Session #124: Late, Lamented Loves

A man melodramatically lamenting his lost love.

David Bardallis (@allthebrews) at All The Brews Fit to Pint is hosting this month and the topic is ‘favourite beers that are no longer in production but you still pine for’.

This was a fun subject to chew over in the pub last night. The first beer that came to mind was local brewery St Austell’s short-lived 1913 stout. Strong by cask ale standards and historically-inspired it unfortunately didn’t sell and slowly morphed into Mena Dhu — still great but a much tamer product. We’d go out of our way for a pint of 1913 which isn’t something we can say of many beers.

Another one that we always loved is Chiswick, Fuller’s light, bracing ordinary bitter. It’s become a seasonal which probably means it will disappear altogether before long, like Hock, the same brewery’s lesser-spotted mild, which we did get to try once or twice but haven’t seen since 2009.

The label for Meantime/Sainsbury's Munich Festbier.
From 2004. SOURCE: Justin Mason (@1970sBOY)

We also thought fondly of the bottled beers Meantime brewed for Sainsbury’s in the early 2000s. Were they great beers? It’s hard for us to say with all these years passed. We certainly enjoyed them, though, a lot, time and again. When we were just feeling our way into becoming beer geeks they made it cheap and easy to try examples of obscure European styles such as Vienna lager and Kölsch. They were fun, too — 330ml bottles designed for pouring into fancy glassware but also perfect for taking to barbecues and parties, when we still did that kind of thing.

Another Meantime brew we pine for is Golden Beer which we first tried in about 2003 and loved so much we went back to the brewery’s pub in Greenwich multiple times just to drink it. We didn’t know enough about beer then to really understand what we were drinking, and certainly didn’t take notes, but we think it must have been some kind of bock. When they stopped producing it, we were confused and dismayed — perhaps the first time we were ever made to feel emotions by a beer?

Overall, though, this was a surprisingly difficult exercise. Not many beers that we’ve loved have gone out of production. If anything, products like Goose Island IPA and BrewDog Punk — of enduring appeal rather than passing novelty — have headed the other way, towards mass production and household name status. The market seems to be doing a pretty good job on this front.

But the next five years could be interesting with the health of beers such as Harvey’s Mild looking distinctly fragile, and breweries selling up with alarming frequency. Let’s see how we feel in 2022.

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.

What Meantime Means to Us

As well as its significance in the ‘rebirth of British beer’, Alastair Hook’s Meantime Brewery has been important to us on a personal level.

Meantime taught us that lager wasn’t just lager: tasting the range side by side, we could tell that ‘Cologne-style’ was not the same as Helles, which was definitely different to Golden Beer.  They were subtle, but distinctive.

Meantime put Vienna-style lager and Kölsch in Sainsburys supermarkets where we could buy four bottles for £4 and we turned up at many parties and barbecues with those packs under our arms c.2004.

Having read about porter, we wanted to taste it, but there didn’t seem to be many around a decade ago; Meantime fixed that, too. And their big 7.5% IPA was among the first we tasted that gave us a glimpse of what had people so excited about US takes on the style, and so dismissive of Greene King’s — it was boozy, fruity, juicy and bold.

The Union, Meantime’s brewery tap in Greenwich, was the first British pub where we really noticed beer being treated with respect. Half pints came in stemmed tulip glasses, bottles were served in snifters, and no-one seemed to care how much or how little you drank as long as you enjoyed it. We crossed London to get there, time and time again, and there was always something new to try. It was the world of Michael Jackson’s books brought to life.

In recent years, however, our ardour has faded. The brewery’s focus seems to have moved from obscure sub-styles to London Lager (oh, so lager is just lager after all?), Pale Ale and Yakima Red — beers that want so badly to be accepted everywhere that they blend into the banquettes. Alastair Hook has always been obsessed with consistency and control — he is passionate and eloquent on the subject — but perhaps, in recent years, Meantime has too often crossed the fine line between clean and bland? (We’re not sure, to be honest, that they are an upgrade from the mainstream as Pete Brown argues here, though we know what he means.)

This isn’t about demanding obscurity or ‘extremes’: if we want US-style pale ale, we buy Sierra Nevada. Porter? Sam Smith’s or Anchor. Big IPA? BrewDog Punk, or the ubiquitous Goose Island IPA, at £2 a bottle. If we want a British-brewed version of a classic German style, we increasingly find ourselves looking to Thornbridge. (Where the brewing team is led by Rob Lovatt, formerly of… Meantime.)

