| Beer, Brewing, Media bollocks, Pubs

An update on TOTAL lockdown beer sales

In May I debunked misleading media stories implying that people were turning to drink during lockdown. I only had data up to the end of March. Now I have it to the end of May. Here’s a brief summary, followed by some comments.

When we were looking at March data for beer sales versus the same period last year, we had to bear in mind that we were looking at half a month where people were starting to avoid pubs because of fears of Covid, and half a month where pubs, restaurants, hotel bars etc. were on mandatory lockdown. The figures didn’t represent a full month of lockdown. Now we can see what that looks like.

In April and May, on-trade sales were obviously down -100% versus 2019.

Off-trade, sales were up by +39% in April, lowering to +25% in May.

That adds up to TOTAL beer sales being down -24% in April and -30% in May.

Add up total beer sales in March to May and compare it to the same period in 2019, and volume sales are down 22% overall.

So just in case you see any further reports trying to claim that we were boozing our way through lockdown, if we were, we weren’t doing it on beer. 

Breaking it down, ale fared far worse than lager: total (i.e. on-trade plus off-trade) ale sales were down 31% in March, -58% in April and -59% in May, whereas total lager sales were down -10% March, -15% in April, and -22% in May. 

Some observations on this…

One, as lockdown progressed, we drank less.

It’s worth noting that weather is a key factor in beers sales, particularly for lager. April was unseasonably warm and sunny, but May was a scorcher, officially the sunniest calendar month on record. Yet beer sales were lower in May than in April. One possible reason for this is that panic-buying early on in lockdown meant we bought less as it went on. Another is that we simply started getting out of the habit of drinking beer in the absence of the on-trade. But based on the weather, we should have expected sales to be better in May than in April.

Two, Lockdown has hit small, independent craft brewers and cask ale brewers far harder than Big Beer

Ale fared so much worse than lager because ale skews far more to the on-trade than lager does. Before lockdown*, supermarkets and off-licenses already accounted for around 55% of the lager we drank, whereas with ale, we were still drinking 70% of it in pubs, and only 30% at home. In volume terms, if my sums are correct, while ale had an 18% share of total beer sales before lockdown, it has accounted for 38%% of the total beer market volume loss during lockdown.+ Stout is counted separately. Together, ale and stout used to account for 22% of total market volume, and have taken 48% of the total volume loss.

This is the most worrying aspect for fans of craft beer and cask ale. Ale is far more skewed to small, independent brewers than lager is. The vast majority of lager is brewed by giant multinationals. So here is incontrovertible proof that while all brewers have suffered due to the closure of pubs, and while Britain is drinking significantly less overall, lockdown has hit craft and cask ale brewers far harder than it has Big Beer.

SIBA’s survey of their membership during lockdown was based on a smallish sample of their members and didn’t use audited data, so I always thought (or rather hoped?) that their claim that, on average, SIBA member brewers’ sales were down 82% was overly pessimistic. Having looked at total market data and broken it down like this, I now suspect it’s pretty close to the mark.

Now lockdown is easing, things don’t look much better. It seems that, despite predictable media sensationalism about “Super Saturday”, only half of pubs have reopened so far. Those that did reopen are seeing trade pan out at half its normal level. 25% of pubs cannot open viably even with social distancing reduced to one metre. These are smaller pubs, particularly micropubs, which are more skewed towards ale and craft beer than the average pub.

To really rub salt into the wounds, smaller and wet-led pubs got nothing from the chancellor’s mini-budget that reduced VAT on food sales and incentivised eating out, but provided nothing to support beer.

So please, if this upsets or concerns you, why not get online, or go to the pub if you feel safe doing so, and buy some beer from your local craft/cask ale brewer? They need our custom now more than ever.

For more detailed insight on the future of post-pandemic craft beer, with some light at the end of this long tunnel, check out this summary of my report on Craft Beer After Covid.

*For “before lockdown,” I’ve used figures for total beer sales for the calendar year to December 2019.

+ Calculated by working out total beer volumes March to May 2019 and comparing it with total beer volumes March to May 2020.

Data taken from BBPA sales audit.

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