Considering it was (little-known fact alert) a European brewery that first produced canned beer, in 1933, in Lorraine, France (the Americans only followed two years later) we Europeans have been distinctly sniffy about beer in cans. One French website, talking about the record of the Brasserie Vezelise, “Premiere brasserie Française a mettre de la biere en boite”, adds: “Helas!”. In Britain, anyone who reckoned they knew about beer knew canned beer was, to quote the 1984 Good Beer Guide, “inferior” – tinny-tasting and cheap .
In fact canned beer did not have a universally wonderful reputation even in the United States, which invented the name “Joe Sixpack” for Mr Average. When the first canned craft beer appeared there – just 12 years ago, in 2002 – it shook up considerable controversy. Even in 2005, there were not much more than a dozen US craft breweries who had followed Oskar Blues, the Colorado brewer that pioneered craft beer in cans, onto the canning line. By 2012, however, that number had grown to more than 200 brewers making canned craft beer. Today, according to the Cantastic database, the figure is 413 breweries, canning 1,484 different craft beers in 94 styles across 49 states and Washington DC (the one non-craft beer canning state is West Virginia).
But is it any bloody good? I first had canned craft beer in Hong Kong, where several small Japanese craft brewers, such as Yo-Ho, have their beers on sale in cans in classier supermarkets, and where semi-pro American beer importers bring in West Coast craft beer in cans, and lo, ’twas frequently very tasty. Indeed, Yo-Ho’s Yona Yona pale ale became one of my favourite fridge beers. Back in the UK, though, I’ve returned pretty much 100 per cent to bottles for my home beer consumption, simply because the places I buy beer from pretty much solidly don’t sell craft in cans: there still are very few craft beer brewers in Britain canning their beers. But if there were canned beers as good as some of the canned beers I tasted in HK easily available, then I’d be happy to buy them.
I was delighted, thus, to get an invitation to last week’s Indie Beer Can Festival, which was set up by the Can Makers, the trade body for British beverage can makers. It was a well-thought-out competition: brewers did not have to be canning their beer already to enter. Out of the initial entrants – and some 70 brewers put themselves forward – 12 were to be picked, and any of the 12 who were not already canning would be given a “limited edition” canning run. They would all go into a blind tasting, and three winners chosen.
All the finalists were available in can for sampling on the day, and I went round with cup, pen and notebook making my own judgment – which one of the entrants’ canned beers would I most like to take on a picnic? The “Breakfast Stout” from Arbor Ales, was tarry, sweet, smooth and warming, but at 7.4%, too strong for a picnic – too strong for breakfast, probably. Longhorn IPA, normally a craft keg beer, from Purity Brewing, 5% abv, had an initial fullness not matched, unfortunately, by the follow-through, and felt comparatively slight against many of the other beers there. Springhead‘s Roaring Meg was light for a 5.5% beer, with honey and grain: a picnic possible. There were two beers from established family brewers in the final, each of which was already being canned: Thwaites’s 13 Guns delivered a lovely mango nose, but frothed up badly in the glass (or plastic cup, rather) which lost it picnic points, while Adnam’s Ghost Ship was a solid, down-the-middle pale ale, but failed to bowl me out.
The one Irish entrant, Blacks of Kinsale‘s Kinsale Pale Ale, was restrained for an American Pale Ale, with biscuit malt more apparent than the tropical notes in the mouth, though there was a good long lingering bitter aftertaste, and I thought this was going to be the picnic test winner. Then I tried Concrete Cow‘s Dirty Cow. Did anything good ever come out of Milton Keynes apart from the A5 to London? Yes, this, a lovely 5% abv mix of American pale ale and wheat beer, a little sour, tangy, with hints of fruitbowl, refreshing when cool, but – and this is the clincher for a picnic beer – with a collection of flavours that suggest it will still taste good when it’s warmed up over an English summer afternoon. Give the picnic prize to the Cow.
You’ll not, I’m guessing, be surprised to hear that the official judges didn’t agree with me at all. The gold medal went to Adnams’ Ghost Ship, the silver to Thwaites’s 13 Guns, the two experienced canners taking the top prizes, while the bronze was snatched by Arbor with its Breakfast Stout.
