What it means now it’s Miller Time at Meantime

Alastair Hook, left, and Nick Miller

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.

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If you get them to taste it, they will be converted

Henrietta gets turned on by Alastair to the complexities of beer, in this case Hospital Porter

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?