Raise a glass to real ale as Wigan beer scene continues to find ways to cope with coronavirus
There is considerable concern about the future of the beer and pub sector, with watering holes looking like they will be among the last businesses to re-open and worries bout how social distancing over a pint will actually work.
However, in Wigan the picture is slightly more optimistic, with some publicans beginning to make arrangements for the start of a new era which could begin within weeks.
And a popular bottle shop in Swinley recently re-opened on a click-and-collect basis.
It is hoped the Virtual Beer Day Britain will be a similarly positive occasion, with brewers, pubs and taprooms hosting virtual events to look forward to the end of lockdown.
That is definitely the spirit at The Cherry Gardens in Swinley, which recently posted pictures of its main room reconfigured to keep households two metres apart.
While invariably a rather melancholy sight for those who enjoy a packed pub and propping up a bar, landlord Mathew Bullen is keeping to a glass-half-full attitude despite the considerable obstacles independent boozers face.
He said: “We’re making the best of the situation. Most of our tables normally are probably less than a metre from each other, certainly not socially-distanced.
“It’s going to be a big, big challenge. The biggest issue will be whether or not we can get people through the doors.
“We’ve also got to manage interactions between stff and customers. We are trying to look at relatively cheap systems we could implement for table service.
“JD Wetherspoon has its app where you can order food and drink on your mobile phone and get it brought to the table. It would be fantastic to have that but as an independent operator investing in it would be too much.
“We’re trying to remain optimistic. At least we’ve got the space to do social distancing. It’s now about getting the pub ready. The conversations in the industry have stepped up.
“It’s hard to get your head around the changes. The nervousness around opening up is the customers’ level of appetite to come through the doors. If that’s not there the doors will be shutting again pretty soon after opening.
“Lockdown has been really difficult at times when it has seemed everything is going wrong and it will never be the same again, but if you let that negativity consume you then you might as well pack in.”
Mathew suggested the Wigan Lane pub could be open in some format again during July.
One business welcoming its customers once more is the Northern Beer Temple on Standishgate, although customers cannot browse the shelves and fridges and have to order what they want online and collect it from a table just inside the door.
Bottle shop owner John Lomas says it has been a relief to return to work and he has been delighted by the response from ale enthusiasts.
He said: “It has been brilliant to see my customers again and know they are keeping well. You get to know them and you worry about them.
“I could have kept trading but at the time I couldn’t come up with a solution which I thought would work and would be safe for everybody.
“I decided to do an online site so people can browse as long as they want on the internet nd are only here to pick up.
“I’m wearing gloves and there’s plenty of disinfectant and hand gel. Everything gets cleaned, I’m not going to take any risks.
“The online ordering is something I will probably look at keeping once we get back to something like normality.”
John is also running a limited delivery service in the evenings for customers who are shielding or cannot get to the shop to pick up orders.
The borough’s pubs and breweries have come up with a range of ways to keep going during lockdown, many of them highlighted by Wigan Camra’s website Pulling Together.
Schemes include home deliveries, virtual quiz nights, online visits to Wigan Camra’s Stay Inn where enthusiasts can chat about all things hopped and the provision of meals to local communities.
It is now hoped that ale fans will come together to celebrate beer on June 15, with organisers of the virtual event saying there is much to be proud of in how the sector has been supported through lockdown.
Instigator of Beer Day Britain, writer and sommelier Jane Peyton said: “We cannot have the usual Beer Day Britain party in the pub this year, but we can still meet online to celebrate our national drink and never has it been more important to unite with a drink of beer and to say Cheers to Beer.
“The public has been so supportive of their local breweries during lockdown and Beer Day Britain is a good opportunity to celebrate the love they have for their favourite beers.
“But it is also a chance for pubs to get involved and remind everyone of the warm welcome and unique atmosphere that awaits when they can reopen to serve that much longed-for pint.
“We’ve seen reports that online and supermarket beer sales have risen while we’ve been unable to visit the pub and many people have been enjoying their favourite beer at home, or maybe trying some new ones including the growing range of low and no alcohol beers.
“Beer Day Britain gives us the chance to join together over our shared love of a beer, recognise the hard work that brewers put in around the country and look forward to that time when we can be together again and meet for a catch-up in our local pub.”
The centrepiece of Virtual Beer Day Britain is the Cheers to Beer toast on social media, which will take place at 7pm.