Why Meantime sold up to SAB Miller – the inside story

PrintMeantime 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?'”

A board meeting at Meantime took an hour to debate the deal, and Miller and Hook then visited most of the company’s 60-plus shareholders individually. “We’re very close to our shareholders, we know them well, we’ve talked to them, we’ve communicated with them on a regular basis, they know they can pick up the phone and talk to Alastair or myself at any time,” Miller said. “They’re all very happy people They’ve known the company’s journey intimately, and they’re delighted, not just because of what they’re going to get but because of where Meantime is now going. They can see the appetite SAB have for taking it to the next level.” Many shareholders are Hook’s family and friends, and around 40 per cent, Miller estimated, have been shareholders from the start of the company in 1999, while about a quarter of the employees of Meantime Brewing Company are also shareholders.

Looking at further possible takeovers in the UK craft brewing scene, Miller said: “From a modern craft beer perspective, ie keg, cold, unpasteurised, modern styles and genres of beers, there’s not really that many that can be bought, I would suggest, in the UK. Our peer group is essentially Camden, BrewDog, Thornbridge. At Thornbridge, Jim [Harrison] is probably happy doing what he’s doing, I can’t speak for what his next steps or strategy are, but it’s clear what’s happening at Camden and BrewDog, they’re going down the crowd-sourcing route and they’re trying to build their capability incrementally. That’s a thoroughly commendable route, but it’s a tougher one than partnering with a global brewer that will let you get on with it and support you.”

On the possibility of Meantime beers being brewed away from Greenwich, Miller said: “We’ve got plans to take the brewery up to a quarter of a million hectolitres [150,000 barrels] within the next 18 months to two years, and we can go a bit further than that in Greenwich.” The new experimental brewery at Greenwich is due to be commissioned in August, “and then I’m going to have to hold Mr Hook back! Anything that is shiny and goes ‘ping!’, he’ll be on it like a rash!”

There was “a buzz of excitement” among Meantime’s senior managers after the news was announced, Miller said. “We’re all looking forward to the opportunities that partnering SAB Miller brings. This isn’t a deal where we’re putting our feet up, going and lying in the sun. This is, ‘Right, how do we kick on again?’ I know Sue [Clark, managing director, SABMiller Europe, to whom Miller will now report] is extremely excited – she runs all the markets in Europe, and you can see her eyes lighting up. I think this is a great story for British beer. If we can take Meantime around the world under the SAB capability, I think it’s really a great news story for Britain.”

SAB Miller is certainly buying into a success story. Beer volumes at Meantime grew by almost 60% in 2014, to something on the order of 80,000 hectolitres, and the company has grown tenfold since 2010. Turnover was £17m, and that will at least triple if it does hit that quarter-of-a-million-hectolitre target by 2018. (That makes it a very interesting exercise to try to work out what SAB Miller paid, because it won’t have been based on past earnings, but future ones: somewhere around £20 million to £30 million would be my guess, though if anyone wants to tell me I’m totally wrong I’m prepared to delete this comment …) SAB Miller is involved in two big markets in Europe where craft beer is rocketing away, Poland and Italy, and Meantime makes just the kind of stylish, not too far out product that would bee an ideal introduction to people wanting to explore craft beer, but not be frightened by it.

Of course, the haters and sneerers fell upon the news of Meantime’s sale with joy, although typically, they couldn’t get their stories to agree: while many commentators seemed to believe Meantime beers really weren’t up to much, one would declare that “Yakima Red remains one of the most insipid and uninspired beers I’ve ever tried,” while another insisted that “Yakima Red is the only decent one in their line up.” (Both genuine comments, one from Facebook, the other from a commenter on the Guardian‘s story about the takeover.) Come on, haters – do try at least to sneer from the same songsheet.

I also felt sorry for Tom Stainer, head of communications at Camra, who, asked for a comment on the story by the Guardian, felt obliged to parrot the party line and say: “We would urge the brewery to consider returning to brewing real ale in the future.” If he wasn’t a mate of mine, I’d have rung him up and said, “Hey, grandad, you really, really don’t get the craft beer scene, do you?”

I don’t mind admitting I’m a Meantime fanboy, and I’m delighted for everybody there that they’ve now got the strength of a brewing giant behind them to power their expansion. Anybody who knows Alastair Hook will be very aware that he’s not a man to compromise (which is why he won’t do cask ale), and I don’t doubt at all that as long as he still has anything to do with the brewery, its beers will continue to be among the best and most reliable available.

Meantime timeline

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 Peynton to open Mash and Air, a brewery-and-restaurant in Manchester.

1998 Hook and Peynton 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.

2015 Meantime is acquired by SAB Miller for an undisclosed sum, to spearhead the brewing giant’s assault on the European craft beer market.

