Comfort zone: Has Covid-19 changed consumers' taste in beer?

Claire Bullen

Claire Bullen

31 August 2020

Comfort food is having a moment, if empty baking aisles around the country are any indication. But what about comfort drinking? Claire Bullen asks if quarantine has inspired consumers to go for more familiar styles of beer or has boredom induced a fever for new and exciting brews?

It seems that generally, we have not been drowning our lockdown-induced sorrows in bathtubs full of booze. According to a recent YouGov study for the International Alliance for Responsible Drinking, which surveyed more than 11,000 people across nine countries, 84% of drinkers are consuming the same or less alcohol during lockdown, and almost one in three people (30%) reported drinking less or stopping altogether. Of the 11% drinking more under lockdown, 72% plan to revert to their old drinking habits.

Even so, the idea that quarantine has had a profound impact on drinkers’ habits persists. Just as we’ve been baking cakes and sourdough in industrial quantities to cope, so, the theory goes, we’ve also moved away from challenging or experimental beers in favour of simple, straightforward styles.

‘I think people are going to their go-to beers that they know are reliable and that they like,’ says Martyn Railton, director of Euroboozer. For the importer and distributor, demand for lagers, pale ales, and IPAs has spiked during the lockdown period, and Railton has a few theories as to why.

I think people are going to their go-to beers that they know are reliable and that they like

Martyn Raylton

‘If some people are harder up at the moment [...] they may want to go for something that they know they’re going to like, and it’s not going to be a drain pour. The session beers with high drinkability, the crushable beers, the comfort beers, are generally a bit cheaper as well.’

Neil Kitching, director of Cave Direct, has also observed established brands enjoying success. ‘We are seeing an uplift in the classic beers. As we are mainly an importer of goods from Europe, there are definitely more Belgian classics, such as Brugse Zot Blond and Delirium Tremens, as well as the Augustiner and Paulaner being in high demand.’

But that’s only part of the story. ‘It’s kind of extremes, though,’ Kitching continues. ‘[Retailers] are buying the session pales and lagers to give their customers some fridge-filler products, but also the big beers and rare products, as people are buying up some nice treats to keep them going. We’ve just had a big Omnipollo shipment arrive [the Swedish craft brewery known for its over-the-top pastry stouts, milkshake IPAs, and other dessert-inspired beers] and go out straight away, with demand higher than we would usually see.’

This hints at the difficulty in ascertaining whether ‘comfort beer’ is enjoying a coronavirus boost: it’s nearly impossible to define what ‘comfort beer’ means in the first place. Comfort, after all, is deeply individual, distinct to one’s background and past experiences: one person’s macaroni and cheese is another’s Jollof rice.

When ‘comfort’ is applied to beer, it’s typically ascribed to two ends of the style spectrum: the unfussily classic and the ostentatiously rich. ‘If you look at comfort food, is a “comfort beer” the most indulgent, unhealthy, treat kind of beer that you get a lot of satisfaction and comfort from? Or is it more like a comfort blanket that you come back to?’ muses Railton. Anything from an old-fashioned bitter to a bourbon-barrel-aged stout could plausibly count.

Convenience is key

Additionally, while sales data does show changes in how particular brands or styles are faring, those shifts are more likely to do with access than any other factors. Since the pandemic began, retailers, distributors, brewers, and consumers are all battling new constraints.

‘The economic angle of this is that people have a bit less cash and are less economically secure. They’re worried about their jobs, maybe they’re on furlough, it’s looking very much like we’re going into a recession − people bed down and flock to trusted brands,’ says Daniel Woolfson, food and drink editor at The Grocer.

People are choosing where to shop based on where they
think they’ll have an easy or streamlined experience

Daniel Woolfson

Since lockdown began, consumers are shopping less frequently, but are buying greater quantities when they do go out. Unsurprisingly, beer brands sold in multipacks are poised to succeed. ‘It’s more about shoppers’ priorities than about brands doing well or not doing well − I think the key factor at the moment is where people shop,’ Woolfson continues. ‘More so than choosing where to shop by price, which used to be a big motivator, people are choosing where to shop based on where they think they’ll have an easy or streamlined experience.

People don’t want to queue for an hour, so people are flocking to convenience stores. That inevitably changes the brands that people come into contact with.’ Online beer retailers have also witnessed changed shopping patterns. ‘We have seen an increase in the average basket size, perhaps as [consumers] expect to order less frequently than their weekly supermarket shop,’ says Steve Paterson, marketing director at HonestBrew. He notes that mixed cases have been particularly popular with new customers.

‘With stores either closed or unpleasant places to shop, the internet has stepped in to make online sales the norm for many consumers,’ says Andrew Morgan, head of fresh, chilled beer delivery service Beer Hawk Fresh. ‘This has been a massive change, where pick-and-mix-style shopping has moved to 24-packs and regular weekly ordering.’

Supply & demand

Disruption isn’t just visible at the retail end: the pandemic has also impacted breweries’ production schedules. As part of a survey of member breweries conducted by the Society of Independent Brewers in April, 65% reported they had stopped brewing altogether, and a further 31% had slowed operations.

‘Our beer calendar, which we had meticulously planned for the year, went out the window when lockdown happened, and we scaled back our specials as we simply didn’t have the manpower or capacity to do them,’ says Sally Stewart of London’s Brick Brewery. ‘We were working on some great beers, but some were set purely for draught which we have ultimately had to postpone.’

Duration Brewing in Norfolk has also had to curtail plans. ‘We had a few ideas planned with local botanicals but the places we went to gather some of these ingredients have been closed,’ says co-founder Miranda Hudson. ‘With a general dip in beer supply and a somewhat captive audience, we are excited to promote the non-headline styles that often get overlooked.’

Like many, Suffolk’s Burnt Mill Brewery has narrowed its focus to a tight core range: just one pale ale, two IPAs and a double IPA, in lieu of styles that spend time in barrel or require longer conditioning. Pintle, the brewery’s flagship pale ale, has sold three times as much as the nearest other line, says Charles O’Reilly, the brewery’s founder.

Limited production at breweries translates to limited options for consumers − and breweries are generally doubling down on the flagships and styles they were already known for. But these factors don’t mean drinkers’ enthusiasm for the experimental has waned, says Jules Gray, owner of Sheffield’s Hop Hideout bottle shop. Her customers have gravitated towards reliable ‘summer quenchers’, which she attributes to the fact that the UK had its fair share of warm spells in May and June. However, they’ve also flocked to less expected options, such as A Simple Life: a carrot and beetroot gose, brewed collaboratively for Sheffield Beer Week.

Have drinkers’ tastes taken a hard turn towards simplicity since lockdown began? Probably not. Instead, think of it this way: in these times, virtually any beer could be considered a comfort − and that’s something we can all get behind.

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