The acquisition of Meantime by SAB Miller isn’t catastrophic, just another step in the direction they’ve been travelling for some time. We’ll always have a soft spot for Meantime, and will continue to make pilgrimages to Greenwich, where the draught lager can still be transcendent.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 16/05/2015

There’s one big story in the UK this week: the takeover of London’s Meantime by international brewing company SAB Miller.

→ Background reading: When Nick Miller, formerly of SAB Miller (but no relation…), joined Meantime as CEO back in 2011 the gossiping began: was this the beginning of a slow takeover? Martyn ‘Zythophile’ Cornell warned against such assumptions (12/07/2011) but the rumours persisted. In 2013, Melissa Cole called it (25/11/2013), and repeated that call again in January when we asked, in the wake of AB-InBev’s takeover of US brewery Elysian, ‘how long can it be before we see the same thing happen in the UK?

→ In response to yesterday’s news, Pete Brown wrote a lengthy piece defending Meantime against criticism that it had ‘sold out’:

One of the more moronic memes in all the comments online goes along the lines of “Well, I never drank their beers anyway because they’re bland/they’re keg/they’re lagers [delete as applicable depending on how much of a prick you really are] so this changes nothing.” As if every craft brewer has to be experimenting with too many hops, a saison yeast, black malts and pinot barrels.

→ Meantime’s own Alastair Hook made a statement on the company’s own blog:

I see the term ‘Craft’ disappearing within ten years as the brewing world recalibrates itself and aligns itself with a passion for great beer made well. ‘Craft’ could disappear as it reforms and redefines what is the new world of beer, a world that provides choice to an inspired and responsive consumer.

→ And there was further commentary from Roger Protz (‘The sale of Meantime could mark a seismic shift in British brewing.’), Jeff ‘Stonch’ Bell (‘If it was craft yesterday, it’s craft today.’) and Ed Wray — ‘Anyway, looking at the pictures and thinking of the scale of production ask yourself: is this brewery craft or industrial?

* * *

→ In other news, pub company Enterprise Inns has announced a major restructuring in the wake of changes to the landscape following a successful campaign by anti-pubco campaigners, as reported by James Wallin for the Morning AdvertiserIn short, the company intends to shift away from traditional tenanted pubs and towards a managed estate.

→ Will those who invest in BrewDog actually make any money? As reported by Drinks BusinessAll Street, a firm which specialises in assessing crowd-funding schemes, says, no, probably not. (This opinion has more weight than what is ‘reckoned’ by people who have (a) beef with BrewDog and (b) no specialist knowledge or experience.)

→ Bryan Roth has been considering ‘The Personalization of Beer‘ — that is, consumers tinkering with finished beers using gadgets, additives and other methods. Some brewers consider this kind of thing an affront but Roth argues otherwise:

[The] onset of individualized opportunities and new ways to enjoy a beer is a logical step for a maturing consumer base. At one point or other in many product cycles, people want control.

→ All last week, the Beer Nut’s regular tasting notes focused on Poland and the whole series is worth a read, and is also worth filing for later reference: Wotcha Łódź! | Pillar to Post | Baltic Cruise | Meeting Cornelius | Post-industrial Brewing.

→ And, finally, after our post about the Eagle Tavern earlier in the week, this Tweet from the novelist and historian Lee Jackson couldn’t fail to catch our eye:

Porter Tasting: Batch 6 — Odds and Ends

The purpose of this exercise, for those who missed the previous posts, is to find a beer that suits us, with a view to selecting finalists for a ‘taste-off’ before buying a case to see us through the winter. It’s not ‘the best’ but something much more floaty and subjective.

This is our last batch of porter tasting notes — even though people keep flagging new ones we must try, this has to end some time, if only for the sake of our sanity.

What have we learned about porter in the last few weeks? First, that it allows quite a bit of room for variation: we’ve tried some that resembled German Schwarzbiers; one or two that could easily be marketed as strong stouts; and others that were very hoppy, or smoky, or had some other left-field characteristic.

Continue reading “Porter Tasting: Batch 6 — Odds and Ends”