Glass half empty?
Updated: Apr 9
Will Covid-19 set the UK's brewing industry back 20-40 years?
I drafted this post in late February to be an analytical piece about changes in growth and attrition rates of micro-breweries in the UK. The events of the past few weeks with the emergence of Covid-19 and the resulting forced closure of pubs and bars across the UK have cast a very dark shadow over the brewing industry. As I write (25-Mar), Government has offered a great deal of support to the hospitality sector but has not as yet made the connection that if you close down the hospitality sector, there is a supply chain to that sector that will be significantly impacted. Hundreds of breweries across the UK now face a very uncertain future.
The UK brewing industry has expanded more or less uninterrupted over the past 40 years. It has undergone a particularly rapid expansion over the past decade. The number of breweries in the UK grew by 43% between 1998 and 2008. In the following decade to 2018 it grew by 245%. The number of operational breweries increased from just over 500 in 1998 to around 1800 in 2018.
Data Sources & Limitations
The vast majority of the data for this exercise was extracted from Quaffale, a volunteer-run website which, since 1999, has attempted to keep track of all brewery openings and closures. Back in 1999 the site sought to keep pace with new brewery openings recognising that CAMRA's Good Beer Guide was typically a year out of date by the time it came to print. With the explosion of new brewery openings over the past decade the site has become more difficult to maintain in a timely manner so, ironically, it is currently roughly on a par with the GBG 2020. It does appear as though the openings and closures to the end of 2017 are reasonably complete. 2018 has a little updating to be done and 2019 quite a lot of updating.
Additional information on brewery closures in 2017, 2018 and 2019 was added by using the table of brewery closures in CAMRA's Good Beer Guides for 2018, 2019 and 2020 respectively. To clarify the timing of cessation of production Ratebeer was also consulted for these additions.
Tracking openings and closures over time, the number of breweries at the end of 2017 according to Quaffale was 1725. Quaffale receives its information via a network of Brewery Liaison Officers within CAMRA so should in theory be pretty accurate in identifying when breweries start producing beer. Newspaper reports tend to use data originating from Companies House which identifies the point at which brewery companies are registered. As well as there being a lag between registering a company and commencing production, there will also be a lag between breweries ceasing production and either de-registering or going into liquidation. This article in 2017 in The Guardian put the number of brewing companies at over 2000 (>15% higher than Quaffale's estimate). Best therefore to think of this analysis as being of operational breweries.
Having had a chat with the chap that operates Quaffale I know that he is at least a year behind in terms of having a comprehensive data set of brewery opening and closures. 2018 is a good deal complete but 2019, judging by the number of new openings, is a good way off. Nonetheless, the back of this analysis has been broken and I intend to keep my own dataset updated as Quaffale and Ratebeer catch up over the coming months.
There is more to come in terms of maps but due to the abyss into which much of the UK's brewing sector finds itself facing, I was keen to push out a number of maps initially to spread the word as to what's at stake. I'm working on a time-lapse map which I will post in due course as well as a server-hosted version of the map which will allow user interaction.
For now, here are three maps that show brewery growth spatially in 20 year steps from 1978 to 2018.
The analysis here is relatively brief, the primary intention initially having been to analyse the trends in net change in the number of breweries (openings minus closures). The impact of Covid-19 on the sector created a new focus to the piece. The impact is potentially enormous and could set the industry back decades and lead to a great diminution in the amount of choice and variety at the pumps.
Please digest this and lobby, shout and jump up & down until the sector gets recognition in Government that it potentially faces nothing short of collapse.