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.
I have a new “magic beer moment” to savour: drinking 13-year-old Carlsberg Special Brew in the cellars of the Jacobsen brewery in Copenhagen.
Actually, that was just one of a number of great moments during my trip to Denmark earlier this month to talk about “beer and terroir from an international perspective” to a bunch of brewers not just from Denmark, but Norway and Sweden as well, as part of a conference in the town of Korsør organised by the New Nordic Beer movement (Ny Nordisk Øl, pronounced roughly “noo nordisk ohl”). The men leading the campaign are two brewers, Anders Kissmeyer, formerly of the award-winning Copenhagen brewery Nørrebro Bryghus, and Per Kølster of Kølster Malt og Øl in the appropriately named village of Humlebæk – “Hops Creek” – north of Copenhagen, and PR man Christian Andersen. The idea of Ny Nordisk Øl is to forge a distinctly Nordic take on brewing, using Nordic traditions and, most especially, Nordic ingredients – not just flavourings, such as heather, sweet gale and wormwood, but yeast and other micro-organisms sourced specifically from a Nordic environment, in just exactly the same way as the New Nordic Cuisine movement has fused tradition and modernity to create a style of cooking that is rooted in a place and yet free to experiment (the success of which effort can be judged by the fact that the Copenhagen restaurant Noma, short for “Nordisk Mad”, or “Nordic Food”, which is one of the leaders of New Nordic Cuisine, has been voted “best restaurant in the world” by its peers in four out of the past five years). In a world where the craft beer movement seems intent on replacing one kind of ubiquity – bland Big Brewer lager – with another – highly hopped fruit-salad pale ales – it’s a trumpet-call to battle on behalf of individualistic, rooted, idiosyncratic beers, made by brewers intent on arriving at something that could only have been made in one place and at one time, that excites me greatly.
Judging by the number of highly enthusiastic Nordic brewers I met in Korsør – I’m guessing, but there must have been 50 or 60 attendees – and the excellent Ny Nordisk Øl-inspired beers I drank there, it’s a movement with a good weight of support behind it, and terrific results to show those wondering if “beer terroir” is just a gimmick. There have been various names given to the sort of products brewers involved in the Ny Nordisk Øl movement are making, but the one I like best comes from the United States – “place-based beers”. Fortunately I was able to tell the Nordic supporters of “place-based beer” that they are far from alone. In the United States, in Australia, in New Zealand, in Italy and France, there are plenty of others pursuing the same goal, of making beers with what one American called “the essence of here” in them. (I’ll be putting up my presentation on this blog, and naming names, later in the week). The bad news is that in what one might call the “Old World”, there is much less interest in the concept of “beer terroir”.
One of the ironies of trying to find “beer terroir” today is that once, of course, all beers were local, and reflected their local environment, local ingredients (local hop varieties, “land-race” strains of barley, local water, local yeasts) and local traditions. Porter, the world’s first “industrial” beer, the popularity of which powered the growth of what became the world’s largest breweries at the time, was developed in London as a local beer for local people, satisfying the desire of the city’s working classes for a refreshing calorie-filled beer, brewed using brown malt made in Ware, Hertfordshire, 20 miles to the north, hops from Kent, just to the east, and London well-water, full of calcium carbonate, which helps make good dark beers; matured using giant vats, a technique invented by and originally unique to London brewers; and served using methods of blending old and new beer specifically reflecting customers tastes, while being drunk with foods it was regarded as a particularly fine accompaniment to: boiled beef and carrots, for example, a very traditional old London dish. Even pilsner, the most widely reproduced beer style in the world began as a beer very much reflecting its Bohemian locality: made with Moravian malted barley, local Saaz hops and its home town’s particularly soft water. Coming from the other direction, brewing traditions that are still deeply rooted in the local landscape – in particular the Belgian brews such as Lambic – now seem to be as reproducable as pilsen became, and almost as global. Every American brewer seems to want to make a Belgian ale laden with Brettanomyces bruxellensis, and they can buy that yeast right off the shelf, rather than having to move to Payottenland. When you see a brewery in Britain making a Gooseberry Gose, a variation on a style of beer from Saxony that was effectively unknown until a few years ago, you know you’re living in a world where “local” appears to mean very little.
Which is what the supporters of Ny Nordisk Øl are fighting against – and although they don’t have many fellow travellers in the rest of Europe, it’s to be hoped that when other brewers start tasting the beers that Ny Nordisk Øl has inspired, it will spur them to produce ales that reflect their own places. Here are my notes on some of the “place-based beers” I tried in Denmark: An unlabelled (IIRC – although I may just have failed to record the name) ale brewed with sea wormwood (less bitter than the wormwood used in absinthe), camomile and sea buckthorn, three popular flavourings with Nordic brewers seeking to make a hopless ale. This had a lovely, deep, tongue-coating, very up-front bitterness, a pale, slightly cloudy appearance, a mouthfilling rotundity, and finally a sweetness under a full, vegetally/weedy flavour. Ny Nordisk Hærvejs Lyng from the Vyborg Bryghus: a hop-free heather beer with a massive nose of honey, and liquid honey in the mouth but with a sharp tart lemony undertone, lightly petillant with no head. It’s alcoholic lemon and honey cough sweets. (The ale is named for the Hærvejen, or “Army Way”, a road that runs down the Jutland peninsula from Viborg to, eventually, Hamburg.) Continue reading Place-based beers and 13-year-old Special Brew→
One of the items of news that may have shot by you recently is that Molson Coors is pumping enough money into the Cornish economy to boost capacity at Sharp’s brewery to a potential 350,000 barrels a year of Doom Bar ale, a 40% expansion. There is no guarantee it will be able to shift that amount of what is already the UK’s biggest-selling cask ale, of course. But if it did, that would mean Doom Bar had become a brand one tenth the size of Carling lager. That might not sound much, but blimey, there’s not been a cask ale brand with that kind of clout in the market for decades.
It would be fascinating to know what all those drinkers of more than a million pints of Doom Bar a week think the beer actually is: do they believe they are drinking “craft beer”? Do they know it actually comes from one of the biggest brewers in the country?
It’s also an interesting question as to whether any other cask ale brand, even with the weight of Molson Coors behind it, could ever have contemplated looking at potential sales that recall the heyday of Draught Bass, even in an era when cask ale drinkers may be entitled to feel more optimistic than they have been able to be for almost two decades. Has Doom Bar’s popularity any connection with it coming from the village of Rock, described by the Daily Telegraph as “the Kensington of Cornwall”, populated during the summer by affluent teenagers staying at their friends’ multi-million-pound holiday homes, and surrounded by expensive Michelin-starred restaurants owned by big-name chefs? Plenty of Rock’s affluent young visitors will be drinking in the Mariners, the pub owned jointly by Sharp’s and the celebrity chef Nathan Outlaw, and Doom Bar is likely to be the tipple for many. Does that at all put a halo on the beer that helps it rise to sales levels effectively unheard of for a single cask beer brand?
Well, probably not, but it is certainly the case that you are indeed much more likely to find the young and affluent drinkers who flock to Rock to meet mates (and mate) drinking cask ale than you would have even ten years ago. As the latest Cask Report revealed, a third of all 18-34 year-olds have tried cask. And it’s not that they have tried it and walked away back to Carling or Peroni vowing “never again” – of all those who have ever tried real ale, 86% still drink it to some extent. Nor is it just young men trying out real ale. A third of all female alcohol drinkers have tried cask – and, again, 75% of women who have tried cask still drink it.
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.