Still, it confirmed that craft beer does indeed belong in cans. And cans, as the Can Makers will declare, do have advantages over bottles: the beer inside a can is far less likely to be affected by beer’s big enemies, oxygen and light, which ruin far too many bottled brews, while cans are also lighter than glass – ten or eleven times lighter, in fact – and cool down faster in the fridge. So are we likely to see more British craft brewers speedily follow BrewDog (who began canning in 2011), Beavertown, Camden and Fourpure of Bermondsey?
Well, not if Rob Lovatt, brewmaster at Thornbridge, is correct. In a blogpost this week that is essential reading, Rob points out that the sort of small canning line that is all most craft brewers in the UK are likely to be able to afford is not going to be able to guarantee the benefits that canning beer is supposed to bring:
Although the can format is being sold as the best way to eliminate oxygen from the beer after packaging, it is during the packaging process itself that the greatest danger lies. I am unconvinced that the canners towards the lower end of the market are capable of sealing the can without potentially picking up detrimental levels of dissolved oxygen.
It would seem that it is possible to produce good beer on a budget canner, but personally I’m not convinced. Although I am sure we could achieve extra sales and the exposure would be great having beer in can, I feel that on the flip side of the coin, customers drinking oxidised beer from a can would do no favours for our reputation.
So there we are. Today’s craft brewery canned beer is not your father’s canned beer, but it’s not necessarily the answer to a beer drinker’s prayers.
If you point out to the chaps at Meantime Brewing Company that theirs is now the second-oldest independent brewery operation in London, they won’t be thanking you. Venerability is not something that appeals to Meantime’s core demographic of 25 to 40-year-olds. But it’s a fact that of the ten or so other breweries in the capital when the company’s founder, Alastair Hook, first fired up his brewing kettle on the outskirts of Greenwich in 2000, only the positively antiquarian Fuller, Smith and Turner further up the Thames at Chiswick is still going.
Of course, in the past four or five years, London has seen an explosion in new small breweries, fuelled by the enthusiasm among just those 25 to 40-year-olds that Meantime attracts for beers of a type rather different than those an older generation seeks out: brewery conditioned, not cask conditioned, and not “boring brown” bitters, but crisp lagers and aromatic American-style pale ales, cloudy wheat beers and chocolate-flavoured porters.
It’s not just the second-oldest, but the second-biggest, too, with production this year likely to top 70,000 hectolitres: a long way behind the 342,000 hectolitres Fuller’s produced in the previous 12 months, but still probably more than the next eight or ten small London brewers put together, and certainly as much or more as a number of long-established family brewers.
And yet the man in charge of this young giant among the minnows comes from a background where even Fuller’s output would be thought of as not very much at all. In 2011, Meantime appointed Nick Miller, then managing director at SAB Miller UK’s operating company, Miller Brands, as its new chief executive. Miller was the first 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. Under Miller, sales of Peroni, SAB’s Italian lager, rose in the UK from 160,000 hectolitres a year to 850,000 hectolitres (today, for what it’s worth, the brand is probably selling more than a million hectolitres in the UK). In other words, Miller boosted yearly sales of Peroni in the UK by as much as Meantime would currently produce in a decade.
Sitting in the garden of Meantime’s one “proper” pub, the Greenwich Union (opened in 2001), on a sunny summer evening with a pint of the brewery’s own lager in front of me, I put it to Miller that had he stayed with SAB, he would most likely have continued on the sort of stratosphere-soaring corporate career currently being enjoyed by a former colleague, Mark Hunter, who started with Bass in the 1980s, just like Miller did, rose to be head of Molson Coors UK and then chief executive of Molson Coors Europe, and who was named at the end of July as the new chief executive and president of Molson Coors Brewing Company in the United States. So, having already risen high, and with that sort of potential career ladder in front of him, what persuaded him to make the swing away from the mega-brewery world to be in charge of an operation that makes less beer in a year than SAB Miller probably spills down the drain by accident?
“It’s a long and convoluted story how Meantime came about,” Miller replies after a sip at his own pint, “but it was one of those, ‘well, do I go abroad and do the big plc thing or do I take my chances and take a share in the business, see if we can grab hold of the craft beer revolution, shake it up, and change the way people think about beer, take a small business and turn it around?’ It’s been a great experience. I’ve always been in love with beer and the beer industry, and Meantime was one of those opportunities you would not want to miss. It took a lot of thinking about, because obviously it was a very lucrative job where I was – pensions, share schemes – it was a massive gamble. But it’s one, hopefully, that’s paying off, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. It’s great grabbing hold of a business and working with someone like Alastair to create something different, and something exciting for beer drinkers.”
