Lockdown forced Arkell’s Brewery to close its pubs for the first time in 177 years.
The family that oversees several Cotswold and North Wiltshire taverns from its Stratton base saw turnover plummet by 90 per cent as most staff were put on furlough with a skeleton crew keeping the home delivery service going.
The brewery sent gallons of leftover booze away to be turned into hand sanitiser and did its best to support struggling licensees around the town.
But now there’s light at the end of the tunnel as the government is expected to give the go-ahead for pubs to reopen early next month. This week, Arkell’s began brewing 30,000 pints of beer in preparation.
Managing director George Arkell spoke about what it’s been like to face such an unprecedented crisis.
He said: “It was a shock to the system. Even during the world wars, we kept the pubs open. We’ve only brewed four times since lockdown began when normally it’s five days a week, which was a huge sea change.
“This is the biggest crisis we’ve faced in 177 years and we can’t underestimate that, but we have gone through the worst of it.
“We took an early decision to not charge our pubs rent and to give credit for unsold beer that would go out of date because if the pubs have no revenue coming in, how are they going to pay their bills?
“It was expensive but worth it because the licensees are our lifeblood and the pubs are a very important part of our community so we need to help them survive this storm.
“They have been fantastic throughout all this by making takeaway meals and deliveries, cooking for hospital staff and helping the homeless. There’s been a real Dunkirk spirit and optimism that we will get through this.”
While the brewery stirs into life again in anticipation of that long-awaited day where punters can safely return to their favourite local, a lack of information is causing headaches for brewers and landlords alike.
Mr Arkell added: “The real frustration is that we still don’t have a clear date for re-opening, it’s unbelievable. The government was brilliant at the start of this. The furlough scheme gave us a helping hand, but we need more guidance and clarity now.
“The pubs and supply chain need to know when to start because we need three weeks to prepare for something like this.
“We’re hoping it’s July 4, which is why we started brewing again this week. It’s a brave step but if we don’t do it, we won’t be able to serve customers if pubs do reopen on that date.
“If they don’t open then, I suppose we will have to drink some of it in the brewery! We really need a date because right now, we’re holding our breath.
“We had an awful lot left in the tank when lockdown started but our friends at Woodford Distillery turned it into hand sanitiser, so at least it was used. There’s nothing worse than pouring beer down the drain.”
When pubs are allowed to open their doors again, landlords will have to adapt to a different world. George Arkell estimates that the company could safely service 40 per cent of its customers if the two-metre social distancing rule stays in place or 75 per cent of them if it is lessened to one metre.
He added: “It’s all about space. A lot of smaller and more traditional pubs will struggle with the two-metre rule, but we have plans in place to ensure all our customers are safe.
“There are lots of challenges ahead but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Now that shops have reopened, people are getting used to a new normal and understand the importance of staying at a safe distance and using hand sanitiser, so they are ready to return to pubs too.
“People have really missed going to the pub and having a chat with friends or a nice meal and they want to come back.
“Everyone will have to make their own call, though I think they want to at least have the option of going out. We need to look after ourselves and be careful, but we also need to get on with life and get the economy moving again.”