'Creeping dread' and 'resignation' leaving pubs and breweries to 'battle' for a future

Rob, Pam and Ben Jackson at Top Rope Brewing, which will close this month
-Credit: (Image: Liverpool Echo)

"I think the entire drinks industry is going to be hunkered down in survival mode for the next 12 to 18 months."

These were the words of Craig McCormick, co-owner of Birkenhead’s Glen Affric Brewery & Taproom, who spoke to the ECHO in October 2023 about the state of Merseyside’s hospitality industry.

Craig continued: "At a certain point, I lost count of the breweries that closed down last year. Even this year, we've lost loads.

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"Last year we had a lot of the small guys and one or two of the big guys, but this year we've seen a few of the bigger guys go because they had a longer tail.

"For a lot of breweries now, it's not a case of who's making money, it's who's got the biggest cash reserves and who's losing the least. I don't think there are many breweries earning money. It's a very difficult industry.”

Fast forward eight months and Craig’s words ring even truer. Figures from the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) show there was a minus 38 net closure rate of breweries across the UK in the first quarter of 2024.

In Merseyside and the North West, that has been felt acutely - with three high-profile closures in recent months.

Speke-based Big Bog Brewing collapsed into administration and shut in March. Runcorn’s award-winning Chapter Brewing announced in April that it would cease operating in June. Last month, Top Rope, a family-run brewery found in Bootle’s Brasenose Road Industrial Estate, also said that it would call it a day in June.

The closures follow a very difficult spell for brewers. The price of ingredients for beer rose sharply while inflation hit hardest during 2022 and 2023.

Big Bog Brewing Company was based at Venture Point East in Speke
Big Bog Brewing Company was based at Venture Point East in Speke -Credit:Liverpool Echo

This came amid a challenging period for the hospitality industry as a whole, which continues to be battered by the cost of living crisis. It has accelerated a downward spiral for pubs.

A quarter of UK pubs have closed since 2000 - a loss of more than 13,000 venues. Across the country, more than 500 pubs closed in 2023 alone.

As such there is a “feeling of resignation” among brewers and pubs, according to Peter Cotzier, chair of Liverpool Beer Collective - an organisation which supports the bars, pubs and breweries on Merseyside.

Peter, 43, from Mossley Hill, told the ECHO: “The feeling among us is almost one of resignation, I suppose. It's been a creeping dread over the last few years with multiple things making it harder and harder for breweries to trade, operate, make more beers and be creative.

"It's hard to plan to make more beer, to get it to public houses and bottle shops and customers. It's been one thing after another for six or seven years. Brexit and then the ongoing increase of the cost of ingredients - Brexit has contributed to that with importing yeast, specialist malts and exporting your beer.

“It's been expected really. We did wonder how long some breweries could hold out. We're very disappointed but it's been coming.”

Found on Dale Street, Dead Crafty Beer Company has become the epicentre of Merseyside’s craft beer scene. The bar, which opened in 2016 has been instrumental in supporting new local breweries and bringing people together.

Vicky and Gareth Morgan run The Dead Crafty Beer Co on Dale Street
Vicky and Gareth Morgan run The Dead Crafty Beer Co on Dale Street -Credit:Colin Lane/Liverpool Echo

Owners Vicky and Gareth Morgan, from Garston, have been disheartened by recent closures. They believe more needs to be done to support breweries, pubs and bars.

Gareth told the ECHO: “It's a really sad situation - Liverpool was finally putting itself on the beer map. We noticed this from having tourists visit the city to visit the brewery taps so this will have a huge impact - not just in Liverpool but across the country.

“The biggest reason for these closures is the cost of living crisis, we're seeing a lot less spare money to go to the pub, so the pubs are struggling and their demand for beer is going down.

“The breweries have had to put up their prices like every other industry, but with pubs closing there are fewer places to sell their beer to. The knock-on effect is that they are forced to increase their prices, which is then passed onto the bar, which is then passed onto the customer.”

Asked how breweries could survive and then thrive, Gareth said: “I think the only way to get through all this is to streamline where you can, but don't compromise on the product and service that’s delivered. Until the government reduces the beer tax then sadly we'll see a lot more breweries closing.”

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt froze alcohol duty in the spring budget, but industry bodies have campaigned for it to be cut. SIBA called for more to be done to support pubs and breweries, in particular, to address debts accumulated across the sector during the coronavirus pandemic.

High production costs and the tax burden remain two of the biggest challenges facing the industry, according to Vicky and Gareth.

Gareth said: "The craft beer drinker is always looking for the next new beer - as well as some favourites, but this then puts the pressure on the breweries to continue to introduce new brews. The price increases on utilities and ingredients has shot up so much that some bars can't afford to buy the kegs - but this is no fault of the breweries."

Peter agrees. He said “The biggest change that we saw in the last 30 years was Gordon Brown introducing a small brewers tax levy in 2002. That was a big catalyst for breweries over here to say 'It's become a bit more of a viable way to make a living.

“Twinned with the fact that Americans started the craft beer revolution, creating new styles, that was a big thing.

“I think we need something similar now. Things like tax breaks for smaller breweries would help.

"We won't be able to do anything about the cost of importing yeast and malts, most of our hops come from abroad now. It costs a lot to import them now on the back of Brexit.

“There are things that can be adjusted but I think a tax break would be the biggest thing that would make it viable for people to make a living out of making beer again. It's reached the point where it's gone backwards."

Peter does see some signs of optimism, however. He explained: "There are new breweries opening - (new Bootle brewery) Colbier is one. That's encouraging, Hex Brewing has opened in Southport.

"Colbier said to me there's never really a good time to open something in hospitality, because it always feels like a battle through one thing or another - the costs mainly."

For Gareth, it is a case of industry battling on as a whole - hopefully with consumers on board to buy a few pints and support them.

He said: "It's a long road ahead. We just hope people are there to support the pubs, in turn then the pubs can support the breweries and we can all get through this together."

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