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The links between beer, pubs and freedom in times of crisis

While the threat of war heightens distress and anxiety, community values, pub environments and beer are becoming fundamental to mental health.

The sense of overwhelm for many people is huge. Daily news updates breed growing concern across the world and with imminent war following all of the challenges of a global pandemic, many people are suffering. For those who feel alone in this feeling, the consensus is they are not – everyone is experiencing some form of mental distress. It is, after all, right to feel upset and unsettled watching people being hurt and cities destroyed.

What our nation hears on the news brings both worry and empathy for others, but spokepeople from across the industry want to remind us that it is our humanity that could also be helpful in overcoming the paralysis of anxiety. Times of crisis can also boost collective determination and it is this upswing that the beer, pub and drinks community want to use to help peers and friends from everywhere – to remember that they have a support network. Nobody, right now, is alone.

Oakman Inns founder and executive chairman Peter Borg-Neal, who owns circa 40 award-winning pubs across the UK well known for their community-focused efforts, explained: “It is known that stress can make people more irritable and unfriendly. However, it is also known that more acute stress, driven by a time of crisis, can inspire a different type of behaviour. Times of war and natural disaster have inspired greater cooperative, social, and friendly behaviour. Indeed, it is likely that the human connection that happens during times of crises, is part of an instinct to ensure our collective survival as a species.”

Indeed, as we watch civilians working together to protect their cities in Ukraine, it is easy to see how so much of this is being played out in warzones. According to Borg-Neal, the supportiveness that people feel when they come together and share experiences – good and bad – reminds them that they care about others and this, in turn, can help them to overcome the immediate troubles they are facing.

“One reason why stress may lead to cooperative behaviour is our profound need for social connection. Over many centuries the pub is where we have gone to make those social connections and, very often, it is pubs that have been the focal point of community efforts to help out the wider community in times of crisis,” he said, reminding that “it is the need for social connection which is the most fundamental driver of people gathering in pubs – to share their experiences, provide mutual support and hold conversations that help make sense of it all. A time of crisis can help to remind us of our common humanity – our shared vulnerability. It can inspire kindness, connection, and a desire to stand together and support each other”.

In previous wars in Britain, this was called ‘Blitz spirit’ or reflected in the phrase ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ but as British beer writer of the year Pete Brown also points out, right now, as people have so recently come out of lockdowns, they are desperately in need of feeling hope over fear.

“The pandemic showed us that having a beer in a pub was a sign of return to normality after a trauma,” said Brown, explaining how “last April, the whole world’s media looked to Britain and the reopening of pubs as a sign of hope. The same happens in wartime – in WW2, Churchill never rationed beer or closed pubs – so long as they opened – even when ‘opening’ meant putting a plank across two beer barrels amidst a pile of rubble – the bombers hadn’t won. In Ukraine right now, every night people can open a beer together is a night when they are still free.”

With such outlooks reminding us of the importance of community and solidarity, it is crucial to outline how none of this is a trivialisation of war or suffering. None of this is about beer itself, or pubs as such, but community, humanity and liberty. The world cannot be healed by anything more than shared understanding, consideration for others and with this, community and choice become a part of the vernacular. After all, it is what makes us more understanding of one another, integration and sharing myriad perspectives. Much like a public house – every visitor is different, but what matters is that we are all people. And beer, well, it is for everyone. It is a leveller and a welcome pause. At least that is how it is marketed.

Neil Walker, head of comms at the Society of Independent Breweries (SIBA) said: “Beer has always been a drink for everybody, and our public houses are exactly that – a place where we can all come together and enjoy a drink with other people from our community. After extended closure during Coronavirus the reopening of pubs and the ability to enjoy a fresh draught beer from a small local brewery once more felt like a rare treat, and one which truly deserves to be protected.”

As we see swathes of people giving to refugee charities, chefs taking to setting up food stalls on the borders of Ukraine and so many people donating funds from sales of artwork, food, drink and other products, the overriding feeling is that people want to help and to share a little of what they have to mend what they can. They want to do their bit. Publicans can, even from afar, still play their part in helping bring people together – make a plan to help. Contribute towards a charity drive to support those affected, or simply to give people in need of a moment of calm, a place to sit and enjoy a little peace and some mental space from it all. In Britain, right now, the pubs are open for a reason. We need them. Those community hubs are important.

Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) said: “The Great British Pub has always sat right at the heart of our towns and communities, it is part of their social fabric. One in three adults said their mental wellbeing was negatively impacted by the closure of pubs and other hospitality settings during the pandemic. The positive impact of pubs is evident, they have been a consistent throughout people’s lives offering them a community, friends, and a home from home.”

And, as Borg-Neal has pointed out, they are crucial to our wellbeing. As each community plans its next steps towards doing what it thinks is right, or good, they can play their part too. After all, we need each other. And, as he reiterated: “It is so often, the pub where we gather to experience these vital aspects of life: community, shared purpose, social connection and fellowship. All over the UK today people will gather in pubs and talk about the horrific events in Ukraine. They will express horror, empathy, anger and compassion. Many will ask the fundamental question ‘what can we do to help these people?’ – I have no doubt that people will do what they can. The British people and British pubs will want to help.”

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