How Sheffield’s beer industry is trying to stay alive
Words: Eloise Feilden
The outbreak of Coronavirus throughout the world created ripples of shock across countries and whole continents in ways that most of us had not been expecting. Along with the announcement of the UK lockdown at the end of March came widespread feelings of anxiety throughout the country’s workforce, a shared sense of uncertainty unanimously encountered. However, as the dust began to settle and the almost universal panic began to subside, what became clear was the way in which this pandemic would affect some sectors more than others, and how the damage done to different industries would not be evenly weighted.
To no surprise, the hospitality industry has been one to suffer most directly from the crisis, as establishments were forced to close and employees unable to work from home. Here in Sheffield, where beer and real ale make up such an essential part of the city’s culture and economy, the pandemic threatens not only individual businesses but the whole identity of a city as a result. Many owners of independent pubs and breweries across the city are pulling together in order to try and ensure their own survival, and last month I spoke to a few of those attempting to come up with innovative ways of keeping the beer industry here in the Steel City alive, finding new methods of bringing the pub to their customers without having to leave their living rooms.
Among those that I spoke to were Louise Singleton, co-owner of Kelham Island Tavern on Russell Street, and Ed Daly from Dead Donkey on Abbeydale Road, both of whom have been working during the lockdown to provide beer to their customers through a takeaway service.
Louise explains: “We were sat on several thousand pounds’ worth of stock that was gonna go out of date, and the money in the bank was dwindling so we thought we should get some back in to try to cover the cost of the extra furlough, because from day one we promised all the staff that we’d pay them 100% of their wages until we’d run out of money. Obviously it’s not the suppliers’ fault that all this is happening either, so we wanted to keep people onside and pay what we can. We’re going to need our allies for when we open, so we need to make sure that everyone is still there and the business is in the best situation it can be in.’
As an independent freehouse, trying to stay afloat hasn’t been an easy task, but when I asked about what kind of response they’ve been getting from customers, Louise says it has been very positive. “We’ve had some of the old customers come back and some new customers that we’ve never seen before, which is really lovely to see, and everyone’s really wanting to support us. Just like we’re wanting to know that our suppliers are there, people are wanting to know that the pubs are still there at the other side of this pandemic and make sure that we’re still standing as well.”
Unlike the team at Kelham Island Tavern who have set up shop within the pub itself, Ed and his brother at Dead Donkey have been working on selling to customers through their online shop, dispatching right to people’s doors. The two of them have until recently been making the deliveries themselves throughout the city, but have since teamed up with a delivery company in order to ship across the UK.
I asked Ed how he would describe the response from customers over this period, and whether he foresees any changes to the industry in the long run. “I think people have become aware of the impact this is having on small businesses,” he says. “Places they just see as a bar or a shop, thinking it’s there and it’ll always be there; people are now starting to realise that that actually might not always be the case if they’re completely shut down and have no income.” Ed mentions that he’s surprised by how well businesses have adapted to the crisis, adding that “it’s a much more flexible industry than I ever imagined. If someone had pitched this sort of business model to me months ago I would have said no, I can’t see how we’d do that.”
To no surprise it hasn’t been all smooth sailing for Sheffield’s independents, and Ed quickly elaborates on concerns about where problems could arise within the industry. “It’s a thin line to walk. If me and my brother manage to somehow completely crack the bar experience and give everyone a way to experience it at home with less cost and less effort, well, then we might be shooting ourselves in the foot in six months time when no one can be bothered to leave the house because they’ve got all the secrets to having a good time at home. But really, I can’t imagine people picking the virtual pint over the actual pint. It’s not quite the same experience having ten people on a zoom call together.”
Speaking again to Louise Singleton, she tells me that as things move forward she hopes to see people continue to support their local independents, and acknowledge the work they’re doing to assist the community as a whole. As she puts it: “What we hope is that people see how staff are being treated and how we’re treating our suppliers. A lot of these small independents are the ones trying to do the right thing, and although it might cost a little bit more to go to an independent, I hope people have a bit of integrity and see that we were the ones doing right by our staff and our suppliers.”