Why Greene King doesn’t care that the haters hate its IPA

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.

Greene King IPA new look

The new look

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.

“The third thing is that younger people coming into the market want something that is a bit tastier than the lager market that they’ve left, but they want it to be pretty easy-drinking, the majority of them. They want something that tastes good, not something that needs chewing. That’s where the role of Greene King IPA comes in. There is a real role for a brand to play in the market, one that represents the safe choice when you enter into a product category that’s new to you, one that won’t let you down, that represents taste that is relatively easy drinking versus some of the 20,000-odd beers that you can have in the UK. With Greene King IPA, our simple strategy is to bring many more young people into our brand and the market, and also to stand for a signpost to quality, trust and assurance for people who might be about to come into the market.

Pint of IPA“When we tested ourselves against those key things that young drinkers want, ‘Does it look and feel right for me, make me want to drink it?’, ‘Is it good quality, not going to let me down?’, and three, ‘Is it easy to drink, and something you’d want to have as your first drink?’, we were really excited by the results. We found the number one reason for people drinking Greene King IPA, time after time, is the fact that it’s easy drinking. I know a few people give it a hard time because it’s easy to drink – that’s its strength, that’s its role in the market. It’s the first drink I would recommend to someone if it’s their first time drinking cask ale, because it won’t let them down and it’s not too challenging. We did a load of blind taste tests and Greene King IPA, when it’s served right, is absolutely up there with the world’s largest cask ale brand* in taste tests, and beat significantly most of the leading brands in the cask ale market. So this product doesn’t need changing, it isn’t going to change and we haven’t changed it. It’s absolutely right.”

There we are, then, haters. Greene King has the figures to show that four out of five cask ale drinkers love the fact that Greene King IPA is an easy-drinking pint – which is, after all, the core definition of a session beer, and session beers are, or should be, the pride and pinnacle of British brewing, the beer that makes going to the pub with your mates worthwhile. If you don’t like it – tough. Go and drink something so hoppy your teeth need re-enamelling afterwards.

IPA handpumpNot that everything in the IPA garden is perfectly lovely. There were two problems, the first relatively easy to try to solve, the second far more crucial, and difficult. On the first, South said: “We recognised, and consumers told us, we did need to move forward with the look and feel of the brand. We looked a little bit corporate, and perhaps a little bit traditional to the younger consumer. So we set off on the journey of bringing ourselves really up to date, a modern, contemporary look and feel that won’t alienate people who already enjoy a pint of Greene King IPA but that will genuinely bring younger people into the category and into the brand. I’m confident that this is going to do the job. It’s not a tweak and it’s not a small pigeon step forward, it’s pretty bold and it’s pretty big as a leap forward in terms of look and feel. Ziggurat Brands, the design agency that did it, have stripped it back to bare basics, taking inspiration from things they found in the brewery, so the copper colour is inspired by the copper kettles in the Greene King brewery, the teal colour because we wanted to evolve the green colour of Greene King IPA to something much more modern and contemporary. This is where we needed to make a big change to bring people in. At the same time it shouts heritage, with the crown and the arrows.” Teal – the hipster’s green. I’m never sure about that crown-and-arrows logo Greene King is adopting, though: it commemorates poor King Edmund of East Anglia killed by Viking archers in 869, after whom, of course, Bury St Edmunds is named.

More importantly, South said, “What we do need to focus on is making sure every pint is served perfectly. We are going to carry on with consumer support, advertising, all of those good things. But we feel it’s really important that we shift a lot of our emphasis, and put more money into the brand, with the trade. We’re going to invest heavily in supporting the trade to get quality right, and quality is the number one thing for us to focus on.” There two big initiatives here, the first a quality accreditation drive, with unannounced pub visits made by either Quality & Dispense Services, a senior Greene King representative or a third party quality agency. A pub will be required to pass ten quality tests, which include the taste, aroma and temperature of their Greene King IPA through to whether it is served in the right glass and the ability of bar staff to talk about the beer and describe it accurately. Pubs that are judged to pour a perfect pint of Greene King IPA will be awarded with a plaque and certificate, and crowners for their IPA pumpclips, “all signposts to the consumer to say, ‘This is going to be a safe bet,'” South said. Pubs that do not pass first time will be educated on the importance and benefits of looking after their cask beer range before another visit is made.

beergeniusgreen copy copyYou cannot improve quality in a vacuum, however: and to that end, Greene King has launched a website giving free training, troubleshooting and best practice videos, available at www.beer-genius.co.uk.. “Beer Genius is Greene King’s open access training portal to the industry,” South said. “We recognise that staff turnover is a problem – it’s different for everyone, but let’s make an assumption, 100% every year. How on earth can licensees be expected to make sure every new bar staff member knows even how to serve a pint, let alone clean down the bar and do all the basics? So what this portal is going to do is teach cellar managers, bar managers, operations directors, BDMs, local area managers, but also bar staff, three things: how to manage a cellar, how to make the most money and yield they can out of cask ale, by getting the quality right and the yield up, and why commercially it makes sense, and third, how to serve the perfect pint.

