The then Black Sheep Brewery chairman Andy Slee wrote last August, in an introduction to the company’s 2021/22 accounts: “When future generations look back at this period in British history, the resilience and versatility of Britain’s pubs and brewers will shine through”.
Any post-pandemic residual optimism within the British brewing industry has since ebbed away at an alarming rate. Black Sheep is the latest – and most high profile – in a series of administrations: Skinner’s of Cornwall in September; Kent’s Old Dairy in November; Wild Beer and Leeds Brewery in December; Bedlam of Sussex in February 2022; Alphabet of Manchester in April.
Early May 2022 brought speculation that highly-regarded east London craft producer Brew by Numbers and the capital’s Brick Brewery were going the same way. Brew By Numbers sought to head off speculation with a statement on May 9 that it was “in the final stages of securing a deal as part of a restructuring process that will bring in new investors”.
It added: “We have known these investors for several years and they are all passionate about our brewery.”
Drinks Retailing approached Brick Brewery for comment on its current situation but there was no response as we went to press. Black Sheep’s travails show that scale is no protection. The brewery’s beers are widely available in supermarkets and pubs nationally and it diversified into cider, vodka and gin in recent years.
The problems faced by brewers are those affecting many other sectors: the hangover from the pandemic and the cost of living crisis. But the impact of protracted pub closures in 2020 and 2021 and consumers cutting back on discretionary spending have had a more extreme impact on beer. Utility, raw material and packaging costs add to the woes.
A report by the administrators of Bedlam – which has since been sold in a pre-pack deal to an associated company – spells out the stark reality of post-pandemic brewing. Between its start-up in 2011 and 2021 it had made a turnover CAGR of 64%, although it was “loss-making since inception”.
Sales dropped 29% as a result of the pandemic and revenues “were £1.5 million lower than [the directors] could reasonably have expected them to be over the past few years”. Towards the end, it faced a statutory claim from its landlord for rent arrears of just under £40,000 that it was unable to pay.
The administration came despite three directors pumping £250,000 into the business in recent years to try to keep it afloat. The latest round of administrations – or rumours of – came too late to feature in the latest update on brewery numbers from the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA).
Its UK Brewery Tracker report for January-March showed numbers were “relatively stable” in the first quarter of 2023, with an overall net decline of four. In Wales, eastern England and the Midlands they’d even increased slightly.
Andy Slee left Black Sheep to become SIBA chief executive in January, and made this comment: “With rising raw material and utility costs, alongside existing market access issues, far too many small breweries are closing, but the figures paint a much better picture than many predicted.” The report for the current quarter will make for interesting reading.