What it means now it’s Miller Time at Meantime

Alastair Hook, left, and Nick Miller

The news that Meantime Brewing Company has appointed Nick Miller, former managing director at SAB Miller UK’s operating company, Miller Brands, as its new chief executive is the most significant event in the UK brewing industry this year.

(Incidentally, I love the iconography of the photo of Nick and Alastair Hook, Meantime’s founder and brewmaster: “We’re not suits, but we’re still serious working dudes who love beer …”)

Don’t, please, lazily assume this means SAB Miller will be acquiring Meantime, the way Molson Coors bought Sharp’s back in February. Meantime is a company with ambitions: it has already announced that it wants to increase production fourfold at its new brewery in Greenwich, south-east London from 25,000 hectolitres a year to 100,000hl in the next five years – that’s a little over 60,000 barrels a year, UK, for the non-metric, about as much as a medium-sized family brewer such as Hall and Woodhouse produces.

If you brew it, they won’t necessarily come, though: hence the appointment of Mr Miller. He is, as far as I can find out, the first real sales and marketing heavyweight ever to join a UK craft brewer. He had 20 years of experience in sales, strategic projects and marketing with Coors UK (formerly Bass), where he was director of sales, before he joined Miller Brands as sales director in 2005. His new employer boasted then that Miller had “a history of consistently delivering improved customer relations, sales and profit”, and he rose to be MD at Miller Brands in 2008.

He certainly seems to know how to sell beer, even in a recession. For example, Miller Brands saw UK sales of Peroni rise 29 per cent in the 12 months to the end of April, 2010. And if you think: “Peroni – pfff”, you’ll probably be surprised to learn that UK sales of the Italian lager are equal to more than 300,000 barrels a year, about as much as Fuller, Smith & Turner’s entire output. It’s the number one “world beer” brand in the UK on-trade and number two in the off-trade.

Now, the point is, the Peroni market is perfectly capable of being attacked by a British brewer offering something stylish, authentic and tasty, and Meantime is already doing that, in a small but growing way. To quote Alastair Hook, in the press release announcing Nick Miller’s appointment:

Meantime is thriving in the London bar and restaurant scene, within a sector of the beer market that is commonly known as the ‘graveyard for beer brands’. Indeed, current output for the first six months of 2011 has increased 70% year on year.

The majority of that expansion is being done through what Alastair is happy to call “craft keg”. I don’t want to start that argument again, because it’s irrelevant: the sales show there’s a market, as Alastair says, for a brewer that “uses locally sourced ingredients and brews products of authenticity and provenance”, and if “craft” keg turns people away from the bland and the lowest common denominator, that’s wonderful by me.

However, it’s a fact that a terrific product will only take you so far. Alastair again:

When I started up Meantime I was happy to grow organically, with little use of conventional marketing techniques, but with a passionate and sound production-orientated philosophy that focuses on the intrinsic qualities of great beer. Nick Miller’s appointment marks a considered and considerable change in this approach. There is no point in brewing great beer if you don’t have the distribution and marketing in place to get your product and your message to the consumer.”

If you’re happy to stay a tiddler, that’s nice. Really. There’s nothing wrong with being a small artisan, should that be what you want. But does anyone who is utterly passionate about what they are doing ever want to stay small? I confess I’m more than a bit of a fanboy about Meantime, and one of the biggest reasons for that is the way Alastair’s passion about beer comes through. It’s a passion that seems to me more American than British, and indeed he says in the press release:

I have always [declared] the craft brewing revolution in America as my greatest influence.

What Alastair means by that, I think, in the context of the appointment of Nick Miller, is that the most successful American craft brewers have never shied from the “dark arts” of marketing and sales. It would certainly seem to me that – although the US and the UK are two countries united by a common language but divided by drinking cultures that are far more different than people generally assume them to be – bringing together a passion for great beer with a passion for great marketing, in the way that, for example, New Belgium or Dogfish Head or Stone Brewing or any one of a very large number of others in the US do, but almost no one in the UK equals, in any serious way, is still the best route forward for any British craft brewer looking to grow big enough to have a real impact. And here’s Alastair again, apparently agreeing:

I recognise that just being passionate about great beer is not enough for modern beer drinkers. Taking their cues from the massive shift in consumer discernment for quality food and wine, today’s beer consumers demand consistency, authenticity, provenance and a greater variety of choice – but they also expect strong brand presentation and eye-catching packaging. For Meantime to deliver this whole beer package going forward, it will need a sound and responsive sales and marketing capability. With Nick on board we believe we can now live that dream ourselves, right here.

