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.