Why U.K. pubs must use or lose their traditional cask beers before Thursday when the country is set to shut down once again.

By Mike Pomranz
November 03, 2020
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Beginning Thursday, the United Kingdom will enter into a new four-week national “lockdown” in an attempt to curb increasing coronavirus infection rates. Announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson somewhat hastily on Sunday, one of the biggest changes to the country’s previous “tier” system is that pubs—which had previously been allowed to operate under different levels of restrictions—will now be forced to shut across the board. As a result, millions of pints of beer may once again be dumped—with traditional cask beer bearing the brunt of the losses.

Overall, the toll this new lockdown will have on beer shouldn’t be as bad as the U.K.’s first major lockdown which began in March and kept drinkers out of pubs until July 4. “It is thought that because of the length of notice, and the time of year, the wastage of the second lockdown will be in the region of 7.5 million pints, which is way lower than 70 million pints wasted in the first lockdown,” Charlotte Green, from the British waste management company TradeWaste.co.uk, predicted.

A close-up of a beer on a bar at an English pub
Credit: mikedabell/Getty Images

Still, 7.5 million British imperial pints—or the equivalent of over 70,000 U.S. kegs—is a lot of beer to be flat-out disposed of over a four-week shutdown. And a large part of the issue is Brits’ affinity for cask beer—aka, the “warm” and “flat” beer England is notorious for—which though rare in America, makes up about a sixth of all on-premise beer consumption across the pond.

Importantly, and unfortunately, cask beer has a significantly shorter shelf-life than pressurized draft beer. “Keg beer, as it's in a compressed container, can last six weeks-plus and will last even when some has been consumed,” explains John Harrison, owner of the cask beer-focused pub The Beer House in Sheffield. “Cask beer shelf life is three-to-five days when on the bar, but takes seven-to-ten days to prep, so anything under 10-to-14 days’ notice means beer has been tapped and will then waste if not used.”

It’s that tightened window that will make even this relatively-short British lockdown especially tough for pubs that move plenty of cask beer. And making matters worse, unlike the previous lockdown, this time around, the British government won’t be allowing pubs to switch to selling cask beer packaged for takeout.

As a result, many pubs are looking to sell off their remaining cask supplies as quickly as possible. For instance, the massive Stonegate Pub Company—which owns thousands of sites—is offering pints of cask beer for the equivalent of just $1.25 in the lead up to lockdown. And Wetherspoon’s—another large chain with nearly 900 pubs—is selling pints for just a few cents more.

“The reality is that any real ales not sold between now and lockdown will have to be thrown away, so it is better that customers can enjoy it at a great price while the pubs remain open,” Eddie Gershon, a spokesman for Wetherspoon’s, told The Guardian.

Back at The Beer House, a small independent pub, Harrison said he was “not caught off guard this time,” adding, “We expected the unexpected. We have been running down the beers.” But others might not be so lucky. “The breweries have been shafted though,” he told me.

Indeed, the lockdown will disproportionately affect smaller craft brewers. According to a report from SIBA—the British Society of Independent Brewers—two-thirds of its members’ beer production in 2020 will be cask beer. “Small breweries who often specialize in fresh cask beer are closely linked to their local community pubs, so it is no surprise that sales for small breweries were down on average 82 percent during the first coronavirus lockdown,” Neil Walker, SIBA’s head of comms, told me via email. “This time around things are going to be even tougher, and with no takeaway beer sales on the horizon, independent breweries—who have been left out of the Government's hospitality industry support and business rates holiday—may not make it to the festive season.”

In the interim, breweries may look to other options. For instance, Thornbridge Brewery in Bakewell sells many of its beers in both cask and draft formats—as well as in bottles, cans, and nine-pint mini-casks sold for home consumption at retail. Over the next four weeks, they’ll be dramatically shifting their packaging plans.

“We have moved any beer immediately set to go into nine-gallon casks into mini-casks where possible,” George Tims, a sales manager at the brewery, told me. “Where cask beer was set to be brewed further down the line we have taken this out and replaced with bottle/can brews. We’re still planning on packaging the odd bit of keg beer as we anticipate needing this as soon as restrictions are lifted and don’t want to be caught short. [But] 98 percent of the next month of packaging will be into botte or can.”

However, since Thornbridge is already set up for packaging their beers in different formats, making this switch is pretty straightforward. Other breweries might not be so lucky.

Update, November 4:

In a last-minute turnaround—likely in response to a flood of reports such as this one—the British government announced yesterday that they will allow pubs to sell takeout beer as long as it's ordered in advance, according to The Guardian.

Nik Antona, national chairman for the Campaign for Real Ale—a cask beer advocacy group—praised the decision, stating, “I am delighted that the government has listened to the concerns of thousands of Camra members, concerned pub-goers, and beer lovers who have e-mailed their MPs in the last 48 hours urging the government to allow pubs and breweries to sell alcohol as takeaway during the second lockdown.”

However, Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, criticized the new plan for not allowing walk-up takeout, which was allowed when pubs were previously forced to shut in the spring. “Supermarkets and off-licences can still sell alcohol, so this is grossly unfair on pubs," she was quoted as saying. "It remains the case that to help pubs and brewers to survive and to stop up to 7.5 million pints from being wasted, the government needs to give pubs the same ability to sell off-licence alcohol as it did in the first lockdown.”