For Michael Wiper, the founder of craft brewing company Wiper and True in Bristol, UK, Boris Johnson’s initial lockdown speech on 23rd March sounded like a death knell.
‘Around 80% of our beer was going to pubs and restaurants,’ says Michael. ‘We woke up to £13,500 worth of cancelled orders, and the prospect of no new ones. We’d started the year with major growth plans but were suddenly battling for survival.’
A recent survey from the British Beer and Pub Association, which represents more than 20,000 pubs across the country, showed that 40% of British publicans didn’t think they could survive until September under lockdown. And if some can reopen in July, as the government has suggested as a best-case scenario, the possibility of two-metre distancing will mean many having to reduce capacity by 70% or more. ‘Without extra government support, this could be devastating,’ says Emma McClarkin, the chief executive of the BBPA.
At least consumers have not suddenly gone teetotal – in fact, 21% of people in the UK have admitted to drinking more during lockdown. Sales of alcohol in British supermarkets and off-licenses were up 27% in April, according to consumer analysts Kantar, while the US has seen a 75% rise in tequila sales and ironically, perhaps, 50% growth in sales of Corona beer. But it has been online that the industry has really boomed, with data analysis firm Nielsen reporting a 477% increase in online alcohol sales in the US.
‘21% of people in the UK have admitted to drinking more during lockdown’
For a small craft brewery like Wiper and True, this shift has meant a rapid change in business model. Within 48 hours of lockdown, the team had opened an online shop and a socially-distanced kiosk outside the brewery. ‘We thought these would be nice things that might buy us some time,’ says Michael. ‘But they went berserk. At the kiosk, we had hundreds of customers a day, and we had to hire a delivery company to back up our drivers because [online] we were selling so much beer.’
Previously, half of Wiper and True’s 500,000-litre annual production went into kegs to be served in bars, but now all the beer goes into cans – a much more laborious and time-consuming process. While staff at the brewery’s tap room have been furloughed, the 17 full-time production and sales staff have been retained.
Others have adapted in more extreme ways. During lockdown, married couple Ben Hodges and Christina Kimeze launched a London-wide cocktail delivery service, Halo Drinks, in less than three weeks. Ben, who previously worked in food and drink for experiential film company Secret Cinema and went on to co-found The Crystal Maze Experience, was working on funding for a new project when lockdown ruined his plans, as well as those of Kimeze, an illustrator and branding consultant who was planning to take up a postgraduate fine arts degree. ‘We would never have thought about ordering cocktails at home before this,’ says Ben. ‘We knew that, if we were going to launch a business tailor-made to the current situation, we needed to do it fast. In some ways, that focus helped us.’
‘We knew that, if we were going to launch a business tailor-made to the current situation, we needed to do it fast'
With research based on gifting bottles of pre-mixed premium cocktails to friends, they quickly found a kitchen in West Kensington where they could fine-tune a menu of nine cocktails, from classic Negronis to the signature Working From Home (bourbon, gin, bitters, lime, ginger ale, sugar syrup). With Monday-Wednesday devoted to mixing and production, including dipping their bottles in wax and adding Christina’s labels, they’ve spent Thursday to Saturday driving bottles to customers across London (with their 10-month-old daughter in tow). ‘It’s been mad but we’re already breaking even,’ says Ben.
Across the world, alcohol delivery is at record levels. US online drinks giant Drizly has reported a 1,237% spike in sales of ready-to-drink cocktails, with 1,771% growth in sales of mixers, syrups and bitters, suggesting a sharp rise in at-home mixology. And the competition is growing, with lots of new brands entering this space. While alcohol delivery may not retain such intense popularity when physical stores reopen, some retention is inevitable. Ben and Christina have committed to Halo Drinks as their business beyond lockdown. ‘It does feel like there’s something in this that will stay,’ says Ben. ‘But like everyone else right now, we’re just trying to be nimble, and hoping for the best.’