Wednesday 31 March 2021

Brewing through the plague year

Seeing as we're living through history (something that hasn't happened since 1992 when history ended) I'd better get something written down. Hopefully I'll do something a bit weightier in the not too distant future, but that will have to wait until I've finished some fascinating work on gushing in low alcohol beers. 

So, on to brewing through the plague year. As an essential worker I've been slaving away whilst many have been at home all day playing with themselves and saying how it's affecting their mental health. Maybe the Victorian moralists were right after all? I work at a site which contains four independently owned breweries (brewhouses and fermentation vessels), of which the main brewery does the processing (stabilisation and filtration) and packaging (cask, keg and bottle) for all four, and provides staffing for three.

Having four breweries catering to different markets gives me a chance to say how badly each has done over the past year:

One is owned by a large estate with racetracks, which mostly brews easy drinking draught beer for big events, though some is bottled. The brewery has almost gone into hibernation for the year. 

Another mostly sells its own brands to the US, shipping out containers full in time for Christmas. It looked touch and go this year but it did happen in the end, though the importing company subsequently went bankrupt blaming the closure of bars, and leaving some of the beer unpaid for. The company also does contract brewing of bottled beers which has ticked over but volume is down. 

The third brewery is part of a group including a large pub company so mostly sells crafty draught beer, though some is bottled and some sent out for canning. This brewery has its own staff who were furloughed for a big chunk of time as most of the production died a death, though some small brews were done for canning. 

My employer is the main event that provides staffing for three of the breweries. It sells its own, mostly traditional, brands and does a lot of contract brewing and bottling. Brewing was down lots, and even bottling went down as some of the big bottling contracts are for beers sold in restaurants. Some ale brewing had to continue to keep the yeast strain going, it being of the traditional British continually re-pitched type. The brews were almost entirely bottled, though some beer was packaged as god intended in cask for the brewery shop and a small amount went into minikegs, which I'm sure all who've ever filled them will agree are surely the devil's work. 

Some contract bottling was picked up as a national brewer booted out its contract customers to focus on its own brands, and a small amount extra also came in from a customer as a way of making use of beer originally destined for cask when another lockdown arrived. Some staff were furloughed (but not bleedin' me!) and some were made redundant. I know I'm meant to be grateful for not being on the sausage but I didn't feel much joy covering for missing staff. I suppose as things edge back towards normal I can take comforting in the fact I now have a thrilling spreadsheet for tracking efficiency and losses I had time to make.

All of the breweries have done badly financially. For the two that are parts of larger companies I'm sure it's a drop in the ocean compared to their overall financial performance (which will also be down lots for both). I don't know any details about their money situation but both breweries are or will be soon increasing beer production, so don't look like their having the plug pulled on them. The brewery that exports to the states definitely lost a chunk of cash but I believe now has a new importer so hopefully will be able to continue as before in the future. And as to my employer it's had to defer payment on some things (which will of course still become due for payment later) and take out a loan. Expansion plans have slowed, but not stopped entirely. One of the things put back is getting a canning line. Cans have done well during lockdown so there's now a shortage of them and it doesn't make sense to install a canning line if you can't get cans. Work is now picking up but we've got less staff due to the redundancies. Happy, happy, joy, joy. 

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