Russ Taylor: Beware the ides of March

XT Brewing director Russ Taylor describes how he got through lockdown and beyond

No-one would have believed, in the early days of March, that our affairs were about to be so completely changed. No-one dreamed or even considered the possibility of deadly infections coming from other continents and bringing our industry to a standstill.

Back in March the brewing industry gathered as usual for the annual SIBA conference in Liverpool. There were a few pots of sanitiser and we all ironically bumped elbows in greeting. I listened to talks about brewing NEIPAs, Health and Safety, Developing a Social Media Strategy and Off Flavours in Beer; I talked about hops to wholesalers and checked out the

latest brew kit. We clapped the winners of awards and then drank their highly acclaimed beers… but no-one, at any time, even considered the possibility that we would all be laying off staff, stopping all production and having no idea what was about to happen to our whole industry and customers in just one week’s time.

Gearing up for more deliveries

With hindsight I am amazed we couldn’t see what was about to happen, but by late March we had been forced to mothball the brewery and send all our staff home with no idea when we would be back. We had several tanks of beer fermenting away nicely, and a stock room full of casks and kegs ready for delivery to pubs. The early messages from minds immeasurably superior to ours were vague and unclear. At first not only was our pub trade now shut, but also we were barred from selling direct to the public. All our business and the industry as a whole was now completely closed.

In the very early stages it looked as if supermarkets would mop up the entire alcohol sales for the country, leaving independents out of the picture. Luckily, after some negotiations with SIBA and the trade bodies, the rules were adjusted and breweries were given the OK to sell direct. Challenge number one of the lockdown had begun.

Oxford CAMRA’s Tony Goulding doing “work experience” at XT!

Luckily at XT we have a large shop space and could adapt the layout for a one-way system and with lots of room for anti-social distancing. The shop sales increased and after a week we added a home delivery service. That meant very quickly having to develop an online shop and adapting the business from majority bulk container trade sales to pubs, to one solely selling small pack beers to the public. Our whole business model had to turn on a sixpence in a very quick timeframe and with almost no staff. We also had many thousands of pints expectantly waiting to be racked to cask and delivered to pubs. That market had now vanished so those young beers were signed up for a new career.

In the darkest days of lockdown, there was a new and urgent need for many more bottles as our regular trade for cask beer had collapsed and everyone was now buying to drink at home.  However, every brewer in the land had the same problem so bottling plants were suddenly in high demand, but many of their staff were furloughed. Supplies of labels, bottles, and the haulage companies to shift it all — plus all the various ancillary services you need to bottle beer – were now shut. With a wing and a prayer and amazing help from some very dedicated people in the industry, we managed to get more bottles and labels, and then ship the stock and therefore start selling our beer.

This first challenge saw the XT business change from 90% pub trade sales in cask and keg to 100% sales direct in bottle and mini-cask. Then in early June rumours started that pubs would be re-opening later in the month. With

scant detail and much speculation, the whole brewing and hospitality industry waited and wondered. When would the next Top Gear envelope with the new challenge be handed over?

The lockdown not only saw pubs close, but all the festivals and events XT normally supplies and attends. At every level the hospitality industry shut down, from drinkers missing their festival beer through to all the support services. Our haulage firm lost all its summer music festival work moving sound and lighting kit, while our waste water company lost all its business emptying festival toilets. The summer season can represent a whole year’s income for many smaller companies.

The possibility of late June opening came and went like a storm in a pint glass, but then out of the fog, possibly, maybe, if the wind was fair, a date was suggested that, if we all behaved nicely, the pubs would be allowed to re-open. The start of challenge two had begun: how much to brew? When? Which pubs will open? What will the rules be?

Close your eyes wet your finger and wave it in the air. An XT brew length is about 6,000 pints at a time, so how many beers would we need? It’s a significant gamble. I took a punt and brewed several batches to cover the core range. Any pre-lockdown down beer still in stock was tipped down the drain; I wanted all our beer in pubs to be freshly brewed. For the first time in nearly ten years I had no cask beer in the cold room.

The beers were brewed, casks freshly filled and some staff came back to work. It was back to the helm and full astern to move the brewing ship around and start selling to the pub trade again. It was a tough time for pubs, as there was little advance warning about what the rules would be and messages were vague. But many of our pub customers opened in July, and did a great job adapting to the New Normal.

Blessed with good weather, many pubs were able to reconfigure their gardens and car parks to allow more outdoor space and safely accommodate their customers. For us it was great to be back but sales for many pubs and brewers have remained at about half their pre-Covid levels.

The schools re-opened, a few more people returned to work and we move into challenge number three. The nights slowly draw in and temperatures drop, plus newly enforced limits on group sizes will affect how the trade now adapts to the winter trading months.

Just as the industry was emerging blinking into the new world order, another and completely unexpected challenge was handed to us by the government. Proposals to change the rate of tax paid by smaller brewers emerged. The new proposals would have a serious impact on many

brewers, increasing costs when we could really do without further complications. The changes will block growth and increase costs, possibly pushing some brewers out of business.

It’s been an unusual year, but we have risen to each and every challenge so far. An additional side challenge has been the loss of contact and communication across the industry and trade. Having been used to attending festivals, conferences, visiting customers and local brewers’ meetings, there was previously an informal support network; with lockdown all that support and valuable knowledge base vanished when you really needed it most.

Unfortunately our business is smaller now, and it’s unclear when or if things will return to the trading levels of 2019. But I have been amazed at how resilient many in the industry have been, how pubs have adapted to these uncertain times and how people still want to drink beer either at home or in a pub.