Coronavirus: Beer-loving Britons scramble to keep the suds flowing

People in a pub after Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that cafes, pubs and restaurants across the country to close in London on March 20, 2020.
People in a pub after Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that cafes, pubs and restaurants across the country to close in London on March 20, 2020.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - The effect was immediate.

When UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged people to stop patronising restaurants and pubs on Tuesday (March 17), the Inn House Brewery in Glasgow, Scotland, was flooded with orders. The shop does not sell beer - it sells home-brewing kits.

With the store's sales double those on a normal Friday, it is clear a lot of Britons will be weathering their virus-imposed self-isolation by whipping up their own ales, lagers and stouts.

"People are really stockpiling, and home brewing is no exception," said Mr Harry Weskin, a sales assistant.

It is no surprise that the country's inhabitants are ensuring their supplies of fermented grains remain intact during the crisis. Ever since English brewers started making beer with hops in the 14th century, the drink has become an indelible part of the national character.

Now, Britons' love affair with a pint or two with friends is colliding with the rapidly escalating infection rate of Covid-19.

On Friday (March 20), Mr Johnson relented on his bid to keep pubs open and joined other nations in ordering the shutdown of public places, including bars and restaurants. It is a move some industry leaders had been arguing against all week.

"No one believes pubs should be so crowded that people are standing cheek by jowl in this sort of environment but I think people believe they should be open," Mr Tim Martin, the founder and chairman of pub chain operator JD Wetherspoon, said on Bloomberg Television on Friday, before Mr Johnson's announcement.

"I think if you can minimise the risk, and people aren't stupid, they know the risk, then we can stay open."

Others disagreed. Mr James Watt, the founder and CEO of BrewDog, a Scottish company that sells its craft beer in 60 countries, said he understood he would have to close its 52 bars in the UK to protect staff and the public.

Even though BrewDog's revenue has fallen 70 per cent, he says companies like his can offset some of the damage by delivering beer to customers or offering curbside pickup at bars.

 
 
 
 

That is a stopgap at best, and Mr Watt said the industry's independent brewers and pub owners are counting on the government to deliver relief by backstopping wages and implementing tax holidays. This week, Mr Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, unveiled a £330 billion ($3 billion) emergency loan programme to help businesses get through the crisis.

For local pubs that tend to operate on narrow margins and employ thousands of workers living pay cheque to pay cheque, the pandemic may spell the end of their businesses even with government support.

Earlier this week, Mr Ben Abrahams, the owner of Victoria Stakes, a gastropub in the north London neighbourhood of Crouch End, was hopeful he could remain open, at least part time, and get to the summer, when he has a full slate of wedding receptions to host in his wood-panelled dining rooms.

Now, Mr Abrahams has told his staff the place is closing, and he has pulled the plug on his plan to sell takeaway roast dinners and bottles of beer on Sunday to raise funds for his 50 employees. Instead, with the death toll climbing, he plans to use his kitchen to prepare meals for the National Health Service.

"We should close," said the pub owner, "and I am not sure it is the right thing to do. But we are going to see how we can support first responders and the NHS."