Oh brave new world

Lily Waite looks at the lasting impact of the pandemic on the craft scene, and how 2021 is being shaped by its painful legacy

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“What, if,” asked Friedrich Nietzsche in his 1882 book The Gay Science, “some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more.” A core tenet of numerous philosophies, the idea of the eternal return is a theory of life as an infinite recurrence. Time is, as Matthew McConaughey’s character in US TV show True Detective observes, a flat circle. 

The first lockdown of 2020, stretching from March until some time in the summer, depending on where you live, felt like a time to which few of us would ever willingly return. Pubs were closed across the board for the first time in history, the economy plummeted, and we collectively longed for normality to reassert itself, as we believed it might in just a matter of weeks.

And yet, approaching 12 months later, we are once more in lockdown, the third in the space of a year. Pubs are closed, we’re under strict instruction to stay at home, and I’m not wholly convinced we ever left April 2020. But what can the craft beer sector learn from the most tumultuous year in living memory? In what shape will it be at the end of 2021?

No room at the inn

The biggest impact the past year has had on the beer industry is, inevitably, the on-trade all but closing completely. Despite a few months’ brief respite over the summer in which pubs, bars, and restaurants were permitted to tentatively re-open, albeit with varying restrictions, doors have remained closed, occasionally propped open to allow takeaway sales.

Breweries, and subsequently their suppliers, were hit hard, losing up to 90% of their trade almost overnight. Quickly, many breweries turned directly to the consumer, diverting volume to cans, bottles, or mini-kegs. For Edinburgh’s Newbarns Brewery, the pandemic not only delayed the opening of their brand new site, but also forced an about-turn. “We had always planned to be a draft-led brewery but when the pandemic struck, with no pubs to sell to, we had to save and buy our canning line,” says brewer Jonny Hamilton, “which has really helped us this year to stay operational in lockdown.

“[This] actually probably led to us being more widely distributed, and maybe allowed more people to hear about us,” he continues. This benefit was one shared by a number of breweries, and is perhaps one small silver lining to a devastating year. For the drinker, too, this is a win: we now see greater choice available to be delivered to our doorsteps than ever before. This does, however, leave wholesalers, retailers, and pubs out of the loop, with potentially huge consequences – while retailers such as bottle shops are staying afloat due to their categorisation by the government as ‘essential’ shops, wholesalers and pubs are on their knees.

Calling time

One bitter lesson learnt from 2020 is that despite schemes such as Eat Out to Help Out, the beer industry (and more broadly, hospitality) is on its own. A lack of effective government support—despite calls from across the industry and lobbying by various trade groups—has left innumerable businesses up a creek without a paddle, with some small breweries not qualifying for any support at all. “If the government was serious about protecting the industry,” says beer writer and broadcaster Jonny Garrett, “it would have done so by now.”


If the government was serious about protecting the industry it would have done so by now

“By this point, the future of most pubs is in the hands of the pub companies,” he says. “Unless they keep rent cancellations and reductions until the middle of 2022, or renegotiate rents to reflect both the debt accrued during lockdown and the fact that sales in pubs will be down for the next two to three years, we will lose many of them.”

Just when we see pubs reopen in any meaningful way remains to be seen, though it’s unlikely that a full reopening of hospitality will come any time soon. “I suspect there will still be restrictions in place right through to the end of 2021,” Garrett says. “By then I’d hope that they will be local only, and not involve the closure of pubs and restaurants, but rather limit social interaction, and force masks and sanitiser on customers and staff.” Even with a full reopening of the sector this year, “we will lose thousands of pubs, most likely this summer when financial support is removed by landlords and the government, but also around this time next year when cashflow is tightest,” he says.

Inevitably, many of us are now somewhat used to socialising digitally, and perhaps don’t feel safe in public. When hospitality reopens, how quick will we be to return? “I think we will see an almost instant return from core day-in-day-out regulars, with casual pub-goers taking a while longer to feel safe,” says Rowan Molyneux, General Manager of the Trafalgar Freehouse in south-west London. “There will also be people who have got out of the habit of coming out, and are perfectly happy to sit at home with their beers, whether bought from supermarkets or via delivery direct from breweries.”

Garrett predicts that these people, those out of the practice of drinking in pubs, will account for the majority of beer sold. “The bias of home vs on-trade drinking shifted to the former in 2017 and was continuing to grow quickly even before the pandemic,” he says. “I expect that next year, even if all restrictions are lifted, around 70% of alcohol sales will be consumed at home – but almost all packaged and bought at the brewery, shop, or online, not the pub.”

Resilience

Community is a much-used buzzword within beer, particularly in the craft sector. Though there are those who question whether craft beer is as community-minded as it is often claimed, there’s no denying that 2020 brought this to the fore. From regular online events such as livestreams, Instagram broadcasts, and Zoom ‘pub’ sessions, through to community fundraising for ailing pubs, beer has never felt more communal. The absence of pubs highlighted, too, the role these spaces play in local communities.

“For me, 2020 has really hammered home the importance of loyalty and community,” Molyneux says. Like any publican, she knows that it’s her regulars who keep the lights on. “When your community continues to support you throughout every new iteration of ridiculous rules – booking timed slots for takeaway sales, coming back after every re-opening, and commiserating at every last minute closing – that’s what has kept us going both monetarily and mentally.”


When your community continues to support you ... that’s what has kept us going both monetarily and mentally

When the world returns to some semblance of pre-pandemic normality (if that’s possible) there will be fewer pubs to act as ad hoc community centres. But that sense of community, according to Molyneux, is what will carry the industry through. “When we come out the other side of this pandemic, this industry will be smaller – it already is, and that’s terribly sad,” she says. “But I would hope that we can carry forward the empathy and camaraderie that we have for each other and continue collaborating in the way that we do best.”

Though we could be facing the closure of thousands of breweries and up to 10% of pubs, according to Garrett, life will go on. As the sector continues to grow, albeit more slowly now, we’ll see new pubs and new breweries spring up in their stead. It’s not possible to predict what lies ahead, but any new openings must future-proof in whatever way they can. Food offerings, the capacity for social distancing, and takeaway sales will feature in the business plans of many. “More space between tables, less seating at the bar, and sites with outside space will be particularly in demand,” says Molyneux. “Glass or metal branded containers for takeaway beer will become an important part of any planned expenditure.”

Beyond the ability to shift to packaged beer where necessary, and the importance of direct-to-consumer, what learnings can breweries take into 2021? “That core beers matter,” says Garrett. “We are still in the blurred phase between disruption and growth, and experimentation is everywhere. But the pandemic pushed people back to basics and reassurance, which led to spikes in sales of core and reliable beers – these beers can be used to bring new people in.” 

Though the industry itself may shrink over the coming year or more, its audience has grown. In the resurgence of interest in the high street and shopping local during the first lockdown, many drinkers looked to their nearest brewery for beer. Those who had never set foot in a bottle shop before discovered new styles, breweries, and favourites. “The only positive is going to be that closure of the pubs has encouraged new people to try more exciting beer in the search for something new and exciting,” says Garrett. “I hope breweries can learn that focusing on quality, approachability and diversity will bring new people to the sector – and they will stop alienating new people with complicated terms, high ABVs, childish artwork, and focus on quality time after time.”


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