Beer can take you to some strange and unexpected places. On Sunday I was in the sweaty backstreets of Baishizou, a faintly dodgy suburb in Shenzhen, southern China, visiting a cramped and not necessarily fully legal microbrewery on the ground floor of a somewhat scrubby apartment building. My mission: to help the brewery’s owner, a former US military man called Joe Finkenbinder, and another American brewer, Dave Byrn of the Pasteur Street brewery in Saigon, make the first ever Sino-Vietnamese collaboration beer, a black gose called Disputed Waters.
The trip to Shenzhen, a city that has exploded from almost nothing to 11 million people in only 30 years, happened because I had been invited out to its southern neighbour, Hong Kong, to be an “honorable judge” (that’s what it said on my name tag) in the first ever beer competition solely for commercial Hong Kong brewers. When I was working in Hong Kong in 2011 I helped get the city’s first beer festival some publicity, and the festival organiser, Jonathan So, became a mate. At that time there were just two microbreweries in the city, and one of those closed soon after, so that when I left Hong Kong in 2013 there was only one left.
Since then brewery numbers in the former British possession have taken off like the rockets the Chinese have been making for 800 years: ten by the end of 2015, and then doubling to 20 today. So when Jonathan emailed to ask if I would like to be a judge in the first Hong Kong beer championship, as part of the city’s fifth beer festival, I was straight onto Expedia looking up flight times, delighted to have the opportunity to finally try beer made by all the bastards who had cruelly waited until I left the city and gone back to London – where the new small brewery scene had also boomed in my absence – to start brewing commercially.
Then Joe Finkenbinder, who was also one of the judges, emailed to ask if I would like to cross the border into China, visit his brewing set-up, which is barely two years old itself, and take part in a collaboration brew with Dave Byrn. When you’ve already travelled 6,000 miles, a few extra don’t matter: and anyway, how many lifetimes have I got left to take the rare chance to visit a Chinese microbrewery? Continue reading How I helped brew a black gose in the backstreets of Shenzhen→
You would need to be living under an upturned barrel for the past year not to have spotted the phenomenal rise in reputation of Cloudwater Brew Co, the Manchester-based craft brewery started by James Campbell, formerly head brewer at the city’s Marble Brewery, and the hipster entrepreneur Paul Jones. Cloudwater is not even 18 months old, but already spoken of alongside Thornbridge, Kernel, Magic Rock and other top stars of the British craft brewing scene. It was voted best new English brewery of 2015 by Ratebeer, and its beers, especially its collaborations, score extremely highly on rating sites.
Nobody gets that level of buzz without something extremely interesting going on, so I was eager to get down to the Real Ale shop in East Twickenham and hear Paul Jones talk about the rise of Cloudwater at one of the shop’s regular “Meet the brewer” sessions. Good beer alone is not enough to be a storming success in such a short time. Paul confirmed this with a presentation lasting an hour and a half which made it clear that Cloudwater’s rise is powered by a clear and focused vision on the beers it wants to brew and a ferocious dedication to critical self-analysis that means pulling every beer apart and analysing how closely it came to fulfilling the brief set out for it in terms of delivering to specification, and then working out what would need to be done next time to get closer to the brief. It’s a management philosophy I suspect springs from Paul Jones’s background in the engineering side of the music business, and it certainly looks as if Cloudwater has brought a level of conscious business and management sophistication to the British craft brewing scene that makes most new brewery start-ups look like shambling amateurs. Possibly because most new brewery start-ups are shambling amateurs, one might conclude. And again, I may be wrong, but I detect the influence of a music industry background in Cloudwater’s clear commitment to never stepping into the same stream twice: the idea that 2015’s beers are done and away, and all that matters now are 2016’s beers, just like last year’s musical hits are so last year.
The result is a regularly altering line-up of kudos-winning beers that have gained Cloudwater masses of publicity and a hugely dedicated following. Their popularity also makes the beers frequently hard to obtain: I had not been able to find any Cloudwater products before the Twickenham “meet the brewer” session. That makes my take on the beers unfair, since you really can’t properly judge a brewer on just one evening. It’s clear why they are so popular: almost all were sharply focused, clear, clean and faultless. Faultless to a fault, almost: “beautiful” is not the same as “characterful”. But I need to drink more Cloudwater brews over more evenings to decide if this is a valid criticism.
