Covid-19 restrictions have left 87 million pints of beer unsaleable. So where is it all going? Nick Hughes reports
The thought of good beer being poured down the drain will bring a pang of dismay to those of us who enjoy a responsible tipple. Yet that was the reality facing licensees forced to bolt their doors, often at a few days’ notice, for much of the past year.
This month, the British Beer & Pub Association revealed that up to 87 million pints of beer could have been wasted since the coronavirus pandemic started. At an average cost per pint of £3.81 in a pub, it means pubs will have lost £331m in revenue on beer that they have been forced to destroy as they were prevented from selling it by lockdowns and tier restrictions.
For brewers, pub and restaurant operators, pouring unsaleable beer away has been a depressing, yet unavoidable last resort since covid-19 forced the closure of the sector. But amid the anguish, there is also a good sustainability story to tell: many businesses have found enterprising ways to put waste beer to good use in providing energy, animal feed or even a rich gravy for a takeaway pie.
Cask beer, in particular, has been a victim of the pandemic with reports of millions of gallons going to waste. The BBPA recently announced the re-opening of a cross-industry platform returnyourbeer.co.uk which allows brewers to manage the safe destruction in pubs of beer that has become unsalable. The platform was used extensively following the first lockdown, and while it didn’t compensate for the loss of trade there was small consolation in that licensees were able to reclaim excise duty running into the millions of pounds.
For beer that was already sitting in cellars at the start of lockdowns there have effectively been two options: try and get it back out again (not always practical in older pubs where cellars are underground and full barrels are not designed to be uplifted) or dispose of it safely.
Prior to the first sector reopening last July, the water industry trade body, Water UK, warned that wildlife could be harmed if large quantities of beer were washed away only to end up in rivers and waterways. Chief executive Christine McGourty said it was important the process was managed carefully to avoid any damage to fish and marine life.
BBPA guidance states that beer can be destroyed in a pub but only where the container can be emptied to a foul (wastewater) sewer with permission from the local water wholesaler. Most modern sites, where the cellar is at ground level, will have sluice sinks connected to the foul drainage system. However in older sites, where the cellar is below ground level, the cellar sump pump systems can’t be relied on as many discharge to surface water systems that drain directly to the environment. At these sites beer could potentially be disposed of via the main pot wash sinks, kitchen sinks or other waste outlets, but only if these are connected to the foul sewer system. Where pubs feed an on-site or local waste treatment plant beer cannot be legally destroyed and alternative arrangements have to be made for the retrieval of beer containers.
Adnams, the Suffolk brewer that manages its own properties as well as supplying partner pubs, made the decision to close its pubs a week before the first official lockdown happened. “That gave us a bit of time to get the beer out of the cellar and then bring it back to the brewery,” explains Adnams head brewer Fergus Fitzgerald. Cask beer has a relatively short shelf-life because of the yeast content, but rather than destroy it Fitzgerald says Adnams sent it away to a local anaerobic digestion (AD) plant to be used in energy generation.
While disposal to the sewer is considered a last option for waste beer, AD is one step up the waste hierarchy. Another option is to put the beer to use on the land as an organic fertiliser or an addition to animal feed, although both of these come with practical challenges. “You can put [beer] onto land as a fertiliser but you’ve got to be really careful about how you manage that, particularly in wet weather as you don’t want the waste beer flowing off the land into any water,” says Fitzgerald.
Beer can also be mixed with solid feeds and fed to livestock, mainly pigs. Following the first lockdown, Bristol-based Butcombe Brewing Co recycled 1,500 casks of unused beer to produce a semi-liquid animal feed for local pig farms.
Using waste beer for animal feed comes with its own set of challenges: producers are expected to gain FEMAS (feed materials assurance scheme) certification which covers all feed ingredients intended for direct feeding to animals or for inclusion in compound feeds and blends. FEMAS is based on HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control point) principles that form the bedrock of EU food and feed legislation and the approvals process doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the ad hoc use of waste beer for feed. “If it’s a regular food supply chain it’s worthwhile doing but for two or three occasions it doesn’t really make sense,” says Fitzgerald.
Adnams does however send brewery and distillery waste – by-products of the production process –to feed cattle. And it’s not the only brewer to see its waste as someone else’s resource. Carlsberg Marston’s Brewing Company sends some of its waste beer for animal feed as part of a policy not to pour beer down the drain (the remainder goes to AD). “We aim to make the most of everything that comes out of our breweries,” adds a spokesperson. “We send our used yeast to Unilever, who use it to make Marmite. Any yeast that doesn’t go to Unilever goes on to pig feed. Another key ingredient in our brews is barley, and every grain that comes out we send to British farms for use as cattle feed.”
At the top of the waste hierarchy is waste prevention and here too there have been examples of business ingenuity. Fitzgerald notes that pubs did a lot of takeaway sales during the first lockdown to remove stock they had in the cellar. That hasn’t been possible during the current lockdown due to government restrictions on providing alcoholic drinks for takeaway. But in some instances Fitzgerald says pubs still offering food takeaways are finding creative uses for beer in dishes such as steak and ale pies.
Hogs Back Brewery has continued to trade throughout the various lockdowns by providing a drive thru service to customers. The Surrey-based brewer saw almost three quarters of it business evaporate overnight following the first national lockdown but sales through the drive-thru, which gives customers the opportunity to take beer away in reusable glass 3.5 pint “snorters”, have enabled it to stay afloat while reducing both beer and packaging waste.
The shift to drinking at home has given some brewers the opportunity to redirect volumes into grocery channels. As a brewer with a strong presence in the off trade, Carlsberg Marston’s was able to increase its supply when hospitality venues were forces to shut without needing to make significant changes to its infrastructure (albeit the spokesperson says “the loss of volumes in on-trade that we have incurred as a result of trading restrictions and lockdown have been of a scale that we are not even close to recovering”).
Others, particularly regional and micro brewers, have found it more of a challenge to pivot from one channel to the other – supermarkets, after all, only have a limited amount of shelf space while there are operational challenges too for those looking to switch from kegs to cans or bottles. These brewers have had to think creatively in order to find new routes to market, such as internet sales, that allowed them to keep brewing throughout lockdown.
Ultimately, brewers and their customers cannot sustain themselves on side projects alone. Six weeks into the latest lockdown they are crying out for some certainty about when and how pubs will be able to reopen. “It takes about two weeks from when we decide to brew the beer to get it into the pubs so the more notice the better,” says Fitzgerald.
When pubs are finally permitted to pour beer into glasses rather than drains – brewers, landlords and customers alike will savour every last drop.