What will the beer industry look like post-lockdown?

On 20th March 2020 the call was made by the UK government to close the doors on pubs and other businesses in the hospitality sector with a strong message given to the general public to ‘Stay at Home’ as the coronavirus pandemic began to spread through the country. For an industry that relies on people visiting their establishments in high volumes this has been a huge blow and many have had to respond or adapt to this new way of life, but what will the future of these businesses look like? I, like many others, have questions about what pubs, bars and tap rooms might be like once the lockdown restrictions are lifted. I don’t know how to answer these questions but here are some of my thoughts based on things I’ve read or heard.

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What will the beer industry look like post-lockdown? This is quite a loaded question and I think it is the umbrella in which all my other questions fall under. As mentioned above many businesses have had to respond to the change in peoples’ buying habits and with people being told to ‘Stay at Home’, SIBA found that independent brewery beer sales dropped down 82% in their April 2020 survey. To adapt many businesses in the beer industry were quick to expand their existing online web shops while others began work to start up their own, with SIBA also reporting an increase of 55% in online beer sales during the lockdown. With many breweries now being able to directly sell to their customers through their new online shops how will this change the way we buy our beer in the future? How will this affect independent retailers? I have already seen that some independent bottle shops have turned to opening web shops themselves so perhaps this will be positive for them and widen their customer base. Will breweries continue to keep open their web shops now they directly reach their market? I imagine they would now that their web shops are set up which perhaps could offer more job opportunities in the future? I read that Thornbridge had advertised for a new role as an E-Commerce Manager due to their growth in online sales and on the advert they were predicting that people will probably continue to buy their beer in this way post-pandemic. Although I wonder if as soon as pubs are given the green light to open will people continue to stay in with their beer deliveries or will the pubs be busier than ever as people are board of being stuck at home?

The reality is that as soon as pubs can open it will not be back to the normal we remember, well not for a while at least, but how will the pub environment look? At the time of writing this blog post the phased lifting of restrictions for England suggests pubs can begin reopening from the 4th July, with social distancing measures, and whilst many pubs and bars are making preparations there are also those who think this is too soon. One suggestion to help maintain social distancing in a pub setting is that table service could be implemented, something which some micro pubs do already if they don’t have a bar and larger pub chains could use a phone app, something Wetherspoons have had in place before lockdown. Whilst these measures might allow us to access the services and products of the pub we wouldn’t be getting the full experience. The pub has always been a very communal place and we are very used to sharing our space with other people. I don’t think twice about sharing a larger table with strangers or pub regulars but how will we feel about this when we can go back? Will we became wary and afraid of other people in the pub environment? How would we feel about being separated or talking to each other from behind a screen? Personally this wouldn’t feel like an enjoyable experience and it changes the essence of what a pub should be. This is a view shared by Malcolm and the team at my local brewery Stealth Brew Co. who don’t feel like they could open their micro pubs yet with so many restrictions and safety measures in place. To them the safety of their staff and customers is the most important thing so will continue just doing home deliveries for the moment, but in the meantime they have created a ‘virtual pub’ on Facebook where we can keep up to date with the regulars. Could this be a future of how local pubs and bars keep in contact with their customers? CAMRA have also set up a virtual pub space called The Red (On)Lion to help combat the issue of social isolation during lockdown. The platform allows people to ‘book’ a table for a closed group video call or you can join the public bar. CAMRA also hope to be able to use The Red (On)Lion pub to hold virtual quizzes as well as beer talks and tasting events.

During lockdown I have been getting involved in a few virtual beer tastings including Turning Point’s newly released New Frontiers range, Lost and Grounded’s Ultimate Lager Tasting and Instagram Live Tasting Sessions with Jimmy and Liz from Unity. These have been a great way for me to learn about new beers whilst drinking along with the brewers as well as having the opportunity to ask questions or just generally get involved in the chat. With breweries reaching out to their customers more using digital technology does this make a tasting event more accessible or does it limit people who may not be as tech savvy? Will it only appeal to people within the beer ‘bubble’ or will it help people discover beer, perhaps for the first time? I wonder if there will be a future for tasting events online once we come out of lockdown? Perhaps it would be a useful tool for new beer launches or special release beers, e.g. Sirens Caribbean Chocolate Cake Series or The Rainbow Project, where a tap takeover can have an online session run along side it for those who do not have access to somewhere holding an event?

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What will the beer industry look like post-lockdown? I don’t think anybody fully knows the answer to this question and we probably won’t know until restrictions are lifted. Social distancing is, hopefully only in the short term, our ‘new’ normal which can pose problems for a sector where a wide range of people mix together for a shared passion, beer. The role that digital technology has played during this lockdown has been so important across all industries and has allowed breweries to connect to their customers directly with online events as well as beer updates. It has been vitally important to all of us who have stayed at home, helping to ease social isolation by allowing us to see and interact with friends and family online. We can probably agree that the future will be different but together with the support from consumers and the beer industry’s response to new safety measures, hopefully soon we can return to our ‘old’ normal.

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