I was going to copy-edit Paul Jones’s Q&A presentation at Twickenham down to merely “long read” rather than “massive over-the-top read”, but I decided people would find something insightful in all he said – he’s a very articulate, enormously enthusiastic man – so here it is, complete: more than 9,000 words. Settle down with a beer: Continue reading The secrets to Cloudwater’s success→
So, what was it like, the ancient lager Carlsberg spent two years and hundreds of thousands of kroner recreating, resurrecting yeast out of a bottle dating back to 1883, pulling out 130-year-old brewing records, growing an ancient barley variety, hiring a floor maltings, working out the most likely hop varieties to use, reproducing the original brewing water, having oak casks made in a Lithuanian cooperage, making moulds of vintage bottles so that new versions could be hand-blown, and then flying in dozens of journalists and beer writers to Copenhagen from as far away as Malaysia and California to drink the result. Continue reading Carlsberg celebrates the ordinary→
I gave a talk at the Victorian Society’s “Beer and Brewing Study Day” yesterday in the Art Workers’ Guild building in Bloomsbury on “The Decline and Fall of Heavy Wet”, “heavy wet” being a 19th century slang expression for porter. I described how in 1843 the Scottish journalist William Weir called porter “the most universally favoured liquor the world has ever known,” and declared that “porter drinking needs but a beginning: wherever the habit has once been acquired, it is sure to be kept up.” But even then, the dark, hoppy, bitter beer that had been a favourite of everybody from dockers to dukes for more than a hundred years was in decline, losing sales to mild ale, a sweeter pale drink. Within 40 years mild ale had completely eclipsed porter as the favourite style of most beer drinkers, and mild was to remain number one until the 1960s – when it too, was turfed off the throne. The beer that replaced it, however, bitter, had barely three decades at number one before falling to the growing popularity of lager, which became the biggest seller in the 1990s. And I finished with this question for the audience: is there any reason why Big Lager should not, one day, follow Big Porter – and Big Mild – into oblivion?
Big Porter really was big. Those who brewed it became astonishingly wealthy. Samuel Johnson was talking about the opportunities available to the purchaser of a London porter brewery when he spoke about becoming “rich beyond the dreams of avarice”. Samuel Whitbread, who ran one of the capital’s biggest porter breweries, in Chiswell Street, was “said to have been worth a million at least” when he died in 1796, according to the Gentleman’s Magazine, a fortune equivalent to perhaps £1.5 billion today. The porter brewers’ wealth brought them considerable influence: all seven of the biggest London breweries had multiple members of parliament among their partners.
In 1823, porter output in London hit 1.8 million barrels, after a continual rise that had lasted 50 years. But this was its peak: by 1830 porter production would be down 20 per cent on its 1823 level. What was replacing it was mild ale, made for quick consumption, slightly stronger than porter, pale in colour, unaged and therefore sweeter, less acid than porter. A House of Commons select committee on the sale of beer in 1833 was told that the London drinker “will have nothing but what is mild, and that has caused a considerable revolution in the trade, so much so that Barclay and Perkins, and other great houses, finding that there is a decrease in the consumption of porter, and an increase in the consumption of ale, have gone into the ale trade; nearly all the new trade is composed of mild ale.”
In the early 19th century, ale brewers and beer (that is to say, porter and stout) brewers were still different concerns in London, with the ale brewers much smaller than their rivals. But as the demand for ale grew, so the ale brewers grew too, boosting companies such as Charrington in the Mile End Road and Courage at Horsleydown on the south bank of the Thames, almost opposite the Tower. Charrington’s trade increased almost 2 1/2 times between 1831 and 1851, for example. In 1814 it was producing just 16,510 barrels a year, all ale, when Barclay Perkins, then London’s leading brewer, was making 257,300 barrels of porter: by 1889 Charrington’s output had risen to more than 500,000 barrels a year, level with Barclay Perkins.
