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Breweries serve up boost for pubs by buying back beer kegs

Colin Neill

Northern Ireland's beleaguered pub owners have been spared having to dispose of thousands of kegs of unsold beer.

The main breweries are buying back all on-tap stock that is now out-of-date during the coronavirus lockdown, which has had a crippling effect on the licence trade since it was imposed six weeks ago.

Even half-used kegs are being taken back at full price, with the brewers absorbing the huge cost instead of the publicans responsible for over 1,000 outlets here, this newspaper can reveal.

This contrasts with other parts of the UK, where millions of pints of unsold ale has had to be disposed of by the publicans themselves.

Colin Neill, Hospitality Ulster boss, said the move represents "a huge relief for our industry".

"We must give credit to the brewers where it is due, they're taking a huge financial hit," he said. "They didn't have to do this and they'll now have to face the onerous task of disposing because, obviously, you can't literally pour it down the drain."

Mr Neill said that there are still some issues around smaller wholesalers regarding bottled beer and added that his members are exploring ways of claiming back tax already paid on it.

It is estimated that the average pub here has 15 or so kegs in its cellar at any one time.

Most kegs contain 88 pints and the best-before dates of pasteurised beer - including most lagers - are around three months after delivery.

The dates for real ales and other unpasteurised beer are shorter at around six to nine weeks.

Last week Wetherspoons, owned by Northern Ireland tycoon Tim Martin, announced plans to reopen their 874 outlets in June, indicating there may be some light at the end of the dark Covid-19 tunnel for pub owners.

But Mr Neill warned that suppliers here were gearing up for "a huge logistical challenge" when the lockdown finally ends.

"There will be the challenge of getting the industry up and restocked," he said. "Beer lines are obviously sitting there, many with beer still in them and they'll all need cleaned.

"They're normally cleaned on a five-week cycle so it's going to take a number of weeks to get the manpower for doing that.

"The out-of-date kegs and bottles also have to be taken back, refilled, cleaned and re-issued."

Mr Neill said government money would be required to help the pubs get back on track "otherwise we'll just open, lose money and go bust within weeks, and the furloughing of virtually 100% of the hospitality industry will have been wasted".

While the pubs remain closed, off-licences have been enjoying huge profit hikes.

Belfast's Hatfield House, meanwhile, saw its popular 'Guinness-on-wheels' service, where mobile bar staff had been pouring drinks out of refitted vans into plastic glasses while wearing latex gloves, was stopped after the PSNI said it breached licencing legislation. Mr Neill, however, disagreed with the move.

"The police said it's illegal and, technically, it is but it's unfortunate they've taken that view," he said. "I would encourage them to have another look at it. Pubs like the Hatfield weren't doing this to make money.

"If you look at the concept - selling a couple of pints to generally older people - it's just a wee bit of normality, but I recognise the police are operating in difficult conditions."

Belfast Telegraph