Was Meantime the First UK Craft Brewery?

Alastair Hook's editorial.

In a Tweet Meantime Brewing stated their claim to be (paraphrasing): ‘The only craft brewer in the UK when it was founded in 1999.’

It’s paraphrased because, after prodding from disgruntled beer geeks, the Tweet was removed. The thing is, we don’t think that’s an outrageous claim, even if it is a bit bigheaded, and requires a lot of disclaimers.

But first, the case against: how do you define ‘craft’ in a British context? (Groan.) If it means using aromatic American hops and brewing pale ales and IPAs then Brendan Dobbin (West Coast/Dobbin’s) and Sean Franklin (Franklin’s, Rooster’s) got there first, and that was fairly widespread by the late 1990s.

If it’s about fancy, expensive bottled beer with sexy packaging then look at Newquay Steam. (Thanks for the reminder, Jackie.)

If it means eschewing real ale and real ale culture then Meantime’s Alastair Hook was beaten to that by, er, Alastair Hook, at his own earlier brewing ventures Packhorse (1990), Freedom (1995) and Mash & Air (1997). He was raging against CAMRA and the strictures of cask ale culture, as he saw them, from around the same time.

Freedom Pilsner, a British lager.

If craft in your mind is synonymous with microbrewing then you can look back to the boom of the 1980s, or 1974, or 1972, or 1965.

If it means not being a national or multi-national giant, brewing interesting beer, employing traditional methods, and so on, then take your pick — Young’s, Adnams, almost anyone.

So, yes, we get all that, but it’s a bit like the debate around who invented the hot air balloon, or the radio. Guglielmo Marconi is generally credited with the invention of radio as we know it today but there is a long line of inventors and innovators, all with their champions, who either contributed to the technology or somehow nearly got there much earlier. In fact, Marconi was just the bloke who pulled it all together, perfected the technology and, crucially, managed to make a commercial success of it.

When it comes to craft beer in the UK, then, as per our definition 2 — cultural as much as anything, dismissive of CAMRA, bitter and mild, and looking overseas for inspiration — Alastair Hook is Marconi. He’s the man who made it work.

Meantime was gaining headlines by falling out with CAMRA about access to beer festivals when James Watt of BrewDog was still at school. The range of beers Hook brewed at Meantime at the beginning featured multiple types of lager and wheat beer but not one British-style pale ale or bitter (as far as we’re aware), and it was all brewery-conditioned, served either from bottles or kegs.

And Meantime was a commercial success in a way that Franklin’s, Dobbin’s and Mash & Air weren’t. Where others, however innovative or interesting, remained the preserve of geeks, Meantime went mainstream. It was the brewery that, when we first started paying attention to beer, had its bottles in stylish bars and restaurants, showing that beer could dress up and cut it with the cool kids. Meantime also worked out a way to get people to pay something like £4 a pint when most people were still boggling at half that price.

You might find all of that repellent but, for better or worse, that’s what craft beer means in the UK now, and Hook pulled it all together half a decade before anyone else.

Of course we’re playing devil’s advocate a bit here and, to be honest, we think Thornbridge and BrewDog both have claims that are about as strong. But we really don’t think it’s ridiculous of Meantime’s PR people to make that statement. It is, however, daft of them to think they could get away with it without being challenged.

Needless to say if you want more detail on any of this there are lots of bits and pieces here on the blog and we tried to pull it all together in Brew Britannia, the central argument of which is something like (a) alternative beer culture didn’t begin in 2005 but (b) real ale, world beer and craft beer are distinct waves of the same overarching 50 year event.

The Shake Out, 1983-84

We’re intending to spend a bit more time pondering the health of the UK beer industry in 2016 but, for perspective, here’s a bit of history around the first micro-brewery ‘shake out’ which happened back in the 1980s.

