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.

  6. Shouldn’t Mar­ble get a men­tion here? I’m sure that was float­ed in brew Bri­tan­nia ?

    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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