Personally, I really want to see this work. What the beer Stalinists won’t accept is that while cask beer can be terrific, what Meantime produces – in Alastair’s words, again, “unpasteurised, brewery-conditioned beers of exceptional taste and flavour” – is terrific too. What’s more, it’s available in varieties that cask beer will never be available in, and in places that cask beer will never reach. I want to see great beer on the menu at any restaurant or hotel bar in the UK I go into, and if Nick Miller can replace Peroni and Becks with beers from Meantime in the bistros of Britain, then he’s worth whatever large salary I assume Meantime must be paying him.

Is this going to start a trend? Alastair thinks so. His press release says he “believes that Nick’s appointment will be the first of many matchups between craft brewers and senior brewing industry executives, who increasingly see the shift in consumer demand towards beers with more intrinsic qualities.” I’m not so optimistic. Yes, craft beer in Britain really needs to get much more serious about its marketing. But if there are more than a small handful of craft brewers in the UK with the ability and commitment to grow as large as Meantime wants to in the next five years, and who therefore require their own big-hitting Nick Miller to help them do it, I’d be pretty surprised. Though delighted.

0 thoughts on “What it means now it’s Miller Time at Meantime

  1. Is BrewDog the “almost no-one” in the UK who takes an interest in marketing? Because whether you like their projected image or not, they do get noticed, which is sort of what marketing is about, no?

    And let’s give them credit: any British craft brewer who is making moves to enter a market as conservative as Germany does not lack ambition to grow! I hope Meantime (and eventually, Thornbridge — I can dream, can’t I?) follows suit: I like our Pilsners, Weizen, Kölsch, and Alt etc. just fine, but variation delights…

  2. “a passion for great beer with a passion for great marketing, in the way that, for example, New Belgium or Dogfish Head or Stone Brewing or any one of a very large number of others in the US do, but almost no one in the UK equals, in any serious way”.

    I assume that ‘almost no one’ refers to Brew Dog. Meantime contract brew 77 Lager and another one I forget the name of. Maybe that insider view of Brew Dog is helping to spur this along somewhat?

    • Padraig and Gerrit – I said “almost no one” because I didn’t want people hitting me with the exanple of BrewDog, but theirs is “guerilla marketing” of a sort that is very different to the kind that Meantime is likely to adopt, because they’re looking for a completely different image, and what works for BrewDog wouldn’t work for many other people. So the two are not really comparable, which is why I didn’t mention BrewDog specifically.

      • What Padraig said, below.

        BrewDog do some guerilla marketing, yes (I’m thinking of the videos, as well as the stunt beers wrapped in animal carcasses, or laced with Viagra), but they also do plain old-fashioned marketing quite well: they’ve identified a target audience (young, cocky, predominately male (I’m guessing)) for their product, and they advertise to them specifically.

        Meantime will have to identify /their/ target audience (older than BrewDog’s, more distinguished, better-off financially, maybe?) and come up with something suitable for /them/. In that sense, BrewDog and Meantime are absolutely comparable — what they are not, obviously, is equal (which is the whole point of comparisons, isn’t it, to spot and name the differences).

  3. I’m not quite sure why preferring cask beer to keg or bottled beer makes me a beer Stalinist. I’ve tried a lot of Meantime beers, and been to their pub in Greenwich a couple of times, but in the main they don’t excite me.

    Having said that I wish them every success though, as next time I’m in a bistro I’d much prefer to drink their stuff than Peroni or Becks.

      • Well I wouldn’t say that all keg is vile, but as I prefer cask I don’t see why I should actively support keg. Maybe I’m more eurocommunist on this one 😉

  4. Pingback: Meantime Brewing Steps Up | Blogging at World of Beer

  5. What one person calls ‘guerilla marketing’ someone 10-15 years younger just calls ‘marketing’. Regardless of the type of brand image Meantime are trying to achieve they are going to be compared to Brew Dog. They’re the most successful indie brewer when it comes to this stuff, regardless of whether you like what they do (I’m somewhat ambivalent and think it’s actually a bit dated design wise).