Brian Glover wrote for CAMRA’s What’s Brewing newspaper for many years providing a running commentary on the rise of the microbrewery which would eventually form the basis of his essential 1988 New Beer Guide. In 1982 he produced a multi-page report on the microbrewery boom cheering on the then 100 or so new breweries that had flowered since the mid-1970s. The tone was triumphant with only one closure to report, though a profile of Bourne Valley Brewery run by James Lynch (former CAMRA chair turned brewer) and John Featherby highlighted some challenges:

Back at the brewery, they are drawing in their horns to weather the recession. ‘We have just withdrawn from supplying London (and the West Country) on a regular basis,’ said John Featherby. ‘We are restricting our trading area… to cut our transport costs.’

Featherby also admitted that the brewery hadn’t made any money in its three years of trading and said, ‘In fact, we would not set up a brewery now. We could not afford to.’

Then, throughout 1983, there were rumblings, such as an article that appeared in What’s Brewing in April that year headlined THE GREAT BEER CRASH. It reported on the collapse of a London-based distributor, Roger Berman’s B&W, taking with it the associated micro-brewery, Union. In December, Brian Glover was observing that Devon’s micro-brewery scene was thriving with five then operating in the county.

But it could soon turn sour if they crowd each other out… ‘It’s certainly getting tight in the free trade around here,’ admitted Paul Bigrig [of the Mill Brewery], ‘especially with the appearance of Summerskills and Bates.’ Already Swimbridge Brewery in North Devon has gone under this year.

Then, in February 1984, in another special supplement, Glover called it: SMALL BEER CRASH.

The expected ‘shakeout’ of new small breweries has finally arrived with 12 having closed since July [1983]… All were free trade brewers, most struggling to sell their beer without the protection of their own pubs… The only surprise is that so many survived for so long, given the harsh recession, stiff competition and dearth of genuine freehouses…

The most famous of the failed breweries was Penrhos, founded by Richard Boston and Monty Python star Terry Jones in 1977 and run by Martin Griffiths. (His computer brain didn’t work out.) Griffiths reckoned he and Jones had lost £70,000 (going on for a quarter of a million quid in today’s money) over the course of the brewery’s life.

Another brewer, Geoff Patton of Swimbridge in Devon, cited aggressive discounting by larger breweries. The owners of Swannells in Hertfordshire acknowledged that poor quality control and marketing had contributed to its failure. Tisbury fell when its sister pub chain, on which it relied for the bulk of its sales, went into receivership.

Brian Glover said, in conclusion, ‘The small brewery boom… looks to be over.’ His final prediction?

The future, it would seem, lies in the consolidation of the surviving free trade brewers; an expanding number of [brew pubs] — and increasing involvement in small-scale brewing by the major brewers… A few new independent free trade brewers will appear in the next couple of years. But sadly, they will almost certainly be outweighed by the number that give up the unequal struggle.

As it happened, the paltry c.100 micro-breweries of 1984 have become c.1,500 in 2016, which just goes to show how difficult it can be to predict anything.

It Is Even Worse in England: Mild, Bitter & Lager, 1933

Detail from the cover of The American Mercury.

In 1933 the conservative American journal The American Mercury published an article on the state of British beer and pubs by English journalist H.W. Seaman, who lived and worked in the US and Canada for some years.

We stumbled across it looking for contemporary accounts of ‘improved pubs’ but in its 15 or so pages there’s plenty of other gold to be mined. We’ll let you explore the rest for yourself but wanted to put the bit specifically about the state of our beer under the microscope.

First, Mr Seaman makes clear that he found no evidence of British beer being adulterated:

Hop substitutes are used, I regret to say, but the roots of duodenal ulcers are not there. English ale is probably as clean and as honest as ever it was. But it is unhealthily weak.

Then he says something which counters the romantic view of English session beer:

Ale to be wholesome must be strong. The German- and Bohemian-type beers which America favored in the old days and will now favor again exert their humanizing influences not violently but gradually, and the patient passes through an infinity of pleasurable states before attaining the final, beatific anesthesia. Ale, however, is intended by the Almighty to deliver its message at once. Its appeal is unsubtle.  Three half-pints, and you know you have had it. If it is strong, it has vastly sweetened you and your surroundings. If it is weak, it has soured your stomach and your outlook.