The porter brewers responded by moving into the ale market, particularly after the Beerhouse Act of 1830 dramatically increased the number of available licensed outlets. Whitbread, then the third or fourth biggest brewer in London, whose production was entirely porter up to 1834, started brewing mild ale in 1835. Ale quickly rose from nowhere to more than 10 per cent of Whitbread’s production by 1839, and more than 20 per cent by 1859, when Whitbread’s porter sales had dropped by almost 30 per cent compared to 25 years earlier. At Truman’s, then fighting with Barclay Perkins to be London’s biggest brewer, the swing from porter was stronger still, with ale making up 30 per cent of production by 1859.
You can hardly get fresher beer than from a bottle snatched off the production line by the managing director of the brewery, only seconds after it had been filled and capped – and, indeed, it’s excellent, cold, refreshingly flavourful and welcome, even at 10.30 in the morning. Mind, there are few or no Anglo-Saxon breweries where this would be possible, since health’n’safety barriers would be in place to prevent anyone from being able to reach across into the filling machinery and grab a passing bottle from the conveyor. However, this is Italy: while in a British brewery everybody would be forced into hi-vis jackets, ear protectors and goggles, here, where life is visibly more relaxed, visitors can wander about unworried by the HSE.
I am at Menabrea (pronounced roughly “MENahBRAYah”), one of the few surviving family-run Italian breweries, with roots that go back to before Italy was a single country. Menabrea is based in the town of Biella in Piedmont, 1,400 feet up in the foothills of the Alps, 40 miles from Turin to the south-west and 50 miles from Milan to the east. It is a town of 46,000 people, with soft water coming down from the Alps that, with plenty of nearby pastureland for sheep, has encouraged a local woollen industry: the town is home to Cerruti and Fila, among others. That same soft water is also very good for brewing lagers.
The brewery was started in 1846 by a couple of cafe owners, Antonio and Gian Battista Caraccio, and Antoine Welf, from Gressoney in the Aosta valley, to the north-west of Biella. Welf was a Walser, that is, a speaker of the Walliser dialect of German found in the Swiss canton of Valais and surrounding territories such as Aosta. Welf disappears, and in 1854 the Caraccio brothers started leasing the brewery in Biella to another Walser, Anton Zimmermann, also from Gressoney, and his compatriot Jean Joseph Menabreaz (sic), who were already running a brewery in the town of Aosta itself. Piedmont – and Aosta – were at that time part of the Kingdom of Sardinia, ruled by the House of Savoy, but in 1861, with some help from the French and Giuseppe Garibaldi, Victor Emmanuel, King of Sardinia, was able to declare himself King of a more-or-less united Italy. Three years later, in 1864, Zimmermann and Menabreaz – now, post-unification, with Italianised first names, Antonio and Giuseppe, and, in the latter’s case, a more Italian-looking surname as well, with the final “z” disappearing – bought the brewery in Biella from the Caraccios.
Meantime Brewing’s surprise sale to SAB Miller, the second largest brewing company in the world, was prompted by a growing realisation at the Greenwich-based craft brewer that it did not have the resources and capability itself to move on up to the next stage of its growth journey, the company’s chief executive has revealed.
Nick Miller, who joined Meantime as CEO in 2011, said that he and Alastair Hook, the company’s founder, and the rest of the board were already looking at a tie-up with a big brewer as one of the strategic options that could be followed to enable the company to grow further. “We were on the cusp of making a decision that partnership was a better route than going to refinance,” he said. “I think we may have gone to a process later this year, could have gone for a float, could have gone for private equity money, could have gone to AIM, though that’s a hugely costly and time-consuming exercise, could have gone for a joint venture with a PE house, could have sold out to a major brewer, could have gone crowd-funding, could have borrowed money from the bank. But it’s a bit more than just a financial requireement. It’s ‘have you got the brewing capability, the engineering capability, the route-to-market capability, the global reach capability?’
“The financial side wasn’t that much of an issue to us, because we’ve got a very good relationship with our bank. They’ve been trying to chuck money at us for a while now. It was more about, ‘how do you sustain the growth, relative to the capabilities within the organisation?’ That was the key strategic challenge for us, and the partnership with SAB really helps with that.”
