Another year begins and, once again, things feel uncertain and unsettled for pubs, breweries and beer drinkers.
For most of 2020/21 there was a sense that if businesses could survive the worst of COVID-19, and make it out the other side, things would get better.
There was evidence of pent-up demand. Consumers were keen to get out and about and had perhaps learned not to take hospitality for granted.
Government grants and loans, though inevitably regarded as miserly by those on the receiving end, helped keep businesses afloat and even to invest in improvements.
Others were given the nudge they needed to develop online sales and delivery capability.
Then 2022 happened, with a whole new set of challenges on top of a lingering long-tail of pandemic-related problems.
It’s no wonder we’re entering 2023 with people saying things like “I have a generalised bad feeling about what 2023 will bring to the small and independent brewing sector”.
We’re not completely pessimistic – more on that later – but it’s certainly worth facing the facts head on and sitting with them a bit.
We’re not used to breweries closing
In 2022, especially towards the end of the year, a number of UK breweries closed. Steve Dunkley has taken on the administrative job of maintaining a log. At the time of writing, he lists more than 80 closures, including:
- Box Steam
- Exe Valley
- Leeds Brewery
- Newtown Park
- Twisted Wheel
- The Wild Beer Co
It feels mean to say what’s going to come next but if we’re not here to be honest, what’s the point?
The breweries above were known to us but many of the others that have closed so far were relatively obscure and/or second-ranking.
We’d never heard of most of them, and we do pay attention somewhat. Those we did know weren’t necessarily highly regarded, or “hyped” if you prefer.
That’s not to say they were bad, only that they were no doubt already having to work harder to stay afloat without word-of-mouth and national profile.
Kelham Island is an interesting example. It closed and was then saved by Thornbridge. Kelham Island is a beloved brand with plenty of clout behind it; and Thornbridge is clearly not struggling if it felt able to make this move.
And we’ll never get any brewer to say this on record but surely there’s a certain sense of relief that comes with a thinning out of the field, at last.
“There are too many breweries” has been a constant refrain for the past decade and we’ve heard plenty of off-the-record complaints about undercutting and amateurism.
There’s a general expectation that more closures will be announced in January, when breweries tot up their Christmas take and decide whether slogging on is worth it.
Each individual closure is, of course, sad. Jobs gone. Someone’s dream shattered.
But if we try to float above all that, aloof and objective, if 2023 ends with half the number of breweries in the UK, that’s still more beer than we’ll ever get round to drinking. And certainly more than there was in 1984.
Watch out for…
- brewery closures to be announced in January 2023
- the number of breweries listed in CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide in autumn 2023
When were pubs ever not under threat?
Earlier this year CAMRA published statistics on pub closures during 2021. The numbers aren’t entirely dismal and this table in particular might suggest reasons for cautious optimism:
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|Yorkshire and the Humber||+36|
Stats from the Office for National Statistics published a few weeks ago were similarly uncooperative in the decline-and-fall narrative:
“There are 1.6% more high street pubs and bars since the first Covid lockdown… The data, which tracked the percentage change in the number of establishments between March 2020 and March 2022, was conducted by the Ordnance Survey and the BBC. The Ordnance Survey data found 700 more pubs and bars were operating after the pandemic.”
But even if you take these figures at face value (and not everyone does) things feel very different in January 2023 than they did in March 2022. Increased fuel bills are just now beginning to bite both drinkers and drinking establishments.
And many pubs will have been hanging on for the combined World Cup, Christmas and New Year take before deciding on their future.
There’s no doubt it’s going to be tough. But perhaps a combination of tactical closures – shutting early if it’s quiet, going into hibernation – and temporary adaptations to the offer can help fundamentally healthy pub businesses weather this, like they weathered COVID.
Watch out for…
- CAMRA’s pub closures report in spring 2023
- ONS business demography report in autumn 2023
Yes, but how does it feel?
As you probably know, we’ve been blogging about beer since 2007.
We a book subtitled “the strange rebirth of British beer” and another about the state and fate of the English pub.
We’ve also provided a couple of hefty updates, in 2015 and 2018, covering notable developments on the scene.
All of which is to say, we think we’ve been watching pretty closely, and thinking about the mood as much as the facts.
In a nutshell, we think pubs feel at marginally less risk now than a decade ago, but brewing feels deflated and tarnished.
Accepting that the plural of anecdote is not data, and so on and so forth, anecdotes are helpful when it comes to checking the vibe. In Bristol, it feels as if pubs are back – at least in the city centre, and more affluent suburbs.
The reopening in November of The Kings Head near Temple Meads under the stewardship of Good Chemistry is perhaps a sign of a fundamental shift. It’s a proper pubby pub with a low-key craft beer offer and has been constantly busy. And they’re not daft; they wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t good business.
Micropubs might be an evolutionary dead end, the jury’s still out, and of course they’re not all wonderful. But those that work really work. In our old neighbourhood on the other side of Bristol, The Drapers Arms, now seven years old, has become a fixture of the community, varying from full to uncomfortably crowded on our recent visits.
Further afield, in London and Sheffield, we keep finding ourselves unable to get into, or find seats in, pubs that have any kind of reputation.
If a pint of beer has become a luxury, perhaps it’s at least a relatively affordable one. And if what your soul needs is to be out with friends, even £5 pints are a cheaper way to achieve that than a £60-a-head restaurant dinner.
Brewing is different and perhaps the feeling there is tied to the rise and fall of BrewDog, and the other members of the United Craft Brewers:
- Beavertown – taken over
- BrewDog – it’s complicated
- Camden Town – taken over
- Magic Rock – taken over, spat back out
Beyond that, there’s also the uncomfortable business of the Cloudwater redundancies, and bitterness over the Wild Beer Co crowdfunding problem.
There was perhaps some naivety a decade ago, but anyone who got the tattoos and joined the fan clubs has surely now had that shaken out of them.
Maybe it’s good for us all to have the rose-tinted spectacles off… but things do look nice through rose-tinted spectacles. That’s why they tint ‘em.
And consumers feeling upbeat and enthusiastic is good for business.