Tag: lockdown

| 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.

| Alcohol, Media bollocks, Neo-prohibitionism

Are we really drinking ourselves silly through lockdown?

Quick answer: No.

Image sourced from Google and labelled as rights cleared for use.

I pitched this piece to a couple of newspapers yesterday. For some reason, they declined it.

With headlines like these:




You could be forgiven for thinking that sales of alcohol have jumped significantly during lockdown. Commentators across the political spectrum have expressed concern that we are drinking more than we did as we shield from Covid-19.

There’s just one problem: It’s not true.

Sales in the off-trade (corner shops, supermarkets and off-licences) are audited differently from sales in the on-trade (pubs, bars, restaurants and hotels.) They are reported separately. Every single time someone reports that drinks sales are up in March or April, they are looking at figures that only cover the off-trade. They completely ignore the on-trade, which was shut down on 20th March, and was already trading significantly down by then as fears of Covid-19 took root. The complete closure of pubs came several days after Boris Johnson told people not to go to pubs or bars, but fo some reason allowed them to stay open.

Last week, the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) released net figures for beer sales. As you’d expect, the off-trade is significantly up: total take-home beers sales were 10.6% higher in March 2020 than they were in March 2019, with premium lager being the biggest driver.

But beer sales through pubs, bars and restaurants were calamitously down across the board, with a net decline of 39.5% versus last year. Sales for April 2020 will of course be down 100% versus last year.

The on-trade currently accounts for just under half of all drinks consumption – or it used to. So add the two together, and you get an overall decline in beer sales of 12.7% in March 2020 versus March 2019.

I haven’t seen a single media report quoting this figure.

I haven’t seen stats for wine or spirits – these are more focused towards take-home but will surely follow the same pattern.

Since lockdown began, every pint in a pub, every sandwich from Pret, every burger from McDonalds, every meal or glass of wine in a decent restaurant, has had to be replaced by food and drink at home. There seems to be a general understanding of this in every area apart from alcohol sales, where we suddenly forget that pubs ever existed and assume that the only reason off-trade sales are rising is problem drinking. I have yet to see a serious article suggesting that we are binge eating ourselves to death, or developing a worrying obsession with baking, or becoming dangerously addicted to doing jigsaws (sales of jigsaws and board games soared a worrying 240% during the first week of lockdown alone.)

Overall retail sales may have collapsed, but in the run-up to lockdown we spent an extra £2billion in supermarkets as we stocked up, making March 2020 the busiest month on record for supermarket sales. When the same newspapers who are worried that we are drinking ourselves through lockdown report on overall supermarket sales, they rightly explain that we are stocking up because we are confined to our homes, and buying more food because we can’t go to restaurants, cafes or sandwich shops.

Even if we were buying more, does buying more mean we’re drinking more? Not necessarily. But there’s drinking and there’s drinking. Another news story over the weekend:


cites a survey that explored people’s alcohol consumption during lockdown. The Guardian report falsely claims that “Alcohol sales in Britain were 30% higher than usual in March,” and bases its claim that “problem drinking is soaring” on the fact that 20% of people say they are drinking more than usual during lockdown.

The thing is, if you read on, the same reports also says that a third of people – a far bigger number – are drinking less during lockdown, or have stopped altogether. Again, this doesn’t seem to have made the headlines anywhere.

There’s a natural tendency to equate overall drinking with problem drinking. Alcohol abuse strategies in the UK are based on the assumption that if we decrease overall alcohol consumption, we will reduce problem drinking. Statistically, at a population level, this may be true. But it creates the assumption that problem drinking is directly linked to the availability or affordability of alcohol, and this is not true. General population data show that the more affluent you are, the more you drink. But the less affluent you are, the more likely you are to suffer alcohol-related harm.

This is because problem drinking has more to do with the pattern of drinking – what you drink, and how and why – than the overall amount you drink over the long term.

There are more people drinking less than there are people drinking more during lockdown, because for most people, drinking is a sociable activity. I know many people who enjoy a few drinks at the pub but never drink at home, for example. So now the pubs are closed and they’re stuck at home, they don’t drink.

I have no doubt that problem drinking is up – I’m in no place to contradict the health workers who report significant increases in calls for help, and I wouldn’t want to anyway. But problem drinking follows a very different pattern than drinking for most people. As Chair of the British Guild of Beer Writers, you might think “Of course you’d say that.” But as the child of an alcoholic, I know what problem drinking looks like. I grew up with it.

Problem drinking is often secretive. It’s hidden. Alcoholics don’t care how much their poison costs – they’ll simply sacrifice more of anything else to get it, such as spending the family allowance that should have bought new shoes or clothes for the kids on booze instead. In the worst circumstances, if they can’t get booze they’ll drink something else, such as methylated spirits or rubbing alcohol. I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that problem drinkers are drinking more during lockdown, because it suits their MO.

And also because they are stressed, nervous and frightened. These are scary times. Any one of us might die of something we can’t see and don’t know enough about. If you problem-drink to alleviate stress or fear, of course you’re going to drink more just now.

But that doesn’t mean we are doing so as a population. We simply aren’t.

Problem drinking is not a drink problem, it’s a mental health problem. And until we talk about it as such, until we stop conflating overall alcohol sales/price/availability with the issues surrounding problem drinking, we are not helping those who need it most.

If you are worried about your own drinking during lockdown, this NHS page gives advice on where to start getting help, and this DrinkAware tool might help you work out if it is becoming a problem.