to keep supporting independent breweries and bottle shops so they’ll be there to give us exciting beer when better days return. They’ve had a tough run of it lately. It’s easy to show support when times are good but it’s when times are bad that it matters most.

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