Vittles 6.20 - Pubs & Community

The World’s End: The effect of pub closures on London’s beer & brewing community, by Matthew Curtis

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Up until now I’ve generally been wary of publishing anything about looking forward to things reopening. I don’t think we need another of those articles ─ articles written solely from the point of view of restaurant owners and head chefs for the benefit of the smaller-than-you-think percentage of the public who are really into going to restaurants. It’s like writing a piece on how great the economy is where your only opinion is from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Too often these pieces sidestep the staff whose labour these restaurants are built on, and when they do include them it’s to propagate an uncritical, simplistic narrative of wanting to go back to a job/needing a job that doesn’t at all reflect the complexities and variations of opinion that exist in the hospitality world right now: the excitement and misgivings, the nervousness, the worries about thoughtless customers or careless bosses. People just want to hear this.

At the risk of going off on a tangent completely, this does tie in with a conversation going on in American food media right now about who food writers talk to, sparked by this article by Kate Telfeyan. Some say that we need to start speaking to more staff and publishing their views; others say that this is not as easy as it sounds, that often staff are not interested in losing their job for the sake of someone’s article. Also how many food writers are paid enough to do investigative work? My own view is this: if you are a good restaurant writer, you should be embedded enough in the world that the views of hospitality workers are being constantly relayed to you, and for you to build up some degree of trust. The first thing I did two years ago when I started writing was to find out who was running abusive kitchens and then make sure I never wrote about them. This is not the same as publishing investigative work (which is almost impossible to do under UK libel laws) but that should be the very least writers can do. There are probably about 20 prominent places I will not cover (and if anyone wants to add any to my list - DM me).

But back to today’s newsletter! When Matthew Curtis of Pellicle suggested today’s piece on the closure and reopening of pubs, I knew he would do the subject justice, and I think the nuances of his own position and the reporting of the different way this pandemic has affected members of the beer community ─ from pub owners, to brewers, to bartenders ─ resonates with my own experience of hospitality and that of other people in the industry. Workers are less attached to businesses and companies than the capitalist narrative likes to pretend we are, but if there is anything we have missed it is the community that can sometimes come with it. I saw my first customer in four months yesterday and we chatted for an hour, about tea, Chinese restaurants, our health; simple phone calls have lasted 30, 40 minutes as we catch up on life. This is what I’m looking forward to. The food media likes to treat the businesses and restaurants themselves as if they are important as people; but I’m not sure people actually miss restaurants. What we really miss is other people.

The World’s End: The effect of pub closures on London’s beer & brewing community, by Matthew Curtis

I really miss the pub. 

I long to dodge through the crowds of Covent Garden before squeezing my way to the bar at The Harp, where its manager Karl Seville will pour me a perfectly kept pint of Harvey’s Sussex Best. I miss arriving at the Pembury Tavern in Hackney on a Friday afternoon, randomly bumping into friends and the first pint of the weekend. I want to be propping up the bar at Red Hand in Dalston, laptop in front of me, cold beer to one side, while folks from all walks of the beer industry come and go: sales reps, bartenders, delivery drivers, brewery workers, and even journalists like me. 

When the British government mandated all pubs and restaurants close on March 20th it severed a link between the public and a network of several thousand vital social spaces. The shutters were pulled down on the hospitality sector which ─ as we’ve been told repeatedly ─ is the third-largest industry in the UK, employing over 1 million people, and with a yearly turnover of almost £100 billion

Pubs aren’t just a set of statistics though, as much as they aren’t merely spaces where our more trivial daily interactions take place. The pub is where we hold our wedding receptions and wakes, where we meet our partners parents, or our friends' newborn children for the first time. It’s where we break up, get together, fall out and make up all over again. 

Perhaps even more detrimental than the feelings of loss being experienced by people who frequent pubs, however, is the damage that was felt by those who worked within these spaces, who suddenly had to face the reality of their tightly-knit community being dismantled around them. This wasn’t just their livelihoods they were now being denied, but their day-to-day lives.

“It’s been a pretty big change for me, when you spend your daily life surrounded by people you know, familiar faces, it’s so easy to take it all for granted.” chef Rachel Jones tells me in an email. “The pub community are a friendly bunch, especially after a few beers, so I’ve really missed that human connection,” 

Originally starting out as street food trader Capish in 2012, Jones eventually formed a business partnership with Ed Mason, founder of Hackney’s Five Points Brewing Company, where her business, Ace Pizza, is based out of the Pembury Tavern on Amhurst Road. Jones admits that, pre-lockdown, she would spend most of her time at the pub, “either working in the kitchen, having meetings there or drinking there. It’s basically my second home”.

I’ve lived in London since 2005. Back then interesting beer was a rare commodity that often required insider knowledge to seek out—I could count on one hand the number of specialist beer retailers of note. Since 2010, however, the London brewing industry has grown exponentially, changing beyond recognition from a niche interest sector, to one that is both accessible and culturally mainstream. The number of breweries has risen from just 10 to 127 and counting. Some, like The Kernel in Bermondsey, have become culturally significant brands that are recognised internationally.

In restaurant terms, London’s small, independently-owned breweries are your 40 Maltby Streets, your Sambal Shioks and your Black Axe Mangals. And like the restaurant industry, their futures now hang in the balance. Many of them produce less than 5000 hectolitres of beer per year (that’s just under 880,000 pints). This might sound like a lot, but by way of comparison a ‘small’ brewery like Camden Town Brewery—which was acquired by AB InBev in 2015—is able to produce around 44 million pints a year at its production facility in Enfield. 