A chance meeting in March this year began the process that led to the sale, Miller revealed: “A very old friend of mine, who I had worked with, was having his 50th birthday party, and he rang me up and said, ‘I’d like to buy some pale ale to complement Peroni at my party.’ So he came over, and we sat down and had a beer and a bite to eat, and he said, ‘What are you doing with the business?’ I said, ‘Well, we’re coming to a stage where we need to look at capability and resources. We’ve got a number of options, we could do it ourselves, but we might be better off with a partnership with a brewer that gives us the capabilities that we need.’ Four or five days later his boss at SAB Miller came to me and said, ‘Look, here’s an opportunity for you, would you consider it?'”
Hard luck, haters: Greene King knows you don’t like its IPA, you think it’s too bland, “not a real IPA” at 3.6% abv, and it doesn’t care at all. Not the tiniest drop. In fact it’s probably quite pleased you don’t like it. You’re not its target market – it’s after a vastly larger constituency. If you liked its IPA, it’s fairly sure those people that Greene King would most like to capture to and in the cask ale market, young people, people still with a lifetime of drinking ahead of them, wouldn’t like it – and for that reason, the Bury St Edmunds crew have no intention of changing their IPA just to make you happy. In fact they’re not changing it at all – except to shake up its look, and put £2m in media spend behind it.
Of course, it’s not just Greene King IPA that has hosepipes of vitriol directed at it by the Camra hardcore. Any widely available cask ale gets the same – Fuller’s London Pride and Sharp’s DoomBar are equally hated, without the haters apparently being able to work out that the reason why these beers are widely available is because lots of people actually like drinking them, even if the haters don’t.
Indeed, it’s the popularity that is prompting the Bury St Edmunds crew into its current push. To its obvious delight, and, I suspect, slight surprise, Greene King has discovered that the flood of new young drinkers coming into the cask ale market find Greene King IPA just the sort of beer they want: there’s more to it that can be found in a pint of lager, but it’s still reasonably safe and unthreatening.
At a launch on Monday night in a bar near Oxford Circus in London to announce a new look for Greene King IPA, and other initiatives including a new website to educate licensees and bar staff on cellar management and how to serve the perfect pint, Dom South marketing director for brewing and brands at Greene King, quoted figures from a survey done last year for the Campaign for Real Ale showing that 15% of all cask drinkers tried cask ale for the first time in the past three years, and 65% of those new drinkers are aged 16 to 24. “We’re seeing a complete revolutionary shift in the drinker base coming into cask ale, which is exciting, because it means that this category, for the future, is in rude health,” South said. And where does Greene King IPA fit in here? “When you look at what those young drinkers want, from a cask ale brand, or just a beer, the three things a new young entrant wants are, first, something that feels right to them, a reflection of themselves, that makes them feel good about drinking the beer,” South said. “They want something a little bit modern, a little bit contemporary. The second thing is, they expect the beer to taste good – but let’s face it, too many pints in the UK are served sub-standard.
Oh, irony. It’s only a very short time since I mocked Nick Fell, marketing director at SABMiller, for sharing with us, in a presentation about getting more women to drink beer, the “duh, really?” statement that “no one wants a pink beer, including ladies.” But now I have discovered a beer I’m sure very many women will like – and it’s pink.
Not that they’ll like it because of its colour, of course: they’ll like it because it’s a very fine beer, with great depth and complexity of flavour, a beautiful deep bassoon-like bitterness (in contrast to the violins-and-saxophones bitterness of hoppier beers) giving structure to a sweetness that is laced through with liquorish and dark green herbal flavours. How do I know women will like it? Because when I sampled a bottle myself, right after thinking: “This is an extraordinarily good beer”, my next thought was: “I bet Mrs Z would enjoy it” – and not only did she enjoy it greatly, she relieved me of the rest of the bottle, consuming it all herself. Mrs Z is rarely a beer-drinker, touching only the very occasional pils and the even more occasional wheat brew. So if she loves a beer that I think is great too, you can bet we have a genuine cross-party vote-winner.
What is this beer? It’s Crazy Viking, one of the brews I brought back from my trip to Denmark last month to talk at the conference on Ny Nordisk Øl, or “New Nordic Beer”, it’s made by Det Lille Bryggeri or Little Brewery, from the small village of Bringstrup, just outside Ringsted, in the middle of the Danish island of Zealand (the one Copenhagen sits on), and it’s a deep ruddy pink because it contains considerable quantities of beetroot (red beet, to Americans) and beetroot extract, added both into the wort before boiling and in the fermentation tank. It also has in it masses of liquorice and nettles, those two giving most of the bitterness, I’m guessing, and only an “extremely limited” amount of hops. Beetroot is about seven per cent sugar, of course, and doubtless that helps to lift the abv of the beer up to 7.9%.
