Beer in lockdown

Pete Brown

24 March 2020

I’ve always argued that beer is the most sociable drink in the world. Any alcohol lowers inhibitions and makes us more open: beer does this on a slower, gentler curve than other drinks. Every custom and ritual around beer and pubs is designed to enhance sociability.

In the Middle Ages people sold beer, bread and other goods from their houses. Over time, some of these houses evolved into shops. The houses that sold beer evolved into – well – public houses, places where people wanted to linger and chat rather than just buy their provisions and go.

Ever since it first appeared on the horizon, coronavirus has felt like an attack on our culture as well as our lungs. It started off with not being able to shake hands or hug people, and progressed rapidly to not seeing other people at all. After travel, the hospitality industry was flattened in its path – the virus has taken its very soul, and isolated us from the people and activities we love the most.

With home deliveries stepping up supplies being hoarded, we’re going to have the opportunity to drink quite a lot of beer over the next few weeks. But for many people, drinking alone has a stigma attached to it. It can be seen as an indicator of alcoholism, the idea that you ‘need’ to drink even when you’re not out with friends.

The hospitality industry was flattened in its path – the virus has taken its very soul, and isolated us from the people and activities we love the most

Alcoholics do conceal their drinking. But I reject the idea that any solo drinking is therefore suspect. Beer is a multi-faceted drink. I drink beer alone for the same reasons I sometimes drink non-alcoholic beer: I enjoy the taste, the mouthfeel, the weight and coolness of a pint in my hand. It’s not just about alcohol.

Writing this after a week of self-isolation, with another week still to go before I can hug my wife again, the experience has made me more mindful. I’m much more aware of my surroundings, careful not to cough outside my quarantine zone, noticing anywhere I touch so I can spray and wipe it, just in case.   

And this mindful state is a nice place to be for the appreciation of beer.

In a pub with friends, our attention tends to be on the conversation rather than the beer itself. We don’t really taste it after the first sip. Alone in my study, the beers I’ve drunk this week have filled my senses far more than they usually do. The only other times I’ve appreciated beer like this are when drinking professionally, to write tasting notes or judge beers in a competition. It’s wonderful to get such a full-on sensory experience purely for my own enjoyment.

Alone in my study, the beers I’ve drunk this week have filled my senses far more than they usually do

Social norms are in a state of flux. As established conventions are suspended, new ones rise to take their place. Last week, I watched four subtle variations on the elbow bump gesture evolve over a few hours, each conveying a slightly different meaning. This week, as the country shuts down, people are looking to recreate the pub experience as best they can.

This evening, a group of friends and I are firing up Skype from our respective isolation pods. Once we’re all on screen, we’ll be opening a few beers and having a chat. Like the fuller tasting experience, technology I’ve only ever used for work before will now be making my leisure time richer.

We’re pretty good, we beer drinkers, at finding ways around obstacles to having a beer with friends. Even before I was in isolation, I saw no stigma in drinking alone. But for as long as the internet holds out, I don’t have to.

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