“Why does it matter? It’s not just about giving the consumer the perfect pint – although that’s absolutely key. The benefit of giving the consumer the perfect pint is that yields in pubs will massively skyrocket, because quality and yields go hand-in-hand. A key part of what we’ve got to do is educate bar staff, as well as bar managers that when you get it right, but that tiny bit of extra effort in, your till will start ringing up more money. The numbers astounded me. About 70% of pubs, we estimate, have a yield of 91% or lower on their cask ales. It should be 97, 98, even 99%. When they close that gap, the benefit to that pub in terms of profit is enormous – it’s up to £5,000 through the till, per annum. That’s their benefit: the benefit to the consumer is no more dodgy pints. And therefore you stay in the pub, you tell your friends about that pub, the net promoter score of that pub improves, people come back. So what could be a huge loss to that pub through a dodgy pint becomes a huge gain. So it’s absolutely key that we help licensees with this.”

There we are: get the quality right, your yields from every cask will be up, and so will be your profits. The licensee is happy, the consumer is happy, the brewer is happy. Mind, I doubt the haters would be happy even if Greene King had the head brewer personally deliver every pint to their table in solid gold goblets with a £50 note for use as a beermat. Personally, I’m delighted if young drinkers find Greene King IPA a good gateway into cask ale: as they grow older, and more experienced, it’s likely that some – though not all – will start to experiment, to explore, and discover the kind of beers the haters enjoy, beers which indeed have a great deal to offer those who are ready for them. The quality initiative is excellent – other brewers, please, please copy. And the Beer Genius website, from what I’ve been able to explore so far, is a terrific resource for everybody – including drinkers, who can find out what has to go on to get them that elusive perfect pint.

Does anyone make IPAs likem this one any more?

Does anyone make IPAs like this one any more?

Meanwhile, here’s a small rant directed at all those idiots who keep chuntering on about how Greene King IPA is “not an India Pale Ale” and how IPA has to be “strong and strongly hopped”, so it would survive the long journey to the Indian sub continent, over 200 years ago. You don’t have a clue what you are talking about. Let’s rush past the fact that 19th century IPA wasn’t strong at all, for the time, but comparatively weak, at around 6% abv. Do you complain because today’s porters aren’t matured in 30-feet-high oak vats for 18 months, as they were 200 years ago? Or that today’s stouts are as weak as 19th century porters? Do you complain because today’s milds are nothing at all like the mild ales of 200 years ago, 7% abv and made solely from pale malt? Beers change, and beer styles are not carved on stone tablets. A 19th century IPA would have been kept for up to a year in cask, would have lost all its hop aroma and would have developed a distinctly Brettanomyces flavour. Nobody at all is brewing an IPA like that. American IPAs, in particular, lovely beers though they often are, are nothing whatsoever like 19th century IPAs: totally wrong hops, totally wrong emphasis on hop aroma, often too strong, and meant to be drunk much more quickly after being brewed than 19th century IPAs were. After the First World War, and the huge rise in the tax on beer, all beers, of all styles, were brewed to lower strengths than they had been in the 19th century. What Greene King IPA is, is a perfect example of a mid-20th century IPA, just like those once brewed by Charrington, Palmers, Eldridge Pope, Wadworths, Wethered’s, Youngers and others in the 1960s and 1970s, all 1035 to 1043 OG. Go and get your Camra Good Beer Guide 2015 edition and look up Phipps IPA (page 844, column 2): OG 1042, abv 4.2%, “recreated from old recipes”: recreated from genuine 20th century recipes, as a genuine 20th century IPA. Just like Greene King IPA.

*Meaning DoomBar, presumably

I have found a beer women will like – and, ironically, it’s pink

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.

It's pink, but this ain't no Barbie brew

It’s pink, but this ain’t no Barbie brew

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.)

Crazy Viking logoI’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.

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Young’s pubs sell a million pints of craft beer in six months

Craft beer taps at the Narrow Boat in Islington, a Young's pub

Craft beer taps at the Narrow Boat in Islington, a Young’s pub

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.

Don’t tell London’s second-oldest brewery it’s London’s second-oldest brewery

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.

Meantime copper boilingOf 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.

Inside Meantime's new brewery in Greenwich

Inside Meantime’s new brewery in Greenwich

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.

