Awoken from uneasy dreams

Our old refuges have become places of uncertainty. Nicci Peet documents the day Bristol’s pub lockdown lifted


How we drink has changed. During lockdown, drinking from home was the only option and supporting your local brewery or bottle shop meant buying from an often quickly created online shop. Covid-19 forced the industry to change and adapt in ways no-one could have imagined. And we, the public, have changed how we socialise, from virtual hangouts, to socially distanced groups in open spaces, to creating bubbles with other households. Eventually some bottle shops, pubs and breweries opened for takeaway beer served from behind perspex screens in the interlude before pubs were allowed to re-open. 

Many have still not set foot back in the pub, whether for health or financial reasons, or frankly just not feeling safe from the perceived higher risk of Covid-19. With unemployment on the rise and job security low in many sectors, money is a worry for some. Buying beer online and enjoying it at home can sometimes be the cheaper option or at least a way to budget more effectively. As much as people say beer is for all, beer is for all that can afford it. 

On July 4th, the day pubs are allowed to re-open in England, I venture out on my bike to see what the centre of Bristol looked like. The sky is grey and the weather miserable, a sign that the much hyped “Super Saturday” may not live up to expectations. First I stop in at The Barley Mow, a Bristol Beer Factory pub nestled behind Bristol Temple Meads train station. I arrive around 12:30, only 30 minutes after they open their doors for the first time since 20 March. A group has taken up one bench outside, and on another a regular sits waiting for his first pint in months. At the doorway I am greeted by a “Please Wait To Be Seated” sign and hand sanitiser dispenser, which I duly pumped. 

Harry, the general manager, pops his head out of the door to greet me. I’ve come for a chat and to see how things are going. As I step into the pub, the change is stark. Once packed with tables there are now only four, two to the left and two to the right. The guidelines on distancing mean the Barley Mow now only has these and another six out the front. All but one table is occupied, but it feels empty. There is no music and the chatter struggles to fill the room. Harry is happy to be back working at the pub he loves, but he acknowledges the atmosphere has gone, “It’s just a room with people drinking alcohol in it”. On the most basic level that is what a pub is, but to many it is so much more. 

I venture into the beer garden, where there’s ‘fragile’ tape blocking off the middle booth. A group of four friends tell me how they’d arrived at 11:55am to make sure they got a table. The Barley Mow is their local and they’re here to support it. “We want it to be around in six months’ time so we’re spending our money here to make sure it is,” one says. 

I cycle into the centre and lock up my bike at the end of King Street, a street lined with pubs, four of which you could consider beer bars. To help with the reduced capacity inside pubs, Bristol City Council pedestrianised the road, making space for outdoor seating. I’d envisioned hoards of people, tables brimming with queues to get in, but the opposite is true. The drizzle has seemingly deterred people from venturing out, or at least wanting to sit on these outside tables. 

Small Bar, which sits at the top of King Street, owned by Left Handed Giant, has opted to delay opening until Monday 6th July. The same tactic has been taken for the Brewpub. Bruce Gray, owner of Left Handed Giant, made this decision with his staff in mind: “Asking them to open on what was likely to be a very busy day with entirely new processes didn’t seem like a sensible idea.” he explains. Although their doors are shut today, for the past few weeks both Small Bar and Left Handed Giant Brewpub have been operating as beer takeaways, offering cans and keg and cask beer in litre plastic bottles, to build on their online sales and local home delivery, and somewhat offset the loss they made from the closure of pubs.

Braving the rain, I cycle up to Coffee+Beer, a local coffee come bottle shop. Dan, the owner has been operating an online shop since lockdown began and re-opened when shops could. He no longer allows people to sit in, running purely on a takeaway basis, and will do for the foreseeable future. I ask him if he’s been busy. “What’s normal anymore?” he says. “You can’t compare this week to last”. 

After I buy some cans and a coffee, I cycle on to The Good Measure, a pub owned by Good Chemistry brewery, who have opted not to reopen as a pub and have been operating as a takeaway since July 2nd. Kelly, co-owner of Good Chemistry and The Good Measure, comments: “When we measured the space, we would only be able to fit a maximum of two people from the same household in the pub, with 2m distancing and allowing for continuing the takeaway service. This wasn’t worth the extra effort and potential risk to our staff.” This is a sentiment echoed by Wiper & True and their taproom. With smaller inside spaces and the need to continue to offer takeaway beer that aren’t as compatible with government guidelines, continuing on with their Can Kiosk is simply the safer option.

“We certainly hope to reopen fully at some point!” Kelly continues “We don’t want to run a shop and our team at The Good Measure want to have our beautiful, friendly, welcoming community pub back up and running, with the regulars back in their seats”. Operating as a takeaway is not a viable revenue stream for them, and although they anticipate that people will continue to drink from home and support them, with rent being much higher on a pub property in comparison to a shop it is not a long term solution.

At a BBQ in a friend’s back garden, a few days after the pubs reopened, one of the gang remarks, “If you think about how we’ve hung out over the past year or so, before all this, half the time we were at each other’s houses anyway.” This group of friends are all in their late 20s and early 30s. The pub is no longer a place to make and forge friendships, but to build on ones they already have. But the pub serves different needs for everyone. For many, the pub is a lifeline to human interaction and a shield against loneliness. With guidelines that don’t allow seating at the bar and interaction reduced with table service and ordering online or via apps, it is detrimental to those that relied on the conversations had perched at the bar. 

Over the following couple of weeks I go back and visit The Barley Mow, Small Bar and LHG Brewpub. Every time I visit, each is busy. The resounding feedback is that customers have been respectful and supportive. The sun has been shining and many, including myself, have been making the most of the socially distanced hearts spray painted on the grass of Bristol parks. Queen Square and Castle Park offer overflow space for those that can’t get tables in pubs. On the face of it, this sounds fantastic but for Small Bar and LHG Brewpub there is an underlying cost to their 50% capacity loss. To stick to government guidelines, they need to rota on more staff for table service and greeting customers. Bruce had planned for a 50% cut in capacity and revenue, but had hoped to benefit from the 20% to 5% decrease in VAT for hospitality introduced by the government for six months. It would have helped minimize this impact, but was only offered for businesses selling food, which neither LHG Brewpub or Small Bar do. They have independent food businesses running at each venue, but this does not qualify. 

Bruce comments: “We are in a position where we have had our business decimated in the interest of national safety, but have seen absolutely zero support from the government. We have carried all the additional costs via loans, which we have no idea if we will have the ability to repay.” 

The future may be uncertain for the beer industry, like it is for countless people in the UK and across the world, but there is hope. “We feared that no-one would want to come back to the pub” says Bruce “but across both venues we’ve had the places full most nights. It gives me hope that as we ease out of social distancing we can gradually return to have the business we once had.” 

This pandemic has shown the innate ability for breweries and beer businesses, in Bristol at least, to adapt to an ever changing situation, and that there are loyal drinkers that will continue to support the businesses they love. It’s a tough time to be living through and we may have lost some of the sense of community offered within the walls of the pub, but the people who make it are still out there making online orders, buying takeaway and, for those that feel comfortable, drinking back in the pubs they love.

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