The beery aroma in the air at the Gipsy Hill brewery in south London grows ever richer as sack after sack of the finest malt empties out into a stainless steel container, ready to be brewed into their flagship Hepcat IPA.
About an hour’s drive away, near Esher in Surrey, the small team at the Big Smoke Brew Co are working equally hard on their own leading label, Electric Eye.
And more than 200 miles north in Hartlepool, the folk at Donzoko Brewing are flat out making their Northern Helles. “It’s a race against time to fulfil the demand and take advantage of this big bounce back,” said Donzoko’s founder-owner Reece Hugill.
These three are among the small breweries getting ready for the grand reopening of pubs scheduled for 17 May, when hospitality venues can finally restart for indoor service.
According to the British Beer & Pub Association an estimated 45,000 pubs will fully reopen on Monday, and they will serve some 3m pints to punters who will no longer need coats or blankets. That will be a third down on a normal pre-pandemic Monday, due to social distancing and table service-only restrictions and fewer customers in town and city centres. But it is a big step towards normality.
When beer gardens opened last month, many multinational “megabrew” companies struggled to meet pent-up demand for draught beer.
“[Brewers and pubs] were really caught off guard by how busy they were going to be,” said Rich Craig, founder of Big Smoke.
“We had calls from lots of pubs saying they couldn’t get any beer. It’s been bananas, absolutely crazy.”
The almighty clamour for amber nectar came despite the fact that only 40% of pubs, those with outdoor space, were able to open. Brewers have been bracing for the rest to follow suit for some time already. While mass-produced lager can go from mash tun to pint glass in days, quality “craft” beer takes a month or more.
According to Gipsy Hill co-founder Sam McMeekin, the effort has been “absolutely frenetic, with everyone working at 120% of capacity”. They’re doing so not just to please parched punters but to make sure they have a bright post-pandemic future.
“It’s about survival, about making, packaging and distributing as much beer as we can to anyone who wants it. We’re trying to climb out of a hole we’ve been in for the last 14 months as fast as we can.”
Successive lockdowns have dealt more damage to hospitality than almost any other industry. The thriving and internationally admired network of more than 2,000 small craft breweries that has developed in the UK over the past decade or so has felt the pinch acutely.
Last week, Rishi Sunak was pictured at Pillars Brewery in Wandsworth, south London, boasting of the support the government has given to small businesses. Few in the brewing industry recognise that assessment. Breweries “have been left out of the government’s support for the hospitality industry”, said James Calder, chief executive of the Society of Independent Brewers (Siba).
Measures such as “Eat out to help out” and hospitality grants were targeted at venues but did little for their suppliers.
“In Scotland, a brewers support fund helped out struggling small brewers, but in the rest of the UK breweries have not been so lucky,” said Calder.
On top of that, Sunak’s proposed reforms to the way small breweries are taxed spells extra costs for some of the smallest, those with the shallowest pockets.
Around 40 are thought to have succumbed to the once-in-a-generation pandemic body blow already. Casualties include Wooha Brewing Company in Morayshire and Wickwar in the Cotswolds. The survivors, saySiba, are in debt to the tune of £30,000 each on average.
Gipsy Hill made it through but lost millions of pounds of revenue and threw away hundreds of kegs of beer, a necessity that McMeekin described as “heartbreaking”. Custom from hospitality and export, about 80% of Gipsy Hill’s £350,000-a-month income, simply evaporated.
To keep their heads above water, many craft brewers flipped their business model on its head to become e-commerce specialists.
For an outfit the size of Big Smoke, the shift wasn’t easy although it has been unexpectedly successful. From their warehouse by the River Mole, they used to dispatch just 800 deliveries a year but have hit 20,000 since the start of the pandemic.
“It’s the most profitable that the brewery’s ever been,” said Craig.“You’re selling less volume at a higher profit margin. ”
The model works pretty well for Big Smoke, whose annual production is close to 5,000 hectolitres (hL) – about 880,000 pints.
For Gipsy Hill, a significantly larger operation at 30,000hL a year, the transformation is harder to pull off. The extra income from home delivery is a “drop in the ocean” compared with what has been lost, said McMeekin.
But there are reasons to see the beer glass as half full. Some breweries’ online sales will be valuable income to supplement the return of hospitality and start recouping the pandemic shortfall. .
And a survey by Siba found that “tap yards” – the brewery equivalent of the beer garden – have been about 73% busier than pre-pandemic.
“The public appetite is going through the roof,” said McMeekin of his tap yard. “Customers are making up for lost time.”