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Meantime Brewery...what comes next?

By Roger Protz , 04-Jun-2015

Meantime Brewery...what comes next?

What are the implications of the craft brewery's takeover by SABMiller?

The instant reaction to the takeover of the Meantime Brewery by global giant SABMiller was “shock”.

If so, it was a shock waiting to happen. Is it so surprising that Nick Miller, the former managing director of Miller Brands, SAB’s UK division, who moved to be chief executive at Meantime in 2011, should negotiate a takeover by his former employer just four years later?

Miller emphatically denies this. “I wish I had the foresight to plan things like that,” he told me. “The bid came out of the blue.”

Let us suspend disbelief and move on. The takeover has happened and the world’s second biggest brewing group now has control of one of the most prestigious craft breweries in Britain. The two key questions are: what will be the impact on Meantime’s beers, and will the acquisition spark more takeovers of independent British breweries?

Nick Miller is adamant that the beers brewed at the Greenwich site will not be dumbed down. He stressed that brewmaster and founder of Meantime, Alastair Hook, is a craftsman who trained at the world’s leading brewing school in Munich. He is passionately committed to using the finest raw materials and ageing beer until it reaches perfection.

“SABMiller hasn’t got the balls to tell Alastair to change his beers,” Miller says. “When I joined Meantime in 2011, he told me we would quickly part company if I attempted to interfere on the brewing side. He’s made it absolutely clear to SABMiller that he will have complete autonomy where quality is concerned.”

I’ve known Alastair Hook since he opened a lager brewery in Ashford in Kent in the 1980s. It failed because drinkers back then weren’t prepared for the shock of a beer called lager that boomed with malt and hop character. He went on to run the Mash gastropub breweries in Manchester and London before launching Meantime in 1999.

The first site was in an old tram shed but the success of the brewery and its strategy of aiming ales and lagers at high-end bars and restaurants forced a move to a new site
in Greenwich that cost £7m. It has custom-built German brewing kit capable of producing 200,000 barrels a year and the main brands —London Lager, London Pale Ale and Yakima Red — are joined by a flood of occasional and seasonal beers.

Meantime has a second brewery in part of the Old Naval College in Greenwich, designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Specialist beers, such as a London porter aged in whisky casks, are supplied to the
restaurant alongside.

It’s an impressive story with impressive beers and I know Alastair Hook will remain committed to his vision of making top-quality beers. But he’s now employed by a global corporation, with beady-eyed accountants who keep a tight eye on budgets and are always looking at ways to cut the costs of production.

Many drinkers — and not just the usual suspects with beards, bellies and sandals — think the Doom Bar brewed by Sharp’s since the brewery was bought by Molson Coors is a shadow of its former
self.

Earlier this year I spent an evening with a team from Goose Island Beer Company in Chicago, whose beers are being distributed here by Greene King.

I’ve always rated Goose Island IPA as one of the classics of the style. Unlike many modern American interpretations of IPA, Goose Island is not so heavily over-hopped that it makes your eyeballs pop, but has a fine balance of hop bitterness and juicy malt.

But Goose Island was bought in 2011 by Anheuser Busch, American arm of the world’s biggest brewing group, AB In Bev. While small-run beers are still produced in Chicago, IPA and another leading brand, Honkers Ale, are produced at what the AB people charmingly call a “new facility” on the East Coast. I found the new version of IPA to be a tad less appealing than the beer of old.

It’s worth noting that founding brewmaster Greg Hall has now left Goose Island. I hope Alastair Hook doesn’t feel a sharp stab in the back soon but it might be worth investing in a flak jacket.

Will the Meantime deal lead to further British takeovers? Chris Wisson, the respected drinks analyst at market research company Mintel, thinks it could. I’m not so certain. Global brewers like to concentrate on core brands.

Heineken UK is probably happy with Caledonian Deuchars IPA, Molson Coors has Doom Bar and Carlsberg owns Tetley, albeit brewed now under licence. AB In Bev seems to have no interest in the ale sector and wants to offload Bass and Boddingtons.

Fast-growing craft breweries such as BrewDog and Camden Town, with their “in your face and up yours” attitudes, are unlikely to sell. Jim Harrison, founder of Thornbridge in Derbyshire with the award-winning Jaipur IPA, is proud of his brewery and has enough bunce in the bank to not need the rumoured £50m paid by SABMiller for Meantime.

Time will tell, but two or three years down the track I shall be interested to taste Meantime’s London Pale Ale. I hope Alastair Hook will still be in residence.

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