    But within the last two weeks I’ve been to Brew Dog’s bar in Edinburgh and the Meantime place beside Greenwich University. One has a distinctive feel that permeates through the bar design, the music played, the merchandise, the vibe you get from the bar staff (super-enthusiastic, look like they love working for the most awesome company on the face of the earth). The other could be any vaguely trendy bar. Guess which is which.

    So while this guy has done a great job promoting Peroni that was within an organisation that spends huge amounts on press and TV advertising. Obviously Meantime aren’t going to have those sorts of resources available to them so this chap needs to be pretty creatively minded. There’s an article in the current Marketing Week talking about them only now hiring a global head of digital marketing. That probably says more about their organisation structure that anything about pockets of expertise in the regions though.

    • Well, I’m actually 30 to 40 years older than BrewDog’s target demographic, rather than a mere 10 to 15, but I think stuff like anonymously reporting yourself to the Portman Group just to get the publicity is better referred to as “guerilla marketing” rather than giving it the same name as the mainstream variety. And that’s the difference between BrewDog and Meantime: BrewDog can and will pull that kind of stuff, and be admired for it by the people they’re targeting. Meantime couldn’t and wouldn’t.

  6. That’s very interesting news – I think the next few years will see many of the orthodoxies of the UK beer market comprehensively swept aside. For example, the other day I saw draught Moretti in a tied house of one of the local family brewers, who not so long ago would only have provided their own top-fermented “bastard lager”.

  7. Even before its new addition, Meantime seem to be poised to make the jump into the beer+marketing equation. Look at their bottles and labeling–they’re already doing an exceptional job. Match that with really great beer and the outcome was inevitable. The attitude that only great beer comes from quaint, artisanal breweries is antiquated. I’ve never understood the reaction that some people have to small business advertising (and this applies in both the US and UK.) Brewing is a business, and businesses need advertising–There is nothing wrong with that. This isn’t a sell-out, it’s a smart financial movement for Meantime. BrewDog’s marketing efforts are fantastic; it’s grungy, hipster concept of advertising “by being-irreverently-on-the-edge” is great for their product. However, that concept isn’t going to work for Meantime. If they want to take it to the next level, and make that next step, then they need someone who knows the ad biz. Hiring Miller was the smartest thing they could have done. More power to them.

  8. I’ve got nothing to add apart from to say that is a fantastically written article. very interesting and informative, without the standard ‘this is terrible for craft brewing’ crap so many bloggers jump the gun to express about news like this.

    The more good beer available the better.

  9. The expression, “go big or go home”, is not true in the beer world as you said Martyn: many operations choose to remain small and do very nicely thank you very much. Some, however, have a different business model, and this new appointment fits in exactly with that. Even if this gentleman was from a large undistinguished brewer it would give me no pause in the least since his task, at which evidently he is very good, is to move large quanities of product. But as it turns it, SAB Miller makes some excellent beers, so the choice is even more perfect than otherwise. PIlsner Urquell is the best widely sold blonde lager in the worldin my opinion, and the all-malt Peroni being internationally marketed is excellent too. A friend, who loves cask ale, just returned from a trip in Germany and Holland and felt Grolsch was one of the best beers he had, especially on draft; I like it too. Okay MGD doesn’t float my boat, but for a big concern they make good beer. So it all ties together.

    Yes, I prefer cask to keg, but again cask does not suit many markets and there is a place for well-made keg in England – perhaps a pre-eminent place, ultimately. You can’t compare 1970-era keg with keg today as made by Meantime and other quality craft brewers. It seems England has caught up to what keg can mean, to America that is which chose this model from the mid-1970’s to launch the craft revolution – again I stress using a decent hop bill, no- or fewer adjuncts than mainstream beer and no pasteurization. We took in return the heritage of cask beer from England which has grown respectably in that same period as a sub-set of craft brewing – a neat reverse symmetry there.

    Gary

    • I knew it would annoy you, Ron, but Meantime use it all the time about themselves, and I really can’t think of a better descriptor of what they’ve trying to present themselves as …

  10. What is so fucking hard about keeping cask ale that some places cannot stock it ? And why would anybody evoke a word such as Stalinist about somebody who does not personally like carbonated drinks ? You berate potentially ‘lazy’ viewpoints in this post, but surely exaggerating words to this extreme is just as lazy.

