Beer Consumption and Social Distancing

A Bright Side to Hazy IPA

In times of social upheaval in the past, shortage of beverage alcohol, often beer, was the result.

Social upheaval might be of national scope or localized. Labour strife, the war economy, failed grain harvests and not just of barley (e.g. oats shortages meant no feed for dray horses), water shortages (Australia has had examples), glass shortage, and yet more explained lack of beer in certain periods.

War had many impacts. In 1944, four reasons for the shortage of beer in the United States were crisply advanced by a brewers’ organization. You may read them here.

One factor cited was increased overall consumption, i.e., not just due to the military allocation. In part this came from greater per capita income (the cited higher “payroll”), but it seems clear that stress of wartime was a contributing factor.

In 1907, a massive failure of barley and oats supplies led to similar problems, as shown in this New York press account. Britain had the same failure of barley harvest that year, with buyers sent to America coming home empty-handed.

The greatest example of “shortage” was legally imposed National Prohibition in the U.S. between 1920 and 1933, with similar in much of Canada over this period.

With the current coronavirus crisis, the one thing that seems not short, and not likely to be, is beverage alcohol. Stories of LCBOs sans customers have been cited, but a cursory examination on a walk through north-central Toronto yesterday showed business as usual. And with food stores doing a much-ballyhooed business, one can be sure that includes the beer shelves.

Early in 2020 beer commentary seemed weighted by the fear there was too much capacity, too many producers for a supposedly sated market. It’s an evergreen reaction every time craft beer reaches new heights of success.

With enforced social distancing and more people staying at home, I suspect consumption will go up. This should be good for the industry in the medium term at least.

Today, home delivery and online shopping for booze exist in many jurisdictions. The Beer Store in Ontario, and no less for our craft brewers, may find renewed business in this category. I suspect as well that many won’t demur from the occasional beer run, even those mindful to maximize social distancing.

The current crisis is real; caution and prudence are necessary. Some parts of the trade may suffer, perhaps (it’s not clear) the retail trade the most, but brewers, as well as wine makers and distillers, may find a silver lining. Societal stress may again take greater refuge in the balm of alcohol.

The much-bruited brewery tap is an enhanced bar in a brewery vs. the simple tasting counter of earlier days. The taps may see a fall off in sales vs. canned, growler, and bottled beer. Perhaps, too, draft deliveries to bars will decline vs. other forms of production, although again it’s not clear as yet.

Brewers will need to be nimble to manage these changes, but all doom and gloom? Far from it, imo.


2 thoughts on “Beer Consumption and Social Distancing”

  1. I generally agree with your assessment of the minor impact on brewing caused by the corona virus. Packaged beer is a well known safe alternative to compromised municipal water (and even draft beer and mixed drinks). Long term, there will be an impact of excess capacity on the industry. The US capacity may have increased faster that that of Canada. Industry economics incentivizes high brewery utilization. Spiked seltzer sales are helping some brewers, at least for now. In the US, MillerCoors has closed two breweries. Some larger craft brewers have seen reduced sales, and many expansion plans have been changed. One of the brewers revising its East Coast plan is Deschutes of Bend, OR (brewers of the Black Butte Porter that you praised in a previous post).

    • Thanks Arnold, and speaking of draft that Black Butte is rather better in that form than the bottled, IMO, as I’ve had the chance to try both forms recently. Why this is I’m not sure, maybe the draft is not pasteurized, or less filtered, or something else.

      I agree with your take viz the larger brewers but my focus is always craft and hence the smaller players. 80 per cent of the adjunct lager market is up for grabs, more or less, a great opportunity still. Sure, part of that number will migrate to wine, seltzer, cannabis, even macro craft but that still leaves a very valuable market for nimble craft to snag.


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