This issue, Charlotte Cook finds good, independent brewers taking the brunt of Britain's economic woes
Saturday 11 March 2023
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The brewing industry is not in a good place just now. A few months ago I wrote about the economic issues facing brewing, and the seemingly insurmountable challenges for production and hospitality, where costs of energy are driving prices up and financial worries are keeping people firmly ensconced in their homes to save money.
When I first looked into this, these issues were hypothetical, but were looming just over the horizon. Now, sadly, many have become reality. Brewery and pub closures are being announced almost daily, rounds of redundancies at larger operators have occurred, and the costs of raw materials have sky rocketed, forcing breweries to shut up shop.
It’s not just new breweries that are struggling; established companies are feeling the pinch and closing their doors. These breweries have invested tens of thousands of pounds in equipment and rent, with owners funnelling their life savings and dreams into setting up. This is not just legal entities ceasing to exist, but the ambition, hopes and livelihoods of hundreds of people, seemingly disappearing into a puff of smoke.
Over seventy breweries closed in 2022, and six have already announced closure in January 2023. Brewer Steve Dunkley of Beer Nouveau in Manchester has been keeping an up to date list of closures, and has started to make note of the reasons given by breweries ceasing to trade. Half of the 2023 closures stated the cost of living and rising costs as the driving force behind folding the business.
Brewery and pub closures are being announced almost daily
These breweries haven’t failed because their beer was no good, or because it was jumped-up homebrewers fancifully thinking they could play with the big boys, they failed because conditions in the industry and market are almost impossible to weather. There is no pattern to the closures, the only common thread is that hospitality has been hit hard over the past few years. Covid caused huge ripples in the industry, the war in Ukraine led to increased grain and energy prices, the financial crisis means fewer people are going out to drink; and soon we will be dealing with the Deposit Return Scheme and duty changes, all of which will add a further burden onto an already overladen industry.
Fewer breweries also means fewer places of employment for brewers, many of whom have spent many years in education and at the coalface of brewing, honing their craft. Brewing, as an industry, has long been plagued with low salaries and poor working conditions, and it is a genuine concern that breweries will use this crisis as an excuse to lower wages when they hire brewers who are in desperate need of a job.
The solution isn’t easy either. There are no loans, government support or fiscal easing on offer, and it’s debatable whether this would even help. The only solution is for people to buy beer, either at the pub or to drink at home. This would be an easy solution if brewing was the only industry facing down the gaping maw of oblivion, but it’s not, everybody is stressed, and it’s hard to reconcile the struggle of heating or eating with encouraging people to have a couple of pints down the boozer. We can’t ask people to spend what they don’t have, and with the price of pints now regularly hitting the seven pound mark, asking people to spend a chunk of their income on beer is increasingly hard to justify.
Pubs help to battle loneliness and isolation
The cost of living crisis shows no sign of slowing down, and so brewery closures will keep on coming until people have money in their pockets to spend again, but it is essential that we don’t lose our pubs, as these are often at the very heart of a community. Pubs and breweries have a symbiotic relationship, but pubs are unique in the social and wellbeing role they perform. Pubs help to battle loneliness and isolation, provide familiar and comforting locations to sit when people are struggling, and having a pub to pop into can encourage people to step outside the house at least once that day. The brewing industry will limp on with fewer breweries, but all of society will suffer if we lose our pubs alongside them.
I’m certain this will not be the last time I write in this column about closures, and I hope that it encourages at least one person to support their local brewery, pub, or bottle shop where a single sale can help make a difference. Until I have good news to share I will be doing my part, where I can, to make sure the beer I buy is locally made, and hopefully the breweries that make the UK beer scene so rich and diverse will survive to keep driving the industry forward.
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