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”