In other words, chilled lager chills you out while British ale ought to knock you out.

Another startling statement comes next though perhaps we might write it off as pandering to an American audience:

My present homesickness, in fact, is less for good ale, on which I was weaned, than for the softer, kindlier brews that were later revealed to me—the light American beers of the Pilsner and Munich varieties, that came up cold and clear, with a creamy collar that clung to the glass. Their going down was as lovely as their coming up.

Yes, American beer, which even now some British drinkers take to be uniformly awful with Lite Lager in mind, was more enjoyable than British mild or bitter. He reckons that’s partly because it was cold but points out that British ale doesn’t work when chilled — it just turns ‘thick and flat’.

Patzenhofer Lager advert, 1937.

Next, he mentions the availability of Continental lager beers in London, providing further evidence for our argument that lager was the ‘craft beer­’ of its day:

It is true that Münchener Lowenbrau and Pilsner Urquell, perhaps the noblest brews of their respective orders that are obtainable today, are on tap, in good condition, in certain dispensaries of the West End of London, but their high price, thanks to the tariff, puts them out of reach of more than nine-tenths of the people.

(Consider the trajectory of lager in the decades that followed and think for a moment about what that might mean — moral panic over Hop Hooligans off their faces on licence-brewed American IPA in 2086?)

PUB SIGN: 'Public Bar'.

He also provides a handy key to the class status of the various styles, as well as some telling tasting notes (our emphases):

Call for ale in the saloon bar of a London pub, and the barmaid will say, ‘Other side, please,’ jerking her wet thumb in the direction of the public, or four-ale bar; for ale in London is a vulgar word. The middle-classes there drink bitter, a pale, golden beer so sharply hop-flavored that foreigners find it undrinkable. Burton, in London and certain other cities that have come under the Cockney blight, is a generic name for a dark ale of standard strength or less, whether it is brewed in Burton-on-Trent or elsewhere. Its social status is above mild and below bitter; although its price is that of bitter, it is rarely seen in a West End saloon bar. In the North, beer of similar character is called strong mild. Bitter is unpopular in Scotland; the ale of that country, dark and sparkling as Miinchener, is excellent, and is commonly kept and dispensed at a lower temperature than English ale.

Seaman, being a professional man, drank bitter, of course. There’s another nugget there for those of us tracking the evolution of golden ale, and sharply hop-flavoured sounds very appealing. It would be good to find later comments from him — he died in 1955, as far as we can tell, so would certainly have had chance to try the earliest keg bitters, for example.

Finally, there is this statement which seems to be spoken directly to 2016 through some kind of Time Tunnel:

[The] words can and growler, in the American sense [are unknown in Britain]. Nobody above the rank of chimney sweep could afford to be seen carrying home the supper beer.

There is a red herring here, which has caught out a couple of people lately: mentions of cans in sources from the 1930s and earlier often refer not to sealed tins as we know them but to small pails or jugs, i.e. canisters. That mention of growlers still works though, except that nowadays carrying a takeaway container of draught beer is an almost exclusively gentrified behaviour, isn’t it?

N.B. After World War II The American Mercury ceased to be merely conservative and became ‘virulently anti-Semitic’ so watch where you step if you go wandering off through the archive.

Two Englishmen, an Irishman and a Bavarian Go to a Dinner Party…

Stan Hieronymus is hosting Session #118 this month and he has asked: ‘If you could invite four people dead or alive to a beer dinner who would they be? What four beers would you serve?’

Chatting this one over in The Crown in Penzance last night we decided a few parameters of our own:

  1. They ought to be beer people. Sure, it’d be a laugh to serve beers to Gandhi and Boadicea and all that, but we’d go mad trying to choose just four.
  2. We’d stick to dead because listing people who are alive is a bit weird.
  3. We’d ask the guests to bring a six-pack each of their own beer, or a beer of their choice.
  4. We assume George Orwell is busy at someone else’s dinner party, and we know Sedlmayr and Dreher are round at Ron’s.