    • What is so fucking hard about keeping cask ale that some places cannot stock it ?
      Judging by the amount of crap cask ale I’ve drunk over the decades, for too many places it doesn’t seem easy at all.

      And why would anybody evoke a word such as Stalinist about somebody who does not personally like carbonated drinks ? You berate potentially ‘lazy’ viewpoints in this post, but surely exaggerating words to this extreme is just as lazy.
      People are entitled to like what they want. A few insist there is only one true way. They’re the Stalinists.

    • Are you being serious? Keeping cask beer is loads more hassle than keg. Do a bit of research on the web. It’s late and I can’t be bothered going into the details.

      • Is that directed towards myself ? Having run famous real ale pubs, I am fully aware of the extra care and work required to keep cask beer in great nick. I just don’t think it is that difficult to do. Serving keg is not much more challenging then serving a ready meal.
        Martyn, It’s not that it is difficult, but some managers are just lazy. Coupled with the pressure to minimise ullage, and not training bar staff correctly, this can lead to pints of cooking vinegar being served.

        Stalinism, when used in its broadest sense, refers to socialist states comparable to the Stalin-era Soviet Union, i.e., that are characterized by an overly centralized state, totalitarian figure head, secret police, propaganda, and especially brutal tactics of political coercion. According to Encyclopædia Britannica, “Stalinism is associated with a regime of terror and totalitarian rule.”

        Even if a person were to hold the belief that say all keg was bad and they would actually outlaw it, their views would still be far short of Stalinism. I agree, there are certainly some Real Ale Twats who hold pretty blinkered views, but I don’t like to see otherwise well written articles fall back on what I would call lazy, inaccurate descriptions. I’m sure that is a much more apt and less dramatic term that you could use.

  11. Pingback: Notizie dal Regno Unito | inbirrerya

  12. Regardless of whether people are incompetent at keeping cask beer (and clearly from experience many are), a lot of places such as restaurants and music venues simply don’t have sufficient turnover, and so a “quality” keg beer would be much preferable to a mass-market one.

  13. I think the attitude that real ale drinkers can be extreme in their devotion falls into two categories. The first and largest is the general population, used to lager and keg ale, who view often with bemusement the single-minded attitude to what is good beer, or just beer. In guide books written 30 years on London I recall admonitions to stay away from this place or that unless you didn’t mind some “real ale fascism”. Obviously an extreme term to use but not meant literally of course. It’s interesting how a zeitgeist, a certain kind of socially approved attitude, gets going. Even by 1975, due I think to big brewery influence and marketing, real ale was viewed as old-fashioned, on the way out. Keg beer was cool, was in and the general population from pub owners on down (the pubs often tied of course) just fell in with this. Some bravely did not. Today, this attitude to beer is changing due to a renewed appreciation of good and traditional things from coffee to bread to beer and of course wine and whiskey.

    Then there is the group within beer circles who were never 100% devoted to real ale. I would say there are more on this side of the pond, where we had excellent keg beer early on (I dislike the term as applied to our craft beer but there you go). This group proceeds from the opposite perspective of the general pop, i.e., with great knowledge, but comes to something of a middle ground on it – I’ll drink what’s good. I’m with the latter group, but I also feel that English real ale – not just the process but the taste of bitter (especially) as it has been from 1980 until today (my span of knowing it) is an incredibly valuable gastronomic heritage. I hope it is not lost and ironically, if lost it will become, it won’t be from the assaults of pub lager and keg ale. It will be from using foreign hops in large quantities, spices and other non-traditional flavourings, and dispense in un-fined form. It will still be real beer, sure, but it won’t be the great English drink that led up to this new period of experimentation. I know, I know, that we must innovate, young people including brewers want to try the new-school, etc. Fine (sorry!). But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

    Gary

  14. Could it be a coincidence that since the appointment of Nick Miller, Meantime have been looking for a new Head Brewer?

  15. CHRIS Johnson, manager of the revamped Railway Tavern in St Jude Street N16, tells a story.

    “One of the regulars from the pub’s previous incarnation came in, asked for a pint of Stella Artois,” he says.

    “I said ‘Sorry, we don’t have Stella. We’ve got Meantime. It’s from Greenwich.’

    “‘Nah, mate,’” he said. ‘I don’t want any of that foreign muck.’”

Leave a Reply