A strange 18 months…

This month sees the first printed edition of Beer Matters magazine in some time with a gap between the March 2020 issue and the September 2021 issue, during which we’ve been online only.

On 23 March 2020, prime minister Boris Johnson announced the first lockdown, however pubs and other such venues had already been ordered closed with “end of the world” parties held on Friday 20 with midnight that night seeing the doors locked until further notice.

With the lockdown in force to reduce the spread of coronavirus, we weren’t allowed out the house other than for local exercise, shopping for essentials and to commute to jobs that couldn’t be done from home. We also weren’t allowed to meet other people we didn’t live with except for certain designated support bubbles.

The full lockdown remained in force until early June, however other than being allow to operate as an off-licence/food takeaway pubs remained closed until 4 July. This of course had a very serious knock on impact on breweries – with pubs closed they had very few customers left to sell cask and keg to!

Many breweries pretty much had to furlough all staff and go into hibernation, however those that previously offered beer in bottles, cans, minikegs or bag-in-box upped production of small pack where they could and put more focus on selling direct to the consumer with many introducing or expanding online sales and home delivery with breweries such as Chantry, Bradfield, Drone Valley, Eyam and Abbeydale introducing their own delivery service whilst the likes of Triple Point, Stancill, Thornbridge and others offered the facility via couriers. A number of bottle shops including Hop Hideout and Dronfield Beer Stop also started their own home deliveries.

Abbeydale brewery had some luck – they took delivery of their own canning line early in lockdown and dramatically increased their production of beer in a can to satisfy demand and their online business was booming. We do need to see that in context against a huge fall in volume of cask and keg with overall brewery production still well down.

Pubs were allowed to reopen from 4 July but with various Covid-safe regulations including reduced capacity, social distancing, standing not allowed, enhanced cleaning regimes, taking details for NHS Test & Trace and more.

Further restrictions on the operation of pubs were introduced later in the year with a 10pm curfew from September which encouraged buying alcohol from supermarkets to drink at house parties and restrictions on group sizes. In October regional tiered restrictions came into force and in some tiers you could only buy an alcoholic drink with a “substantial meal”.

Pubs gradually dying a death from restrictions were finally put out of their misery with another lockdown implemented from 5 November, which ended on 2 December with a return to tiered restrictions.

We entered a third full lockdown from 6 January 2021, this time pubs were not allowed to operate as off licences but could offer home delivery, a restriction not imposed on other types of alcohol retailer!

Some pubs were able to open from 12 April, when outdoor table service was permitted for groups of up to 6 people. A number of pubs saw investment in beer gardens and other outdoor drinking areas as well as some introducing “pavement café” style arrangements. A venue of special note in Sheffield was the Dorothy Pax bar which went from being a small, cosy bar in a former railway arch to not only offering a few covered tables on the quayside but a huge area of outdoor seating upstairs on the roof with its own separate bar and staff serving customers at seat, which proved quite popular!

Indoor service was permitted from 17 May, however again this was mandatory table service and for restricted group size. The vast majority of pubs reopened at this point, however financially for pubs it was far from business as usual with reduced customer capacity coupled with the increased staff costs table service brought.

With step 4 of easing restrictions implemented from 19 July, pub life is much closer to normal, but not quite. Many pubs still aren’t allowing customers to linger around the bar after being served for the benefit of staff health and wellbeing, pubs are randomly having to close or reduce hours as staff get pinged by NHS Test & Trace due to being in contact with someone that has tested positive for coronavirus and of course city centre pubs have yet to recover the after work trade with many in office based jobs still working from home. There are also people of course that still don’t necessarily feel comfortable going out into social environments with the virus still in circulation.

Looking ahead the government announced that venues with large capacities such as nightclubs, large music venues and festivals will be required to check all customers are fully vaccinated before allowing them entry, at the time of writing no details had been announced of what exactly these rules will involve, for example which venues/events will be impacted or how they are expected to implement them.

So in summary, whilst we are the closest to “normal” we’ve been in about a year and a half, the world of beer, pubs and clubs is still struggling and needs our support as it attempts to get going again – and I think for many people who live alone they have been reminded of the important social role the community pub plays and why we mustn’t lose them!

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