The first name we both agreed on, after mere seconds of debate, was Josef Groll (1813-1887). Here’s what we wrote about him in Gambrinus Waltz, slightly edited:

In the 1840s the burghers of the Bohemian city of Pilsen, wanting to produce Bavarian-style beer, brought in a specialist from that very part of the world – one Josef Groll, of Vilshofen, near Passau. Groll was not yet 30 when he arrived in Pilsen. He is portrayed in portraits as double-chinned and thick-featured, with an expression that suggests permanent indigestion. His manners have gone down in history as ‘coarse even by Bavarian standards’, though we have found no original source for this claim. In October 1842, the first batch of pale lager was brewed at the new Pilsen city brewery. Like Anton Dreher’s Vienna beer, it used gently-kilned pale malt after the British fashion, but produced an even paler beer that was probably more-or-less the golden-yellow colour we associate with generic lager today.

Why invite Herr Groll? Mostly because his imprint in history is so vague. Others wrote memoirs or were photographed but not Groll. It wouldn’t take long to work out how coarse he was by watching him at a dinner party — would he wipe his nose on the tablecloth, perhaps, or emit particularly operatic belches? We’d also like to get some technical information about the state of lager brewing in those early days. We hope he’d bring some chunky corked bottles of Pilsner Urquell as it was in 1842 — how pale was it, really, and how clean did it taste compared to modern lagers? (We might also slip him a glass of the modern stuff, though, just to see his reaction.)

Sir Sydney Nevil's autobiography (page spread).

We’d sit him next to British brewing industry titan Sir Sydney Nevile (1873-1969) whose memoir, Seventy Rolling Years, Boak has read back and forth several times in the last year. If Groll was coarse, Nevile was distinctly clubbable — conservative and public school educated but a hands-on brewer early in his career, and later known for his ability to work constructively with all sorts of people as a member of the Central Control Board of the ‘liquor trade’ during World War I. He also liked a good feed:

It has always been my policy… to sweeten negotiations, if possible, over a well-spread table. Many of my ‘affairs of State’ were discussed at dinner — often the dinner was a very late one…

And it’s true — throughout the book when he recounts a struggle the resolution usually comes after he takes his opponent for a meal. Funnily enough, he doesn’t mention beer all that much, so we can’t guess what he’d bring with him. Hopefully something well-aged and rare from a secret stash at Whitbread’s Chiswell Street brewery where he worked for 30-odd years. We’d like to know what he’d think of Whitbread today (Costa Coffee, Premier Inn, no brewing at all) and, as a pioneer of the improved pub movement in the inter-war years, what he’d make of where we’ve ended up. Our suspicion is that, as a pragmatic businessman, he wouldn’t be unduly disturbed by anything that’s happened.

The founder members of the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood. SOURCE: John Keeble; Mrs Gore.)
The founder members of the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood. SOURCE: John Keeble; Mrs Gore.)

Next, Arthur Millard, co-founder of the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood. We know no-one else cares about him, and that the SPBW is a niche interest, but it still drives us mad that we never quite got to the bottom of his story. He was also, we gather, a blunt-talking character, as per Brew Britannia:

In the early years, the Society found brewery visits an effective way of combining social activity with the application of gentle pressure on the industry. Delegations from the SPBW toured several breweries, and Millard had a reputation for ‘sales-manager baiting’. As hapless public relations people attempted to convince the group that the latest keg or top-pressure beer was every bit as good as the traditional ‘draught’ version, Millard would slap them down with a blunt dismissal: ‘Then why does it taste so bloody awful?’

We reckon it’d be great fun to set him and Sir Syd debating the question of big brewery keg bitter, safe in the knowledge that we could always steer the conversation round to cricket or rugby if things got too heated. (Millard worked at the Bank of England and lived in Surrey — he was hardly a revolutionary.) It’d be best not to sit him next to Jo Groll, though — a grumpy German next to a fierce veteran of World War II? That could get nasty. As for beer, it’d be fun to see what he makes of BrewDog Punk IPA. Evidence suggests that, if it was free and got him pissed, he wouldn’t be that fussy.