Whisky casks at Meantime brewery

Wait for it … whisky casks from the St George’s distillery in Norfolk, filled with Meantime beer and slumbering beneath the brewery’s vessels in Greenwich

“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.

Meantime hop garden Greenwich

Meantime’s hop garden, in sight of the O2 arena on the Greenwich Peninsula

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.”

Meantime timeline

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.

Designed in Japan, brewed in Belgium, drunk in Hong Kong

Kagua Rouge bottleFor a young Japanese entrepreneur, Shiro Yamada has a perhaps unlikely-sounding hero: Baron Bilimoria of Chelsea, lawyer, accountant, son of an Indian army general, and the first Parsi to sit in the British House of Lords. Bilimoria’s establishment credentials were enough to get him in the Royal Box at the Queen’s diamond jubilee celebrations last year. “He’s like Steve Jobs to me,” Yamada says.

Bilimoria earned Yamada’s admiration for being the man who founded Cobra Beer in 1989, to be the curry eater’s beer: designed specifically to complement food, with lower carbonation and a smoother taste. Yamada, who had worked as a venture capitalist, and been involved in dot-com start-ups in Japan, was studying for an MBA at the Judge Business School, part of Cambridge University, around 2005 when Bilimoria, himself a Cambridge graduate, came to deliver a presentation to students at Judge on the Cobra operation.

Yamada had already become interested in beer after going drinking with fellow students around Cambridge, and taken trips to Belgium and Munich to widen his beery knowledge. Listening to Bilimoria talk about his desire to brew a beer that would match up with Indian food, Yamada had a revelation. What about a beer specifically brewed to match up with Japanese food?

Kagua Blanc bottleThe Japanese have been brewing beer since the mid-1870s, after Seibei Nakagowa came back to the town of Sapporo having spent two years learning how to make lager at the Tivoli brewery in Kreuzberg, Berlin. Today, despite a reputation in the West for mass-produced blandobeers, Japan is the home of a thriving microbrewing scene with some excellent products – Yo-Ho Brewing’s SunSun lager was one of my personal beers of the year for 2012.

However, no one seems to have thought to do anything for Japanese food what Bilimoria did for curry: design a special beer to fit in with and enhance the different dishes. That, Yamada, decided, would be his task. “I drank a lot of beer from all over Europe when I was in the UK,” Yamada says, “beer from Britain, from Belgium, from Germany, and what hit me was that beer had a history in each of those countries, but if you look at Japan, it’s not like that. So what I decided I would like to do is to develop an original Japanese beer with a taste to fit in with Japanese culture and food.”

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How Brazil’s favourite beer arrived from Scotland

‘If the man who invented the censorship bar had drunk Skol, it wouldn’t look like this – it would look like this. Skol goes down round’

It is one of the stranger results of global beer marketing that the biggest-selling beer in Brazil, which is also one of the biggest beers in Africa, from Algeria via Guinea to Rwanda, and is sold across large parts of Asia, from India via Malaysia to Hong Kong, began life more than 50 years ago in a small Scottish town on the north side of the Forth estuary.

I doubt too many drinkers of Skol in Rio de Janeiro know that the drink that “goes down round”, according to its advertising, came originally from 6,000 miles away. Today a beer that was one of the pioneers of mass-market lager in Britain is seen in Brazil as so Brazilian that drinking it turns Argentinians into supporters of the Canarinhos.

Skol is also huge across the South Atlantic in the Congo, where it inspires what I suggest may be one of the best music videos in support of a beer ever, by the too-little-known Bill Clinton Kalonji. (Give yourself eight minutes 33 to watch, and if you’re not grinning broadly by two minutes in at the latest, you can have your money back. The Portman group would turn into steam.) In Malaysia (where the beer is brewed by a Carlsberg subsidiary) and the Far East, meanwhile, it has been launched as a “value for money” brew.

In Britain, Skol was the biggest-selling beer in the market 25 years ago. But it had fallen out of the top 10 by 2004 and is now a commodity lager, sold in cans at just 2.8 per cent abv to take advantage of the UK’s new low-alcohol tax band. Skol is currently the fifth best selling beer in the world, thanks to its popularity in places such as Brazil and the Congo. But in the country where it began, Skol is a sad, tired brand.

The other curiosity is that brewery mergers and takeovers mean that Skol-the-brand is owned by Carlsberg in Britain and Asia, A-B InBev in South America, and UniBra, a Belgian company, in Africa. How all did this happen to a beer from Alloa? It’s a long story, and it properly starts in Burton upon Trent more than 110 years ago, where a substantial but struggling pale ale brewer, Samuel Allsopp & Sons, decided in 1898 to get into the lager-brewing business.

Allsopp’s Lager ad, Daily Mirror, 1906. Love that typeface …

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