Miller (who, rather ironically, currently lives in one half of a former Shepherd Neame pub in Greenwich) actually began his working career as a shoe shop manager, before moving into the beer business. “I was born and brought up seven miles north of Burton on Trent, and weaned on things like Bass and Pedigree, and I had an interest in beer. But there was no real planning in terms of a career. I ended up, via a contact, being afforded an opportunity to work for Charrington’s in London in 1986, at the former Anchor brewery [the Mile End one, rather than either of the two by the Thames – MC]. The beer industry in 1986 was completely different to the way it is now, the Big Six brewers controlled the market place, it was still vertically integrated, the orders would come in from the pubs, which is where they made all their money, and brewing was, essentially, the poor man of the enterprises that were operating at that time.
“I started at the bottom in sales and worked up to become a sales manager, then did the tactical, vertically integrated brewer route – retailing, ops, marketing. I did 16 years with Bass, which was bought by Coors, I was sales director for Bass looking after the on-trade, then in 2005 I had the opportunity to go and be sales and marketing director at SAB Miller, when we set up Miller Brands, and then two and a half years after that I became the MD of Miller Brands.”
The effects of the Beer Orders in 1989 “sharpened people up to making big brands bigger, to get efficiencies and overhead recovery out of having big brands, through long runs in breweries, but they probably then somewhat neglected consumer choice, variety, style: I don’t think it did the beer industry, the beer genre much good,” Miller says. “And it had a lot more competition coming in for disposable income – mobile phones, and the rest.
“When I started in the industry the off-trade was about 20% of the market place, and the market place was well over the 70 million hectolitre mark. We’ve seen an accelerated decline down to around, what, 45 million hectolitres, roughly. Why is that? The industry hasn’t engaged consumers, hasn’t engaged drinkers, hasn’t talked about the possibilities in matching with food, drinking on different occasions, styles of beer relative to different times of the day. I think that’s what Meantime tries to do – it tries to celebrate all styles of beer.
At Meantime, Miller says, “My job is to try to keep things contained, in a commercial sense. But the day you stamp on innovation is the day you start ringing the death-bell. Yes, there’s a hierarchy, but we rarely have to use hierarchical tactics in Meantime because the culture’s right with the people within it. Blending good financial systems and standards, backed by great creativity and not being frightened to fail, is absolutely crucial if you want to be a pioneering company. We will screw things up, but hopefully we get eight or nine decisions out of ten right. You have to accept that sometimes a test brew isn’t that good. Fair play. I run this company, but the one thing I will never attempt to run is the quality of the beer. I’ve got someone [Alastair Hook] who’s a million times better at judging the quality of the beer than me. Therefore you trust him to do that. I’m a marketeer. I can do the strategic framework and what I want to see delivered, but I let Alastair loose to do the work.”
The company’s board consists of two executive directors, Miller and Hook, and three non-execs, including the chairman, the South African former brewery industry exec Gary Whitlie, who was recommended to the post by Miller – “he was my first boss at Miller Brands, so if you’ve had a half-decent boss, you might as well pick him again,” Miller jokes, since Whitlie has just joined us in the Greenwich Union garden. “Best boss he ever had,” Whitlie retorts.
Miller’s contacts mean he knows where to go to get advice: hence the arrival at Meantime in July of Martin Harlow as a consultant. “We are in an absolute growth spurt, and we need to become a bit more processed and efficient in how we run our supply chain,” Miller says. “Martin was our supply chain director at Miller Brands, I needed someone, so why not go to someone you’ve worked with for five years.”
