Heritage & Imagination

Looking Back at 2022

Last year I saw a post about another brewery closing down. This was Kelham Island, and a complete surprise to everyone. How many was that now, like five breweries so far already in 2022? Was it more? No one really knew because no one was really keeping track, because you don’t, do you?

Like so much in the beer world it was ephemeral. News comes, news goes, styles come and go, beers come and go. We move on to the next thing.

But something felt wrong. Kelham Island wasn’t a small craft brewery set up in a railway arch by a couple of mates who wanted to brew the beers they wanted to drink; this was Kelham Island! A mainstay and staple of not just the Sheffield beer scene, but the entire UK’s since 1990. See that ‘19’? That’s last century. For 32 years Kelham Island had been supplying the UK with some of the finest cask beer there was. And now they were closing. Why though? Kelham Island were a nationally known brewery with a great reputation. They had their own pub and supply deals with many other outlets.

The reasons given started to feel familiar. Two years of low sales due to the Covid pandemic, rising costs, and the brewery itself needing a fair bit of investment.

Breweries do need ongoing investment. There’s a saying that the most used thing in brewing is duct tape for a reason. When Chorlton Brewery first opened, Mark from Runaway Brewery got them a “joke” moving in present of a massive roll of duct tape. There were laughs at the time, but it was used up within the month. Without constant income, that constant investment can’t happen and the older kits will start to fall apart.

Costs have been rising too all throughout the supply chain and are still rising – the price of malt is expected to rise a further 50% in the next few months, for example. With the costs of malt, hops, yeast, cleaning chemicals, CO2, electricity, diesel, kegs, cans and bottles all having risen dramatically over the last two years, the tight margins that there already were on beer have disappeared completely. For some breweries who were previously financially sound, the perfect storm that has followed Covid has seen all funding avenues exhausted almost as much as the staff.

Kelham Island was the tip of the iceberg, the closure that inspired me to keep track of those breweries we lost last year (the full list is over here).

We received lots of comments as this list was posted around the internet. And far too many of those comments showed a complete ignorance of brewing and the costs involved. “Never heard of half of them” was a common comment; well that’s on you, maybe leave ‘Spoons occasionally. “It’s all these craft start-ups using expensive American hops” was another regularly made comment. Not sure how that applied to Exe Valley, Skinners, Slaters, Caledonian or Jennings, but who am I to know better?

The simple fact of the list is that there are breweries small and large, new and established. 83 breweries – that I was made aware of – closed their doors for the last time last year. Very few of those were due to retirement.

There’s been very little good news to counter this. Quaffale has recorded 42 breweries having opened last year, and whilst the Kelham Island brewery itself is no more, their Pale Rider is being brewed at Thornbridge – although this isn’t much consolation to the folks in Sheffield who lost their jobs. Or at any of the other breweries on the list.

Setting up and running a brewery takes a lot of hard work, it really is either a labour of love, or a lot of money and someone else’s labour. Last year saw a lot of people’s hopes and dreams disappear along with a lot of livelihoods.

And it doesn’t look like 2023 will be any better. It may be worse.

It’s not that the “bubble has burst” as I’ve seen a few media outlets claim, it’s that people can no longer afford to go out. When the price of a pint has risen by 25% while people’s spending cash has dropped, it’s a double whammy.

A lot of people were made redundant during the pandemic, a lot more were put on furlough earning only 80% of their salary. Very few people have 20% of their salary as spending cash they can afford not to receive. A lot of credit was spent over those two years, and that needs paying back. Like breweries, the drinkers took out loans, put everyday essentials onto their credit cards. And as we came out of the lockdowns and restrictions, we were faced with a recession that’s being referred to as a “cost-of-living crisis”. Everything has become more expensive to buy and beer has become a treat.

2022 then saw the last few office workers finally break the habit of going to the pub from work, even on a Friday. A lot of folk had developed a new habit of going somewhere more local to home, and made new friends there. And now even though some are back at the city centre offices, they’re heading home after work and continuing to go to these local places which with their lower overheads (you would not believe the rent and rates on city centre venues!) are able to sell their pints at a slightly lower price, and as a major supermarket keeps telling us: “every little helps.” This had a major impact on trade: a report in the Morning Advertiser says 32 pubs a month closed last year. This year it will be even more. What little help there was from the government is soon to dry up, and costs have gone up. Everyone is trying to recoup the losses they made. Including some landlords who are doubling the rent they charge.

Which brings us to “How Can You Help?”

Unfortunately no short-term fix for this is likely to appear. Until people can afford to go out more, pubs won’t be selling the beers to pay their bills, and that means breweries won’t be making beer to pay theirs. And more breweries and pubs will close.

Some folks are saying “Go out, support your local!” or “Don’t do Dry January this year!” But the brutal heart of the matter is if you can’t afford to go out, you can’t afford to go out. And 2023 is forecast to see the recession carry on through to the end of the year at least.

So how can you help? Firstly, don’t spend more than you can afford. Secondly, think about who you give your money to. Large PubCos and multi-national organisations can weather the next couple of years. The larger breweries with their tied estates aren’t likely to suffer either. It’s the little guys that are set to close. The small micro-pubs and craft bars, the genuine freehouses where the folks behind the bar serving you your pint are the ones who own it. It’s the breweries that supply them. The micros, nanos and picos. The folks who’ve set up because of their passion. We can’t afford to lose that passion from our industry, so if you can afford to go out, choose passion.

Rather than end on a frankly depressing note, it looks like Skinners may have found new owners too, but there’s no word on they’re planning on brewing the same beers or just want the brand. The brewers from Beatnikz have launched their own brewery, Green Arches, on the site of the previous Beatnikz brewery and have opened up a taproom, and the brewer at Twisted Wheel has bought the name and set up again, albeit in a much-reduced capacity for both. And as I finish writing this, Wild Beer has also been bought out of administration, or at least the brand has, going to Curious Brewery.

What does this all mean for 2023? I’m still writing that article.

1 Comment

  1. Helen Silvers

    I agree wholeheartedly with the article. My husband and I are camra members and have been for 20 years. When we are out we always try to find the pubs that sell real ale. Sadly many pubs we visit don’t have hand pulls any longer and only sell what we term ‘Standard pub pints’ some are ok but many have no idea how to look after their beer however we are fortunate to live very close to The Mallard pub on Worksop station, now there is a pub who knows how to keep beer. It is very small and a true locals pub. No mobile phones, no juke box or piped music. Sports are shown but in the cellar bar not the main bar.

    In respect of ‘spoons’ we stopped going into them when we saw how he treated his staff during the covid pandemic.

    Kelham Island and the Fat Cat in Sheffield are also two of our ‘locals’ that we visit quite often, and I was under the impression that a buyer had been found for Kelham Island brewery, please correct me if I am wrong. I also see that there is a recue bid for Skinners Brewery (one of my favourite).

    We will give our continued support to the smaller pubs and breweries when and where ever we can.

    Helen Silvers

    PS we hope to visit your tap room very soon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

© 2024 Beer Nouveau

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