Jeff Evans: A brutal blow to brewing

It goes without saying that few sectors of the British economy will emerge unscathed from the current crisis, but brewing will undoubtedly suffer badly.

The warning lights have been flashing from the moment the lockdown was enforced and the Society of Independent Brewers since predicted widescale hardship in the trade.

In a survey of members it discovered that, despite breweries working to develop their mail order sales or establish local home deliveries, beer sales are down 82% since the lockdown, and 54% of breweries are finding it hard to access government support.

Global beer brands have the resources and logistics to keep supplying supermarkets but the smaller businesses have seen their trade plummet as their main route to market – the pub – has been closed off. Calls for beer duty payments to be deferred – a move that would have freed-up cash flow – have fallen on deaf ears.

The upshot of all this is that, sadly, we are likely to emerge from the lockdown with fewer active breweries. Each closure will be a personal disaster for those involved and the individuals affected will no doubt find it hard to find new work in the same field, given the tighter belts in breweries that survive and the number of skilled brewery workers likely to be seeking employment.

How many breweries we may lose is clearly not quantifiable at this stage, but it comes at a time when there already appeared to be a levelling off in brewery growth. Camra’s 2020 Good Beer Guide, published last autumn, lists 171 new breweries but 124 that closed over the previous year, with a further 11 listed as “for sale”.

This points to an increasingly saturated market and the days of rocketing net new brewery numbers being in the past.

CLUTCHING AT STRAWS

The fallout from the current crisis is a personal and economic calamity that it is hard to underestimate but, clutching at straws, the world of beer is, in one sense at least, better equipped to weather the storm now than it has been for many decades.

The way in which beer is appreciated and understood today will certainly stand the industry in good stead going forward.

When I delivered talks and tutored tastings for the general public even just a few years ago, I always began with an explanation of the basics – how beer is brewed, the ingredients involved, etc – knowing that the depth of knowledge out there was very limited.
I can’t count the number of times I was told at the end of a session: “I never knew that before.”

In the talks I give today (or at least did before the lockdown), I no longer need to do that. People are very aware of all these things and now want to hear more about the subtleties of each beer and the vision and experiences of the people behind them.

These are the people who are suffering now. I feel for them. Many are friends I have known for a long time. But, if they do prove to be casualties of the crisis, their work will not have been in vain.

Through the enthusiasm they have spread to their customers, their sense of adventure and endless imagination, not only will have they have given so much pleasure through beers they have brewed, they will also have helped shape the amazing beer landscape that exists today.

The genie cannot be put back into the beer bottle. Beer is appreciated today in a way it was not a generation ago and that means it’s in a far stronger place from which to bounce back from this brutal experience.

Related articles: