Back in May I was asked by Johan Holm, editor of the Swedish beer magazine c/o Hops, if I would like to write 2,500 words for the 10th anniversary of the death of the beer writer Michael Jackson, to explain to young Swedish beer drinkers who might never have heard of him who he was and why he was important.
It was one of those commissions that was a pleasure to accept (even ignoring the fee), since it gave me the chance to ask a host of people from all sides of the beer industry a question I had been pondering as that anniversary, August 30, approached – what if Michael Jackson had never lived? Was he actually that important to the development of today’s beer scene? And how relevant is he today, when the beer scene globally has changed massively, particularly since 2011, with a tsunami of thousands of new breweries opening up from Argentina to Archangel, and a host of new and revived beer styles, from Gose to barrel-aged sours, he never knew?
The answer, from all the people I talked to, was firm: yes, Michael was important, and yes, his influence continues. I also got some great stories, particularly from Mitch Steele, formerly of Stone Brewing in California, currently brewmaster at the New Realm Brewing Company in Atlanta, Georgia, about Michael’s dealings with Anheuser-Busch, which I didn’t have room to include in my piece for c/o Hops and which you’ll find below.
So what about his importance? Ray Daniels, founder and director of the Cicerone Certification Program in the United States, which educates and certifies beer sommeliers, and currently has around 85,000 certified beer servers and 2,800 certified beer cicerones in 50 countries, told me: “Michael Jackson is, quite simply, the foundation upon which modern craft beer is built. There’s not a single person who started a brewery or wrote about beer before 2000 who was not directly influenced by his work. And I’d argue that everyone since then has been either directly or indirectly influenced by him as well.”
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?'”
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.
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.
There’s a good video short featuring the Old Brewery at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich just gone up on the Guardian‘s website here which illustrates perfectly the fact that people are best converted to good craft beer by having it shoved in their faces and being ordered: “Drink that!”
When people DO try a craft beer from somewhere outside their zone of experience and, wondrous thing, find it to be good in all manner of ways, and deeply pleasing to the heart and mouth, then do they fall to praising the small brewer, and forswearing crap megafizz for ever. As you will see at about the 6:25 mark in that video, when Alastair Hook, bossman at Meantime, the company behind the Old Brewery, hands Henrietta Lovell of the Rare Tea Company a glass of Hospital Porter, a blend of one-year-old and comparatively fresh beers meant to emulate the kind of beer that would have been made at the original brewery on the Royal Naval College site in the 18th century, when it was the Royal Naval Hospital.
As Henrietta tastes the porter, her eyebrows almost rocket into orbit, while a grin wide enough to bridge the Thames splits her face and she declares: “Wow, that’s really good … It’s like nothing I’ve ever had before … it’s really deep, completely multidimensional … I’m amazed at the complexity. There’s no level of complexity missing in this that you would get in a wine. This has been around since 1717 and yet I didn’t even know it existed. To have a fizzy pint of something industrial instead of this – it’s a tragedy.”
It’s certainly a tragedy that Ms Lovell, presumably someone whose taste for the satisfying is away from the common run, since she is known, Google tells us, as the “rare tea lady”, has never previously been exposed to beer of the standard reached by Meantime, and many other artisinal brewers around the world. And yes, it costs £7 a pint, but at eight per cent abv and with that level of complexity, forget your pocket, you’d be doing neither the beer nor yourself any justice by wallying back pints of it. These are beers to be savoured, sipped and appreciated – and Hospital Porter, I suggest, is perhaps a sixth of the cost of an equivalent quantity of fine wine of the same sort of complexity.
So how does the beer world reach out to the likes of Ms Lovell, seekers after excellent taste experieneces but innocently unaware of the miracles that can be found in hops and malt. How can we convert them to the idea that complexity is not to be found only in a wineglass, and beer does not have to be one-dimensional fizz? What sort of evangelical effort should be made to open their mouths, and thus their eyes? Are there enough tastings being organised, enough roadshows, enough side-by-side beer versus wine challenges, enough occasions where food and wine buffs gather and beer, too, is presented as an equal partner at the table? Judging by the time it’s taken for Ms Lovell to realise how good beer can be, no. Is it so, craft beer brewers and craft beer retailers: are you reaching out to the unconverted enough?