One of the most painful sights that can be beheld by a certain type of Englishman, and I am of that certain type, is a couple of burly workmen at a pub cellar door.
Not filling the cellar with ale, no far from it. What I saw the other morning was tragic indeed. Instead of barrels, clanking down into the cool darkness, the beer slide had been switched to into reverse, like some sick internet meme, full kegs and barrels were rolling up from the cellar to be arranged on the truck.
“We are doing thirty of these pubs today”, grunted the haunted drayman, “filling the truck up with beer. Driving to Tadcaster, and then the brewery is dumping it. Where? Who knows?”.
This was a man who looked as if he had not just shot his own grandmother, but his wife, his daughter, and a bevy of his daughter’s school friends.
This approach from breweries is not unusual. The Treasury has issued instructions allowing pubs to describe beer sitting unused in their premises as ‘ullage’ or in other words spoilt beer. This allows pubs and breweries to avoid paying duty on the beer. Ordinarily the revenue demands qualified fraud inspectors to check on this, but that requirement has been overridden.
Speaking to Sam Smith's press office number, a chap called Simon ('No last name - this isn't my normal job') told me, "I couldn't say how much cask ale is being recalled, our properties range from postage stamps to large concerns, so there is no such thing as an average cellar. But it will be many thousands of pints. "The brewery is quieter but still operational, and our bottle beers are proving very popular in supermarkets and off licences, but we have had to stop the keg trade, the pubs are closed".
Problem is I don't like bottled beer, and the canned stuff is execrable.
Other pubs have had other, for me better, approaches.
One, the Spit and Sawdust, a newish freehouse near the Elephant and Castle sent out a message on social media...
“If you want beer, WE’VE GOT LOADS Pay what you want!”
They were inviting people to turn up at the pub with whatever receptacle they could carry. Not willing to look at this horse in its molars off I trotted (having bought a single use plastic, 5L bottle of cheap water from Tesco – there is always a first for everything). I joined the queue, a couple of dozen types, in Covid-spaced jollity, trailed around the old war veteran of a pub.
The chap in front had brought a watering can, and the one a couple behind had brought a home brew bucket all 40L of it. All were served and cheerfully too.
It was slow going, but satisfying. Let’s be honest, standing around in the sun does engender a thirst, and here was the perfect prescription.
Part of the pub's team, Olly Pentlow said to me, “We’re a community pub and we are very aware that we exist because of the local community and we thought, this was a good way to give something back.
“We were able to raise money for charity at the same time. We had about 150 people turn up and raised somewhere near £750. That is going to the Captain Tom Moore appeal for the NHS.
“And fundamentally we are a pub, throwing good beer away isn’t on the agenda”.
That was a win, though short lived, cask ale when out of the barrel, doesn’t have much of a half-life, and the 9 or so pints just had to be finished off in a couple of solo sessions.
A distant memory hit me. Homebrew!
Something not contemplated since dangerous, loft-based installations at school in the 80’s, the kit smuggled in from the local chemist in Blandford Forum.
Of course, online. First to the Homebrew shop, based in Hampshire. But there was no beer at the inn, or rural industrial park. Nor indeed was there the possibility of brewing anything. Much has already sold out, and next to those items not yet scoured from their shelves rests the ominous note in a bold red font.
“Sorry ordering has been temporarily suspended while we process current orders, WebSite will be back open as soon as we can”.
I phoned, this was desperate indeed, a lugubrious gentleman answered on the twelfth ring.
“How are things?’, I pleaded, fear entering my voice,
“It’s been huge”, he sighed, “but it does mean we are running out of stock for now. Some of our suppliers are from abroad.
“But we will be turning the website back on this afternoon, and then it will be on and off until the whole business gets back to normal – when that will be is anybody’s guess.”
This was no good, no good at all. I tried a few more websites.
The website OnBuy, supposedly the UK’s answer to Amazon, and more famous for employing a sex toy tester than brewing' came good. I hope that in a few days I shall be the proud owner of a vast plastic bucket, in under a month I shall have ale.
But before that I can reveal some heartening news from the Spit and Sawdust, “watch our social media closely", said Pentlow, "we are planning to repeat the exercise in the next week or two”.
Yes I know the big breweries can claw back tax from the Government, and by having their charity beer sales, the Spit is taking a hit, but as with many things during this crisis, people will remember who behaved well, and perhaps more pertinently, behaved badly.
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