This Saturday is a date etched in Belgian diaries: it is when bars, cafés and pubs reopen to the public after more than six months of closures. For days, people have been mulling which bar to head to for their first post-lockdown drink, and which beer to ask for. But whatever they choose, it will be a beverage to savour as friends, families and communities reunite, raising their glasses together for the first time since last year.
The reopening is happening under strict restrictions on group sizes and closing times. The rules say drinks must be served outdoors, which means establishments with terraces – and at the time of writing, the Belgian weather is looking somewhat iffy (some might say predictably unpredictable) for Saturday afternoon and the week ahead.
Nonetheless, this is a moment that has been a long time coming. The coronavirus pandemic had upended our lives in unimaginable ways, and perhaps the most enduring images of the lockdown have been the shuttered bars and restaurants. If there is one activity that symbolises the return to normality, it will be getting back to the pub.
The resonance is especially powerful in Belgium, which is synonymous with beer. Beer is engrained in Belgian culture, and the country boasts some of the greatest brews known to mankind: the gueuzes, lambics and fruit beers, the wheat beers (blanches or witbier), the blondes and the bruin, the tripels and dubbels, and the almost mythical Trappists, as well as other abbey beers. There are over 800 of them brewed in Belgium, and Belgian beer culture was recognised in 2016 by UNESCO as an ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’.
The symbolism of reopening is not just in Belgium, but across Europe, where reopening is happening at different times – some countries are already open, some will only open in the weeks ahead. Bars and beers are inherently European, and everyone is looking forward to getting back.
For the beer and hospitality industry, this is about something much bigger. Our Beer Covid Impact Report, published last week, shows that the on-trade has suffered over the past year. In 2020, beer sold on-trade dropped 42% compared to 2019, from 126 to 73 million hectolitres. Jobs generated in the beer value chain fell by an estimated one third in 2020, from 2.6 to 1.8 million people.
Let’s be clear: this is a sector whose raison d’être is about socialising and the occasion, not a sector that can arrange a workaround during the lockdown or find alternative, equivalent arrangements. Aside from takeaway and delivery, the hospitality sector has been closed completely. People were put on furlough, some places went under. And jobs were lost: 860,000 people in beer hospitality across Europe were put out of work.
Nor can we say that the effects were balanced out by drinking at home: there was only an 8% increase in retail beer sales. The net fall for the beer industry was 34 million hectolitres, wiping over €3 billion off the value of beer production in a single year. The on-trade is where the real action is. It is where the most jobs are created, where the most value is garnered and the part of the beer value chain where governments gather the most tax revenues. It has a much wider economic and social significance.
Unfortunately, many bars and breweries will never reopen, even after the lockdown ends. On Saturday, we will get a sense of how bad the damage is when we find out which bars open and which are still closed. We will also see how economically viable and sustainable it is for establishments, whose debts will have accumulated, to only partially re-open. We know already that it has affected a wide range of people, from the bar staff serving the beer to the brewers, distributers and others who grow and harvest the grains and hops for the drinks in your hand. Whilst support has been crucial during closures, it will be even more needed during the partial re-openings and until full recovery is achieved.
There is a social and emotional aspect to this too. Beer has a history of bringing communities together, of creating bonds between people, and of binding friends and families. Bars and cafés are the real heart of the local neighbourhood, and beer is the lifeblood. Now is the moment for them to start beating again.
After months at home, saving and effectively hibernating, we can start spending again. There is a lot of money riding on this. The beer value chain can bring €13 billion in value added back into the European economy. Governments can expect to receive around €11 billion in extra tax revenues if there is a return to pre-pandemic levels of activity.
The reopening is happening as the beer sector is undergoing a huge transition. Brewing is becoming more sustainable and more aligned with the local environment. We are getting more creative in our brewing methods and range of beers: our sector is bubbling with innovation, creating a range of new styles, textures and flavours. And we are leading the way in responsible drinking, including through the low alcohol and no alcohol choices on offer.
We know how the lockdowns have had a devastating effect on livelihoods, social lives, culture and the economy. But much as we want to get back to serving beers, we don’t want to rush it and re-live the yo-yo effect of opening and closing where brewers didn’t know when to re-start brewing and how to retrieve the full and half-empty kegs sitting in cellars across the continent. Reopening has to be done properly. Bars, pubs and cafés have used the past year to make the changes needed to get everything ready so we can drink safely. The investments have been made and everyone, first and foremost the consumer, needs confidence that it is the right moment to get back together over a beer.
Here in Belgium, we are ready. As we look towards the recovery, we are prepared to play our role in driving the economy, continuing our push for greener practices, and rebuilding local communities. Bars and pubs can once again be the heart of the local life. And fresh, delicious beer can once again be served.