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Ross O'Hara, head brewer, westgate brewery, bury st edmunds

While the pandemic closed pubs and the need for cask beer vanished, the demand for bottled and canned beers rose dramatically as people stayed home. This meant big changes for Head Brewer, Ross O’Hara, and his team.


I was on holiday when I realised that Covid-19 was becoming very serious in the UK. I was in the Galápagos Islands and the headlines were unbelievable with news of cities across Europe locking down. It was very surreal hearing about it from a beach with iguanas on it, so far away. On the journey home everyone seemed very edgy at the airport and a week later the country went into full lockdown. It was a shock to the system.

I’ve worked at Greene King since 2016, when I joined as a shift manager, and I became head brewer in 2018. There are 50 of us working in brewing, which includes the production team and engineers. It’s a good thing that I have a first-hand understanding of all the people and processes involved, because Covid-19 changed everything in terms of how we worked.

Lockdown uncertainty

When the Prime Minister’s announcement came to close pubs, it was such a strange time. Immediately my phone started to ring. My team wanted to know whether we were going to close the brewery down, but I was also had questions like, ‘Am I going to do die if I leave the house to come to work?’. There was quite a lot of confusion over the stay at home messaging, too. Did brewery workers fall under the category of key workers, like food manufacturers did? No one really knew. All brewing stopped that weekend while we figured everything out.

When I drove into work on Monday morning the roads were empty. It was almost post-apocalyptic. Everywhere was dead quiet and when I arrived at the brewery, people were very wary of each other. It was a weird atmosphere as everyone tried to work out what was going on for the brewing side of things. It took two or three days before we got the message to carry on, but stay away from each other.

What was really interesting was that in those first few days of lockdown one, our support systems were not there. So there was no one working in Abbot House (our head office), no cleaner and no milk delivered. Once the initial shock of pub closures had passed it turned out that people were mostly concerned about not having milk for their coffee!

High retail demand

As soon as we heard that brewers were classed as key workers we figured out safe work systems. We work in a very clean environment anyway, but we put in extra cleaning measures like cleaning stations and antiviral sanitisers were placed everywhere, and we introduced one-way systems. We changed shift patterns to form bubbles.

I was involved with discussions about how to extend the shelf-life of cask beer, which only lasts for seven weeks. As no one knew how long the lockdown would last, we concluded that there was no feasible way to save the beer that was already in pub cellars. We had to lift kegs out and dispose of all the beer safely.

Pubs were closed so there was no need for us to brew cask beer, but the demand for bottled and canned beer rose astronomically. Everyone was drinking at home more, and it was crucial to keep the supermarkets supplied. I think volumes for bottled beers like Old Specked Hen, Abbot Ale, Greene King IPA and Golden Hen increased by almost 50% and our online shop sales escalated, too. One week we produced 1.4 million bottles and at the height of demand we filled 47 tankers (around 2.35 million pints), when in a normal week for that time of year we’d fill 30 to 35. Both the filtration area and tanker loading bay were exceptionally busy.

All change

We do the bottling ourselves but use a third party for canning our beers. At one point there was a shortage of aluminium for cans and we got very close to running out. Then our canning supplier had to pull out of production for a short time because of staff shortages due to Covid-19. We had to quickly find a new supplier, otherwise we’d have lost half of our supermarket trade, and probably wouldn’t have got it back. In normal times it would take six to nine months to get a new supplier like that on board, but we did it in eight days, because we had to.

For those of us who continued to work it was tricky at times. We had to change the way we organised shifts. Team members had to get used to different sleep patterns; some had to reorganise childcare. Life was just different. But I’m very proud of how the brewery team responded. When you know a business has lost 95% of its cash flow, but you can help a bit by bringing in about £3.5 million a month selling canned and bottled beer, it’s a great feeling.