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.

HELP: Wetherspoon’s, Manchester, August 1995

Stained glass window.
Stained glass at the Moon Under Water, tak­en on our vis­it in Feb­ru­ary 2016.

This is very specific: we want to talk to anyone who recalls attending the opening of The Moon Under Water on Deansgate, Manchester, on 15 August 1995.

We’ve heard from peo­ple who went not long after – mem­o­ries of man­nequins in the for­mer cin­e­ma stalls, and awe at the sheer size of the place – but no-one seems to remem­ber day one.

There must have been a rib­bon-cut­ting cer­e­mo­ny – Eddie Ger­shon, who does PR for Wetherspoon’s, reck­ons it was cov­ered in the Man­ches­ter Evening News though he doesn’t have any clip­pings or pho­tos.

If you were there, get in touch. If you have a vague mem­o­ry of your mate hav­ing gone along, or your cousin work­ing behind the bar, give ‘em a nudge. We’re contact@boakandbailey.com and any mem­o­ry, how­ev­er small or appar­ent­ly insignif­i­cant, might be just what we need.

Also feel free to share on Face­book or wher­ev­er else you fan­cy.

HELP US: Gastropubs in the 1990s

Did you drink, eat, work at or run a gastropub between 1990–1998? If so, we’d love to hear from you.

We’re espe­cial­ly inter­est­ed in diary entries, let­ters, arti­cles, emails or oth­er records you might have made at the time – noth­ing is too scrap­py or too minor.

But mem­o­ries are help­ful too.

We’ve got lots of facts, dates and fig­ures: what we want to know is, how did these places feel?

Like jour­nal­ist Kathryn Flett, a great cham­pi­on of gas­trop­ubs in the 1990s, did you appre­ci­ate their un-blokey atmos­phere and rus­tic chic? Did you wel­come the oppor­tu­ni­ty to enjoy good food with­out hav­ing to dress, mind your table man­ners and take out a small bank loan?

Or per­haps you’re with Patrick Harve­son who, in 1995, wrote an arti­cle in the Times call­ing for The Cam­paign for Real Pubs. Did your local became some­where you no longer felt you could pop in for a pint? Maybe you saw the very idea of the gas­trop­ub as dan­ger­ous – a threat to the very idea of what pubs are meant to be.

The Eagle in Clerken­well, Lon­don, gen­er­al­ly giv­en cred­it as the orig­i­nal gas­trop­ub after its 1991 rein­ven­tion, is one we’re par­tic­u­lar­ly focus­ing on but we’d be hap­py to hear about any oth­ers you think are notable or inter­est­ing.

You can com­ment below but it’d be much more use­ful if you could email us via contact@boakandbailey.com.


Main image adapt­ed from ‘Eagle, Clerken­well, EC1’ by Ewan Munro (Pubology.co.uk) via Flickr under Cre­ative Com­mons.

Artyfacts from the Nyneties #4: Meet Pete

Pete's Wicked Ale ad, 1994.
Click to enlarge.

The advertisement above appeared in the Campaign for Real Ale’s monthly What’s Brewing in November 1994.

The year before, ‘Pete’s’ had spon­sored the Bieres Sans Fron­tieres pro­gramme and it was on its way to becom­ing the best-known Amer­i­can brew­ery among British drinkers.

In the Dai­ly Mir­ror on 27 Jan­u­ary 1995, Nick Kent wrote:

THE coolest beers in Amer­i­ca are hit­ting Britain – and some of them are OK when they’re warm! Micro­brew­ery beers are fash­ion­able in the US but may become an endan­gered species as hype and big busi­ness start to get a hold… Pete’s Wicked Lager is a fine exam­ple; hops pre­dom­i­nate and it has a clean, sharp, dry taste even though it is on the strong side (4.8 per cent alco­hol).

Then, on 21 July the same year, Kent announced an excit­ing com­pe­ti­tion:

HE’S loud, proud, thirsty-some­thing, and he could be head­ing your way… Amer­i­can Pete Slos­berg, founder of Pete’s Brew­ing Com­pa­ny, is com­ing to the British Beer Fes­ti­val, and he wants a brace of Mir­ror read­ers to go with him… So pre­pare to be sloshed with Slos­berg. It will be a swill par­ty… Mod­est, qui­et, polite, a taste­ful dress­er – Pete is none of these, as the two com­pe­ti­tion win­ners will soon dis­cov­er… They will accom­pa­ny Pete as he pint-ifi­cates his way around the fes­ti­val at London’s Olympia, on Thurs­day, August 3… Dis­pens­ing views on oth­er people’s wares, he will be look­ing out for any beer dar­ing to rival Pete’s Wicked Lager and Pete’s Wicked Ale for taste… Pete will also take his Mir­ror guests for a taste of the Bel­gian beer and food at Bel­go Cen­traal… This top restau­rant is the trendi­est thing to come out of Bel­gium since Tintin.

By 1996, Pete’s beers were in Majes­tic, Wait­rose, Tesco, Morrison’s and Odd­bins (Inde­pen­dent on Sun­day, 17 Novem­ber).

The flag­ship beer was a brown ale, Pete’s Wicked Ale, which was reviewed by ‘Sparks’ for the Oxford Bot­tled Beer Data­base in around 1998:

This is one of the eas­i­er Amer­i­can brew­eries to get hold of in the UK… The beer is ruby-coloured with a thick, rea­son­ably tena­cious head. The nose is quite light, but with notice­able sug­ary malt notes and a lit­tle back­ground hop­pi­ness (aro­ma hops only). On the tongue, it is quite fizzy and fair­ly malty, but not as sweet as you might expect from the aro­ma – in fact it is much dri­er than many brown ales. There is burnt caramel in the back of the throat, becom­ing more pro­nounced towards the fin­ish. The after­taste is more hop­py, but also with bit­ter, burnt sug­ar flavours. This is a pleas­ant exam­ple of a brown ale, with a pleas­ing dry­ness not often encoun­tered in the genre.

It doesn’t sound ter­ri­bly excit­ing – as Jeff Alworth put it in 2011, ‘In the 1990s, lots and lots of peo­ple drank and enjoyed brown ales… I mean real­ly, brown ales. What the … ?’ – but it had a whiff of the exot­ic about it, and was clev­er­ly mar­ket­ed with a big per­son­al­i­ty front-and-cen­tre, e.g.

In the UK, it seems to have occu­pied a sim­i­lar space to Newquay Steam Beer, come to think of it – a bit out­side the nar­ra­tive of the ‘craft beer rev­o­lu­tion’ (unless we’re mis­tak­en, the last 20 years hasn’t seen a ton of Pete’s Wicked clones among UK brew­ers, unlike, say, Sier­ra Neva­da Pale Ale) and dif­fer­ent with­out being too dif­fer­ent.

Artyfacts from the Nyneties #2: World Beer Menu, 1993

Front cover of the 1993 Great British Beer Festival Bieres Sans Frontieres menu.
The front cov­er.
Welcome to the most exotic bar in the whole festival… This year’s star feature has to be the USA. Thanks to months of work by Jonathan Tuttle… Rick’s American Bar has probably the widest selection of beer and beer styles ever to cross the Atlantic Ocean from West to East.”

From Alis­tair Boyd’s intro­duc­tion.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Arty­facts from the Nyneties #2: World Beer Menu, 1993”