It is time for Members of Parliament to fight for their communities if they want to save local pubs and breweries, says James Clarke.

Today is our steam engine’s birthday. Well we say birthday, it was invoiced to the brewery on 18 October 1899. This fact was overlooked at its centenary, as the same year was the brewery’s 150th anniversary. We brewed celebratory beers for both the 150th anniversary of the company and for the steam engine. Both beers were brown in colour, but I wouldn’t say they were twiggy.

The steam engine beer utilised some peated malt, giving that unmistakeable peaty smoky aroma. In the past we had had hints of phenolic in the odd beer that had passed through a coolship and open coolers, and some competitors to our culture yeast had sneaked in. But in this case, it was a deliberate addition, to push the boundaries. For years we had sold our surplus yeast to Marmite, and this was certainly a Marmite beer. The word craft wasn’t around in beer vocabulary then, craft was reserved for people spinning and knitting with their own wool, or making wooden toys and bird tables.  We just wanted to brew a different beer.

In September 2019 we celebrated 170 years as a business. Little did we know what 2020 had in store. Come February and we start to hear stories about a virus spreading, but it is the other side of the world, and we have heard of it before. March arrives, and the world changes. Most of our staff were furloughed, and our 36 pubs were closed, a few did takeaway food and beer, but largely they were shut down.

Pubs reopened on 4 July, with strict Covid measures required, and we were very pleased with the way everyone really embraced the new way, what each of us had responsibility for, and pub gardens really came into their own. There was no spike in cases when pubs reopened, and there is more than enough regulatory power already in existence should a particular premises not follow the law. And of course the threat of poor social media reviews if customers do not feel comfortable or safe. 

We always knew when the weather started becoming autumnal garden trade would drop off, and we always feared a spike in Corona virus cases when schools returned. What we didn’t expect was pubs to be unfairly singled out, when the Government’s own figures show less than five per cent of infections are happening in pubs and hospitality. An easy target. I see much better social distancing in pubs than supermarkets, but of course the latter are just too powerful.  And what on earth is the 10pm curfew? Fifteen odd years ago, licensing law changed, to avoid the flash points when pubs and then late night venues closed at the same times. So the 10pm was never going to work, and it worries me that people in Government can be so disconnected as to think it was a sensible step; but sadly it doesn’t surprise me.  Then we have to prevent households mixing indoors – so you have basically made every night like Valentines night, where every table is of two people.  We can all live with table service, a bar is actually a relatively recent idea, but pubs are a place to socialise, we don’t go out just to drink, we go out to meet people, to socialise, and of course to drink and eat. So to prevent this happening is to completely misunderstand the whole concept of the pub. Not only have pubs lost covers, they have lost later night drinkers, and the food pubs have lost the second sitting. And HM Government? Well when you have a count up, you might just see you have lost VAT, Beer Duty, National Insurance, and you might see a supply chain in trouble too.

We all accept that the battle against Covid-19 is going to be a long one, we all have our part to play and it is going to be a long hard winter.  We need clear messaging, proper debate in Parliament of any new measures (yes, MPs, Parliament, not Twitter or Rupert Murdoch’s red top papers) and engagement with industry. In the UK, we police by consent, not by force. But to police by consent, you need to engage, and you know what, we will do most of the work for you. Because we all love our pubs, we love the fabric of life they are so inextricably linked with, and we will do everything we can and need to. 

Covid-19 is the biggest threat to hospitality probably ever, certainly in living memory. We acknowledge the Governments’ support thus far. But we need more, we all want to protect jobs, we are all taking pain, but we need proper, balanced support, and we need sensible, rational, science-based decisions. And Members of Parliament, now is not the time to follow the party whip; now is the time to act and fight for the communities you represent; maybe even visit your local pub, and talk to the licensees, but more importantly, listen to them.

James Clarke is the managing director of Hook Norton brewery.

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