Meantime is big and getting bigger. Alastair Hook, brewmaster and founder of the Greenwich-based brewery in south-east London, has to pinch himself when he considers the scale of the success he has achieved since he launched the firm in 2000.
It started as a small lock-up on an industrial estate opposite Charlton Athletic’s ground — a handy base as Hook is a big fan of the football club. Meantime outgrew the site and moved to a larger plant a few miles away in Greenwich, where London Mayor Boris Johnson pulled the first pint.
Johnson was right to do so, for Meantime is a big business, selling beer in large quantities and attracting 10,000 visitors a year who tour the site and enjoy a glass or two.
The brewery has a second micro plant in Christopher Wren’s magnificent Old Royal Naval College, a Unesco World Heritage Site. Here Hook and his team produce small-run specialist beers, recreating both old and new styles. They include a porter that was brewed for sick sailors who recuperated in the hospital wing of the college in the 18th century. Other beers are aged in whisky and wine casks.
The walls are decorated with a potted illustrated history of brewing in London, while the spacious restaurant serves top-quality food.
Back at the main brewery, Hook leads the way through halls packed with mash kettles and conditioning tanks designed by the German manufacturer of brewing kit, Moeschle.
There are 78 vessels in total. The brewery cost £7m, raised by a group of investors who share Hook’s passion for good beer. The brewery is producing 50,000 hectolitres, or 32,000 barrels a year.
It has a capacity of 120,000hl, so there’s plenty of slack but, as the business is growing at the astonishing rate of 60% a year, Hook says he will run out of space in three years.
He adds he was “quietly going bonkers” running both the brewery and looking after sales. To the astonishment of the industry, he recruited Nick Miller from Miller Brands to be Meantime’s chief executive and mastermind sales. Top people from SABMiller’s UK subsidiary don’t come cheap and Miller’s arrival announced that Meantime would continue to grow rapidly.
But even Hook and Miller were looking shell-shocked at the success of their latest venture. They have created a new system called ‘brewery fresh beer’, unfiltered and unpasteurised, which is served from a horizontal tank visible to drinkers in pubs and other outlets. A bag of compressed air pushes the beer to the bar.
The system has been trialled in several of Young’s London pubs and will be rolled out in other outlets.
At the moment, only Meantime’s London Lager is served in this way but other beers will be used. Hook said ‘brewery fresh’ was put on the bar of the National Theatre and 1,000 litres went in just 24 hours. “Imagine,” he said, “all those luvvies drinking my beer!”
He learnt brewing skills at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and the world-renowned Munich Technical University in Germany. What he doesn’t know about brewing can be written on the back of a torn coaster.
His lagers are properly aged for up to 120 days while his ales are also made with due reverence. “Beer needs time,” he says. It also needs care, and Hook and his brewing staff constantly monitor temperatures and oxygen levels to ensure beers are created with fresh flavour.
He wants fresh beer so that hop flavour and character can be fully expressed. There are 60 varieties of hops in the brewery, sourced from all parts of the world. They are generously used in the 50 different beers that will be produced this year. The main, regular beers, which account for 80% of production, are London Lager, Pilsner, London Pale Ale and Yakima Red.
But Hook uses the plant to fashion porters, stouts, imperial Pilsners, wheat beers, and Belgian-style ales. The one type of beer he doesn’t make is cask ale.
His beers come under the heading of the new buzzword ‘craft’. He doesn’t have an issue with CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) and loves cask. He praises the work the campaign has done to save and foster real ale but has carved out a different route to market.
Meantime beers are on sale mainly in London and the south-east. As well as top-end pubs, they are also served in hotels and restaurants.
Hook’s one major disagreement with CAMRA is its determination to keep down beer prices. If you have to pay £4.50 for a pint of Meantime London Pale Ale, Hook is unapologetic.
“People should pay for nice things,” he says.