London’s beer community extends from these smaller breweries into a network of great independently owned pubs, bars and bottle shops—a group where everyone seems to know everyone. None of them are islands. When I use the term “community” to describe London’s beer industry, I don’t use it lightly. Despite being in direct competition with one another, these businesses can often be found sharing raw materials, putting on events together, or mutually benefitting from each other's knowledge by collaborating on new beer recipes, releasing them under a shared label. It’s this spirit of togetherness that makes the independent arm of the beer industry stand apart from others.

There’s a joke within the industry that it’s impossible to nip out for a quiet pint without bumping into someone you know. In my own experience this is true to the point where—if I really need to enjoy a beer in peace—I have a few reliably secret boltholes I can disappear to where I know I won’t be bothered. It’s this sense of community that seems to keep the London beer industry turning. I am fearful of what might happen while it can’t exist in its pre-pandemic state. 

“When the pubs closed over 95% of our income stopped,” says Jon Swain, who co-founded Hackney Brewery with his friend Pete Hills in 2011. “Everything we'd worked on for almost nine years, all our staff's lives and our own futures were hanging by a thread, it was overwhelming. I just sat on the floor of my office and had a little cry.”

Swain is someone I would bump into with alarming regularity on my own regular travels around London, often with his dog Bruce in tandem. His business employs just nine people, but its impact on its local community extends far beyond that; from hand delivering beer to local accounts like Red Hand, and throwing a big summer party at the Geffrye Museum in 2019, where they poured not just their own beers, but those from friends within the industry too.

The brewery has had to think on its feet to survive. Long term, like all of London’s breweries, it will need pubs to reopen in order to get production back to a high enough level so that they’re no longer reliant on government furlough money. In the short term however, this has meant pivoting to selling beer by the caseload direct from its front door, further endearing themselves to the local community in the process.   

“There was such a rally around from locals,” Swain tells me. “As word spread we managed to get enough going out to keep our heads above water. It’s allowed us to connect with our customers properly for the first time.”

Caught between the pub owners and the brewers are the bartenders. During lockdown many lost connections with colleagues and friends, as well as a sense of routine. 

“The greatest casualty in all of this is the support network inherent in the social aspect of the beer community,” says Caitlyn Falasco, a former bartender who most recently could be found in brewery taprooms around London working the cart for Soffles Pitta Chips. As an American expat who relocated to London from Cleveland, Ohio in 2012, she knows all too well how important the beer community is to these workers. She also picked up her masters in sustainable urbanism from UCL in 2014. Her subject of focus? The craft beer community. 

It’s worth pointing out that, these days, the beer industry doesn’t always fit the preconceived notion of the bearded, tattooed, middle-class and, dare I say it, “hipster”. While there are a great many people within it that do have beards or tattoos, and too many people in positions of power are white men, it’s largely a diverse and welcoming crowd—one that is working hard to be more inclusive towards women, the LGTBQ community and BAME people. Take for example The Queer Brewing Project, an initive that fosters the development of diversity, acceptance and visibility of LGBTQ people within the beer community, founded by my friend, writer, artist and trans activist Lily Waite. 

“We really take [the beer community] for granted when superficially it’s just meeting for drinks, random encounters with a former colleague, or making conversation while queueing for hyped beer releases,” Falasco tells me. “In actuality, you’re exchanging pleasantries, checking-in on your people, being held accountable by your friends, and making yourself emotionally and intellectually available.”

The hospitality industry is still figuring out how to function during an ongoing pandemic with the little guidance they’ve been supplied with. For bartenders and their employers, it’s a case of simultaneously dealing with social distancing measures, and a virus threat that is ever present. It’s a risk many workers will be weighing up, as they look to get back to routine, a regular income and—perhaps most importantly—their people. 

“Our very health and safety is at risk, yet we are still anxious at our inability to perform our essential function as economic instruments,” Falasco says. “How can we make sense of the world that will never be the same, let alone get back to our routines or self-care?”

For Jon Swain, his priority at Hackney is making sure his staff will be ok, and this means ensuring the survival of his business as well as his employee’s safety as their brewing schedule returns to something resembling normal. However, all of this hinges on pubs reopening successfully, and most importantly of all, the communities that previously depended on them returning with confidence.

Selfishly, I’ve longed for that first post-pandemic pint. Not a quick fix in a take-away plastic cup either; a proper pint in the pub, with hugs from friends and the familiar hum of idle conversation. But would I risk the health of members of the beer community for my own self-satisfaction? At the moment I’m not convinced it’s a risk worth taking, but I’ll keep buying beer to go from my local breweries while I can. 

Perhaps though, as pubs begin to reopen, a deeper sense of connectivity between those that make and sell beer and those who drink it will remain. In reality, pubs and breweries stretch far beyond just “beer” when it comes to fostering a community. Investing ourselves in the nurture of these communities could be crucial for these small businesses as we gradually open back up. 

“It's the continued support from everyone that will get us through,” Swain tells me. “I'm sure that there are many of the 2000 plus breweries in the UK that are suffering as bad or worse than we are. Support the ones with integrity, support the ones that need it, support local.”

Matthew Curtis is an award-winning writer and photographer, and co-founder of a new, independent food and drink publication called Pellicle. He lives in North London with his partner Dianne and cat Cricket. Matthew donated this article and his photos to Vittles.

The illustration was done by Helen Hugh-Jones of Nell’s Originals. Her work can be found on her Instagram and website . Helen was paid for her work.