The fourth guest is tricky. As we’re basically using this dinner to solve mysteries and further our research, it’s tempting to invite Kim Taylor who brewed at the Orange in Pimlico in the 1980s and is probably still alive, but remains elusive. Or what about the head brewer at Ind Coope c.1846? He might be able to tell us, once and for all, what the heck A.K. stands for, if anything. Maybe the last slot could go to Andrew Campbell, author of the 1956 Book of Beer, whose identity is mysterious — we suspect a pseudonym although have recently wondered if he’s the same Andrew Campbell who was involved in London’s theatre scene at the same time.

Maurice Gorham
SOURCE: Adapted from an image at The History of the BBC.

In the end, though, we decided that this ought to be someone fun. With Groll growling, Nevile talking politics, and Millard sliding off his chair flicking Vs, we ought to have someone capable of lightening the mood with some good stories. So, the last seat goes to Maurice Gorham (1902-1975), the Irish-born, English-educated journalist who wrote The Local (1939) and its semi-sequel-cum-rewrite Back to the Local (1949), among the best books about pubs ever written. He also got in early with criticism of hipsters:

The West End is, of course, more apt than some districts to suffer from the incursions of what we used to call the Bright Young People; what I know think of as the Flash Trade. This menace has receded since pre-war days when the smart people were discovering the pubs and the craze for darts even brought them swarming into the Public Bar. It was a terrible thing to see this happening to a pub. If it persisted, the old regulars abandoned the pub, the brewers redecorated it, the staff changed. At this stage the bright young people often deserted it for another, leaving a wreck behind.

We wonder what he’d make of tap takeovers, keg fonts and labels with skulls on?

He, thankfully, expressed firm and detailed opinions on beer, listing his favourites in order as draught Guinness, Younger’s Scotch Ale and Benskin’s Bitter. So, we’d hope he’d bring bottles of Younger’s, picked up in a off-licence in 1949 and somehow brought with him through the dinner party wormhole.

Now we look at our finished line-up we realise we’re in a room dominated by middle-aged, middle-class Establishment men. Perhaps next time this question comes up we’ll be a bit more imaginative — do you reckon Hildegard of Bingen would come?

Turning Out the Lights: When Breweries Close

Nortchote Brewery logo.

It can be difficult to get people to talk frankly about the challenges of running a small brewery and especially about the decision to shut up shop but, back in 2013, Jennifer Nicholls gave us a glimpse behind that usually closed door.

When we were working on Brew Britannia we did lots of research that didn’t end up being quoted or overtly referenced in the finished product but which did help to shape our thinking and give us a rounded picture of what was going on. As part of that, we approached Jenni whose brewery, Northcote, had recently ceased trading.

She was kind enough to give substantial answers to our question which, in the wake of several notable brewery closures in the last year, we decided to unearth. With a few edits for readability, and with Jenni’s renewed permission, here’s what she told us back then.

B&B: Can you give a brief history of your brewery?

We set up the brewery in 2010, incorporating on 24 January as Northcote Brewery Ltd, after the road we live on. I’m just looking over out old Facebook page now actually. We got the premises 18 June and the first brew was in October that year.

The beers were first commercially available at the Norwich Beer Festival on 27 October. Cow Tower, our bitter, was the first available – the name comes from a Norman tower in the city. Then came Golden Spire (a golden ale), referencing the the cathedral. Jiggle Juice IPA was named after our friends’ boat that we used to drink our sample brews on, and kind of stuck. Brewed This Way was a raspberry wheat beer brewed in conjunction with Norwich Pride, the name being a little nod to the Lady GaGa track. Sunshine Jiggle was a lower ABV summer drinking version of Jiggle Juice that we called a ‘citrus blonde’. Bishy Barnaby was a red spicy ale, that being a Norfolkism for a ladybird. Snap Dragon Stout was named after the dragon that leads the Lord Mayor’s parade and lives in Norwich Castle. Finally, there was El Salvador IPA, our coffee IPA, made in collaboration with The Window coffee shop

The very last beer we brewed was One for the Road, made in conjunction with the Euston Tap.

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