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.

Where to Buy Brew Britannia

Although we understand Brew Britannia is now out of print there are still various ways and places to get hold of a copy if you want to give it to someone this Christmas.

  1. Amazon UK is sold out but, if you insist on buying from there, there are several third-party sellers with brand new copies at reasonable prices.
  2. Amazon US has it in stock and delivers (we think) worldwide — certainly to the UK, anyway, fairly promptly.
  3. Other online bookstores such as Waterstones, Book Depository, Foyles and Books Please are offering it ready to dispatch with in a day or two.
  4. Specialists Beer Inn Print is offering it along with a huge selection of other beer- and pub-related books — well worth a browse.
  5. If you want a signed copy then we have a few at hand which we’re selling at £12.99 including postage within the mainland UK — drop us an email via contact@boakandbailey.com to discuss dedications and details.
  6. We know that there are also a few copies out and about in small independent book and beer shops — check your local before you order online.

Remember to tell the lucky recipient about the errata (or, as we call it, the List of Burning Shame) and the (also award-winning) follow-up supplement ‘The Good, the Bad and the Murky’.

And if if you still need convincing here are links to a bunch of reviews and whatnot.

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.

Continue reading “Turning Out the Lights: When Breweries Close”

Holding the Fort: a Sitcom With Added Beer

From 1980 to 1982 one of London Weekend Television’s top-rated sitcoms was Holding the Fort in which Peter Davison played a microbrewer. We spoke to the writers, Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, to find out more.

We were first tipped off to the existence of Holding the Fort by a comment from ‘Dvorak’ on something we posted back in September. We watched as much as we could find on YouTube and were amazed by how accurately it portrayed the then embryonic British microbrewing scene. On the off-chance, we emailed Marks & Gran via their website just as the success of their revival of Goodnight Sweetheart hit them and they became very busy. We heard nothing until this week when we got an apologetic reply and an invitation to phone them at their office.

Because the way the timing worked out Bailey made the call, speaking to Laurence Marks while Maurice Gran made muffled interjections somewhere in the background. We’ve slightly edited the transcript for clarity and to remove some umm-ing and er-ing.

Two young men with facial hair.
Laurence Marks (right) and Maurice Gran in the 1970s. SOURCE: Marks & Gran.

From what we’ve been able to see Holding the Fort is a pretty accurate portrayal of what was going on in British brewing at the time.

Microbrewing had just started and we had met the man… What was his name? This was 40 years ago, our very first commissioned sitcom, so it’s hard to remember. He was the man who started a chain of pubs… What were they called?

David Bruce — the Firkin chain?

That’s him! He was always our adviser on brewing and, in fact, he provided all the brewing equipment for the production which was in the basement of our fictional brewer’s house in Tufnell Park, North London.

Our central character, our male central character, who we join in the first episode, is a brewer. The brewery where he works is closing and moving to the North. He and his wife, played by Patricia Hodge, have just had a little baby and they don’t want to move North, so she goes back to her old job as an Army Captain and he decides he can run a small brewery from his house.

And his assistant, played by Matthew Kelly, he’s a kind of stereotypical real ale drinker with the beard and so on.

No, Fitz, he’s not a brewer — he’s just kind of a layabout, but he starts to learn to brew. Peter Davison, who’s the brewer, is very clean cut. David Bruce always looked alright to me! Very smart.

Peter Davison was in Doctor Who at the same time you were making this series — is that right?

Well, yes and no. We made the first series in 1980 then he got cast as Doctor Who between series, so he was alternating between our series at LWT and Doctor Who at the BBC.

It’s odd that you’re so well-known but that this show is so obscure — we’d never heard of it and it’s quite hard to get to see. But there were three series so it must have been popular.

Oh, yes — hugely successful. It was, at one time, LWT’s top-rated comedy show. I have no idea why it’s out of circulation — I don’t understand the machinations of TV networks.

Were you into beer yourselves? Were you CAMRA members or anything like that?

I was a journalist at the time, in the mid-1970s, and was invited along to the first CAMRA beer festival at Covent Garden in 1975. I went along to what is now the London Transport Museum and there was every beer in the entire country, barrels everywhere. People were walking around vomiting, falling over… It was the closest we’d come to the Munich Oktoberfest, I suppose.

I was with a friend who was a much more learned beer drinker than me, and we worked our way round deciding which was the best beer there. We both agreed it was Hook Norton. In fact, we loved it so much, we found out where the brewery was, took a day off work and drove out there. There were three pubs near the brewery, supplied directly, and we drank in all of them. And funnily enough, it’s now my local brewer.

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Marks & Gran are still writing together. You can read more about their long career at their website, Marks & Gran, and they are also on Twitter @marksandgran.