Det Lille Bryggeret’s brewer, René Hansen, has made beers with beetroot as his contribution to the New Nordic food and beer culture movement: the first, with just beetroot and nettles, was called Red Viking, and the one I drank (until Mrs Z stole it from me) has liquorice as well and is called Crazy Viking. It’s the second New Nordic Beer movement-inspired brew to completely blow me away, after the Hø Øl (hay ale) from the Herslev Bryghus I mentioned here (more irony: the Herlsev guys are now having to fight their local bureaucrats, who are trying to ban them from putting hay in their beer on the grounds that it’s not a listed food ingredient under EU regulations. I’ve sent them a copy of a page from Thomas Tryon’s book published in England in the 1690s that mentions hay ale, to show it’s an old tradition – hope it helps, it’s a marvellous beer.)
I’m not sure the Crazy Viking beer name would recommend itself to women drinkers, and nor, probably, would the beer’s bottle label, with its image of an utterly sloshed Viking, one helmet horn drooping. But the liquid itself is an example of what a number of people have suggested since Nick Fell raised the spectre of the missing female beer drinker again back in October: that if there is going to be a style of beer that will appeal to a broader spectrum of women than drink beer now, it certainly won’t be one made by a giant corporation setting out deliberately to capture that market, and it’s much more likely to be the result of an accidental spin-off from a craft brewer or group of craft brewers, like the Ny Nordisk Øl crowd, making a beer that everybody agrees is great, regardless of gender.
Which gives me an excuse to rerun on this blog the dreadful history of the efforts brewers in the UK have made – unsuccessfully – to target women drinkers for three decades, sometimes with, yes, pink beer. For the history of beer marketing is littered with the smoking wrecks of attempts to get females to drink more beer, dating back to the 1980s.
One fascinating statistic popped up when I was talking to Stephen Goodyear, chief executive of Young’s, this week for the day job: Young’s pubs sold a million pints of craft beer in the six months to September 29 this year.
That’s “craft beer” defined as “kegged beers made by small brewers”, in Young’s case, pretty much Meantime and Camden Brewery. To save you working it out, across Young’s 240 or so pubs, that’s equal to not quite two 50-litre kegs a week per pub of beers such as Camden Hells Lager and Meantime London Pale Ale. Since quite a few Young’s pubs don’t sell draught craft, that probably means those that do are indeed getting through two kegs a week or more. It’s also the equivalent of 7,000 barrels a year – there are plenty of small breweries in the UK that don’t even brew that much on their own.
Is that making any difference to Young’s cask ale sales? Well, according to Goodyear, cask-conditioned beer is still around 25 per cent of the total beer sold in Young’s pubs, which is considerably higher than the national average of 16 per cent (more than half as much again, in fact). Some of that is cask beer from other people, but beer branded “Young’s” as a proportion of that is about four to one. So 20% of draught volume in Young’s pubs is still Young’s beers: Special, Ordinary, Winter Warmer and the like.
Not, of course, that Young’s brews those beers any more: since it cashed in on the value of the brewery site in the heart of Wandsworth, they’ve been brewed in Bedford, by Charles Wells. But Goodyear was adamant that having a Young’s beer offer, even if the company still doesn’t brew the beer itself, is still “very important: Young’s beer has been in Young’s pubs for the thick end of 200 years and we always want to keep that going. Wells have done a great job brewing the beers, and I think it’s better than it’s ever been, frankly.”
Not, I’m sure, that many of the more Taliban-esque Camra members will agree, but haters gotta hate, and since the demise of Whitbread, Watney’s and the rest, Camra’s tiny minority of haters have turned to hating the big family brewers who were once the heroes, such as Fuller’s and Wells. Fortunately, they make no difference to the success of a company such as Young’s, which runs some of my personal favourite pubs and sells some of my personal favourite beers, and which saw revenues for the 26 weeks to 29 September up 7.8% in total, to £116.6m, and up 6.9% on a like-for-like basis.
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.