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.

28 thoughts on “Was Meantime the First UK Craft Brewery?”

  1. I don’t want to devalue Alastair’s contribution to British beer culture — he was an absolute pioneer as well as being an excellent brewer and was certainly the first microbrewer to make a major success of pursuing a business model very different to the one that was then typical. As I wrote in, ahem, What’s Brewing about 12 years ago. But actually I think it’s a contribution that really isn’t done any favours by being summed up in a ‘first craft brewer’ soundbite — it oversimplifies his achievement. And he wasn’t the only one thinking along those lines at the time, though he was certainly the person who put his thoughts most effectively into action.

    Also worth pointing out that, as he pointed out on a comment on my Facebook page earlier today, Alastair actually loves great cask. It’s just that he decided there weren’t enough publicans around who could look after it properly 20 years before the rest of us.

    A few little factual things. Meantime made bottle conditioned wheat beers from very early on, as you might expect from someone trained at Weihenstephan (and the brewery conditioned beers were unpasteurised from the start I think). Later they made some excellent bottle conditioned English styles too. And I believe that they didn’t actually start selling beer until April 2000, even if the company was founded in 1999.

    1. Des — here’s a response to your comments we received from a Meantime insider, which they’ve asked us to post anonymously on their behalf. (Edited for clarity, not all direct quotes.)

      * ‘Meantime Wheat was bottle-conditioned only in as much as any Hefeweizen has yeast in the bottle – it’s usually dead and not much refermentation occurs, if any.’
      * ‘”Alastair actually loves great cask”? I wonder how many pints of cask Alastair drank in 2016? Not many.’
      * No Meantime beer has ever been pasteurised.
      * ‘Meantime’s IPA and Porter were not bottle conditioned and Meantime never said they were barring some possible PR release which got it wrong.’
      * ‘Des is correct that Meantime actually started selling beer in early 2000 – 1999 was about getting the brewery installed and commissioned.’
      * The early pale ale was brewed and put into cask at Penhall Road; production was transferred out once it was launched on the wider market.
      * LPA was discontinued much earlier than 2012 — c.2008-09.
      * There were never any plans to brew cask at the new brewery.

          1. Clarification received; position now slightly awkward. Let’s just say that the bottles certainly did say ‘bottle conditioned’, as per those pics and plenty of others online, and leave it there.

  2. I was just going to post “No” as that, strictly, is the actual answer to your question:)

    However, if we really, really, must pick one, I’d say, yes, Thornbridge have a better claim tham Meantime. For all the obvious reasons. Plus they told me at the brewery that they were the first UK craft brewer: so that settles that.

    1. Good question. Not sure off the top of our heads but will keep an eye out for info. (Although, as you know, we’re not as reluctant to backdate terminology as you.)

      1. Update #1: We’ve got a 2003 reference to Meantime as a craft brewery but that’s by Roger Protz rather than in their own marketing.

        1. That’s not bad, 2003. And it’s not so much that I am reluctant to backdate as I like to separately note (1) when it’s being done to describe prior activity that fits and (2) when the word itself becomes used. Plus it’s all micro brewing anyway, too. Nothing turned those words off.

    1. Dave — think we’d class them as a 1980s microbrewery — typical fairly conservative line-up back then. Which, of course, does make them very much ‘craft’ under our definition 1 (the definition we prefer) but it’s not what people have in mind when they hear the term these days.

    1. Meantime did market a cask version of their Pale Ale for a while, but (whisper it softly) it was contract brewed and put in cask by…….Greene King

      1. That turned up, we think, around the time we started blogging and was always a bit fishy. Meantime seemed cagey about it, too. I’d remembered it as being brewed at Meantime but *packaged* at Adnams but we’re talking decade-old memories here.

  3. They aren’t generally considered to be craft from within the craft ‘community’. Thornbridge and Brewdog are Jesus. Marble and Dark Star are John the Baptist.

  4. If we’re talking peddlers of “craft lager” (as it is now called) how about Freedom?

    I mean in 1999 they were well established, right? Peddling organic, vegan-friendly, keg, lagerbeer… proto-hipsters jizzing in their pants, surely: http://www.freedombrewery.com/history/ – if their own history page is to be believed?

    1. Yvan — Alastair Hook was actually Freedom’s founding head brewer, before he started Meantime. Originally it was in Parsons Green in London, just across the road from the White Horse. It’s been through numerous changes of ownership since, as well as moving out of London. I certainly think it has a claim to be the UK’s oldest surviving dedicated contemporary ‘craft lager’ brewery.

      1. Yeah, I stupidly totally missed that Freedom was mentioned in the post. There’s only a great big bloody picture of the stuff there… hah.

        I wasn’t in the UK before 2005 so perhaps missed some vibe about Meantime that others remember…

  5. Meantime’s cask LPA was brewed and packaged at Adnams. I believe there were vague plans to brew cask in-house when Meantime moved to the new brewery but it never happened, and the contract-brewed cask LPA was discontinued round about 2012. I don’t think Meantime ever brewed any cask themselves either in Charlton or in Greenwich, except perhaps as an occasional experiment.

    1. You could certainly make a case. Having said that, from, the evidence we’ve seen, the line-up was more trad in the early days, the involvement of Brendan Dobbin notwithstanding. They were an interesting real ale microbrewery whereas Meantime really was a different kind of animal.

      We’ve been pondering writing a proper history of Marble but think there are others already working on it and/or better placed to do it justice.

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