“I’ve cried my last tears” – How COVID-19 is impacting the beer industry

This is the last in a series in which we talk to brewers to find out how they’re weathering the storm. Though the alcohol ban has now been lifted, its impact has been felt and will continue to be felt for the foreseeable future. Before the lifting of the ban, we chatted with Lethu Tshabangu, a self-taught brewer and founder of Ukhamba Beerworx and Taproom.

How has the last 100+ days been for your brewery/taproom?

It’s been a crazy few weeks for me. The type where only survival makes sense. Like everyone, this lockdown has hit us hard. Actually, hard is an understatement. Before the 100 days lockdown, there were 2 weeks of alcohol sales restriction. Sales were banned after 5pm.

How has your business adapted to survive?

Most of our guests at the Taproom came for after-work drinks [so the ban] meant we were effectively out of business. That happened in the last two weeks of the month. The majority of our turnover (70%) came from liquor sales and mostly from the last two weeks of the month. Our struggle started there and it has not ended.

How have your employees/staff been affected?

We had to immediately send home half of our staff. Since our business was only three months old, we didn’t have much, but we managed to pay our team for the first month in full, half-pay in the next month, and then we started sending them food parcels from there. We eventually retrenched all but two kitchen staff members who came back to do takeaways when we were allowed to.  That didn’t last as we soon closed again in three weeks. Now we are considering closing the Taproom forever. The decision has gone 70%. I’ve cried my last tears. We are looking into selling beer online to keep the beer business going. Unfortunately for my staff, I’m in the process of raising a stipend for them this week and then it’ll be a goodbye.

Do you think that this is the end for our young craft beer industry?

My gut feeling tells me that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel even if the end is far from now. The social distancing culture will promote ecommerce. I think ecommerce will level the ground for the small guys in the distribution game. We won’t have to fight for front fridge space with big guys.

Do you think we will ever go back to normal? Or what will the new normal look like for craft beer?

The marketing game will change a bit; the one with the best idea will win. Selling online will help the small guy watch his beer in terms of storage until it gets to the consumer. Also, the consumer will benefit, as they’ll deal directly with the owner. People will appreciate life more and they’ll try out new things.

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