Last month I set up a Patreon in the hope that a modest regular income would allow me to spend time researching key stories in much greater depth than I normally can unless I’m being paid a consultancy fee. In the first of these deep dives, I’ve looked at the future of craft beer post-lockdown – from the perspective of being fresh from “Craft: An Argument” – and tried to draw some conclusions. This is a summary of that work, with a fuller report with stats and detail available to Patrons.
Seeing both sides of an argument is different from sitting on the fence.
There’s no point trying to play down the huge negative impact of Coronavirus and the lockdown it necessitated. The hospitality sector has been hit worse than most, and within that, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest the craft sector, consisting mainly of small, independent businesses, will end up faring worse than the mainstream:
- – Small pubs and micropubs will find it more difficult to reopen than larger chains.
- – While some small, independent brewers have done well with online sales and (free) local delivery, overall small brewers suffered an 80% drop in volume during lockdown and 65% had to close.
- – The lack of sufficient notice that 4th July would definitely be the reopening date did not give small brewers enough time to prepare.
- – With lower capacity, pubs are likely to reduce the number of lines on the bar – in fact they’d be wise to.
- – Big brewers are giving huge support to pubs, including thousands of pints of free beer. Helpful to pubs, yes, but likely to pressure small brewers off the bar even further.
There will be a colossal short-term impact. Businesses are going bust and people are losing their jobs. They’ll continue to do so.
But that’s only half the story.
While I wrote “Craft” during lockdown, I deliberately avoided speculating on what lockdown might mean for the craft beer movement, because that would have dated it quickly. In the book, I look beyond the issues of ownership and independence that have come to dominate the debate over what is and isn’t ‘craft’.
The recent boom in craft – in beer and beyond – is a reaction to a mix of factors including the 2008 global financial crash, the spread of superfast, handheld mobile computing and communications, open plan office culture, the growing degree to which algorithms dictate our decisions and behaviours, the arrival of Artificial Intelligence, and the ongoing creep of corporate dominance and homogenisation in all aspects of our lives.
These factors combine to create two separate but related themes that drive craft. One, the personal need to do more with our hands than tap or swipe; to engage with the world around us in a more meaningful, physical way, and two, the desire to escape the corporate rat race, to live better, to be better, to be more fulfilled.
If we can’t do these things personally, we console ourselves with actively choosing products from people whom we believe have done it on our behalf, and live vicariously through them.
There have been many changes in lockdown, and we see some of them as positive. Almost all the positive ones feed directly into this narrative around the broader idea of craft. If, before lockdown, we wanted to reject a bland, boring mainstream, to slow down, to experience life more vividly and personally, to support local businesses, to be kinder and more compassionate, to reject the open-plan, “computer says no” office environment, lockdown has not only heightened those desires – it’s shown that it is possible for all of us to act on at least some of them.
Those craft brewers that survive the short-term hit will face an environment that, while remaining subdued, will be far more in tune with the principles that motivate the brewers, retailers and drinkers of craft beer than it was pre-Covid. At the moment, it seems that the underlying motivations and themes that make craft beer so appealing to an ever-increasing number of people are being strengthened by people’s experiences. For all its negative effects, for all the death and hurt the virus has caused and for all the economic hardship to come, lockdown was time-out, a chance to reflect.
Stripped of the daily commute, the constant travel, the endless crowds, the noise and spectacle with which we usually fill our lives, we’ve had the chance to discover – or re-discover – what really matters to us. We’ve realised that, while this state of affairs is far from ideal, there are some good bits.
Craft brewers – rightly or wrongly – are generally perceived as, among other things, smaller and more independently-minded, more progressive in their attitudes, kinder, friendlier and more collaborative than their corporate, industrialised rivals, more face-to-face in their communications, more physically engaged with both the nature of their work and the communities they exist within and do business with. All of this has become more appealing as a result of lockdown.
The future – eventually – will be bright.
The full report is available on Patreon to anyone who signs on at the £3 tier or above. (While it’s a regular monthly subscription, you’re perfectly free to sign just for a month and then cancel.)