His experience outside the UK while working for Miller Brands also means he can suggest ideas that others might not think of. Brewery Fresh, which delivers unpasteurised, unfiltered London Lager from special five-hectolitre tanks in the pub cellar, was Miller’s initiative, inspired by the similar “tankova” system he had seen in Prague while working for SAB. “The outlet will pay for the installation, and we’ll pay for the tanks,” Miller says. “We then sign an agreement that they must hold those tanks for a certain period of time. The cost differential between tank and keg is reflected in the price, though there’s not a lot of difference. But the beer’s been kept at a constant temperature, with no air and no light – it’s probably the purest, freshest beer you’ll ever drink in a bar. It’s had less chance to be affected because it stays at a constant 2C from the brewery to the tank. It sells about twice as much as you would do through a keg – at a price premium. So the retailer enjoys better cash margins. We’re here to provide styles, variety, choice for the drinker, but at the same time you mustn’t forget the middle man, the guy that’s actually putting it in front of the drinker. They’re investing heavily in providing an experience for the drinker, we have to supply something that’s relevant for them.”
Meantime brewed 43 different beers last year, and had brewed 14 new beers by the end of July this year, and 19 in all. The biggest is the pale ale, followed by London Lager, pilsner and Yakima Red, a “one-off” two years ago that proved so popular it became one of the brewery’s standard lines. “We’re always doing lots of NPD down at the Old Brewery [the microbrewery/bar/restaurant at the Old Naval College in Greenwich],” Miller says. “We’ll play with lots of different things. But we are firmly keg. There’s too many others playing in the cask arena. Let them get on with it. We’ll do things with modern keg beer, which is unpasteurised, unfiltered on some occasions, such as Brewery Fresh. We celebrate all styles and genres – but we are a commercial enterprise, you brew what the drinker wants to drink.”
1983 Teenager Alastair Hook, a great fan of the cask ales he drank around his home in South London, visits the Hopland Brewery in Mendocino, California, only the second brewpub to be set up in the United States, and is hugely impressed with the flavours he finds in the brewery’s chilled, kegged beers.
1985 Hook, who back-packed across Europe and Asia with Michael Jackson’s Pocket Guide to Beer at the age of 17, realises he has a growing passion for beer and quits his Economic and Social History degree at York University (where he was doing a research project on Guinness) to take up a brewing degree at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh.
1988 Hook graduates from Heriot-Watt, learns German and enrols at the University of Munich’s Weihenstephan campus, the most famous brewing school in Germany, for postgraduate study. His first job upon graduating is for a German brewery, Kaltenberg, in Italy.
1991 Hook is asked to set up a German-style brewhouse at the Packhorse Brewery in Ashford, Kent, brewing Continental-style beers including Dunkle (dark) lager, Vienna and Pilsen-style lagers and Dortmunder Alt. The brewery closes in 1994, and Hook turns to importing beers to sell in the UK to make a living, using his contacts in Germany.
1995 Hook helps set up the Freedom Brewing Co in Fulham with property developer Ewan Eastham, making a non-pasteurised, bottled Pilsen-style beer.
1996 Hook is poached by the restaurateur-cum-entrepreneur Oliver Peyton to open Mash and Air, a brewery-and-restaurant in Manchester.
1998 Hook and Peyton open a branch of Mash and Air off Regent Street in Central London called simply Mash.
1999 Hook raises more than £500,000 from family and friends to launch the Meantime Brewing Company on Penhall Road, Charlton, South London, close to Charlton Athletic football club, where Hook is a season ticket holder.
2000 In April, Meantime brews its first beer, Union Lager.
2001 Meantime opens its first pub, the Greenwich Union.
2007 Output at Meantime hits 13,000 hectolitres a year. A further £500,000 has been raised from shareholders to install a modern packaging line.
2008 Hook is named the Brewer of the Year by the British Guild of Beer Writers.
2010 Meantime opens its new brewery in Blackwall Lane, Greenwich at a cost of £2m. At the same time it opens a six-barrel microbrewery and restaurant at the Old Brewery in the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, costing £200,000.
2011 Meantime announces it wants to increase production fourfold from 25,000 hectolitres a year to 100,000hl in the coming five years. Nick Miller, former managing director at SAB Miller UK’s operating company, Miller Brands, becomes the brewery’s new chief executive.
2013 Meantime launches Brewery Fresh, the UK’s first tank beer, delivering its London Lager unpasteurised and without extraneous carbonation from specially installed five-hectolitre (880-pint) cellar tanks.
2014 Meantime builds an “urban hop farm” on the banks of the River Thames directly on the Greenwich Meridian Line. Meanwhile the brewery closes in on 70,000 hectolitres a year.