Pull Up A Stool
with Alastair Hook
Founder and Brewmaster, Meantime Brewing Co., Greenwich, England
All About Beer Magazine - Volume 28, Issue 1March 1, 2007
Where do you see Meantime Brewery in the modern UK brewing landscape? In terms of the modern landscape, we are unique. There are probably 400 micros in the UK. We're the only one who brewery-conditions all of our products. We're very much more like an American microbrewery, in that we brew and produce styles within the definitions set out by the Association of Brewers. We use processes and materials that are appropriate for the styles in question. As you know, we've won three medals at the World Beer Cup, for our Vienna-style lager; our Fest Beer, which is an Oktoberfest style; and for our Chocolate Beer, which won a gold in 2006. I think the British brewing landscape is a difficult model because much of it was based on vertical integration, and pub ownership by breweries, which goes back to the Victorian age. The industry was told that there would be no new licenses for pubs, so every brewery worth its salt bought pubs as its root to market. It was akin to the scramble for Africa. Until the Beer Orders in 1989, breweries owned pubs, so they had this very heady mix of retail and manufacturing, which meant that whatever was most lucrative would drive the business. Breweries were focusing more on their retail side than on their beer production side. Hence the Campaign for Real Ale [CAMRA], which set up in the early seventies to campaign for the increased availability of cask-conditioned beers. CAMRA's emphasis has obviously been on real ale. And that's one place I see you breaking dramatically with tradition. I mean, was anyone else in the microbrewing world over there making Viennas and Fest Beers? No. I'm a believer in great beer. My first real beer experiences were real ale in the south of London. I thought real ale was a fantastic, tasty product compared with all the pasteurized, kegged brewery products that were all accountant-driven—rather cheap, nasty lagers or bland ales. That's the product of the vertical system I was telling you about. So, I think real ales were my first inspiration, but flavor and taste is the biggest inspiration. My first experience in the States was when I visited Hopland Brewing Co. in its first year, in Mendocino county. What struck me was that, in a hundred degrees of heat, you could drink these cold beers that had amazing flavor. That's when I first started to realize that CAMRA's campaign, although very noble in some respects, was clearly not the whole story. So my quest for flavor started there, and ended up in Bavaria after my brewing degree at Heriot Watt in Scotland. So, when you were in San Francisco... I was studying brewing at Heriot Watt, and spending my summers working in the States and watching the beginnings of the microbrewing revolution, which is a business and commercial revolution, as opposed to CAMRA, which is a consumer lobbying group, So you went into university knowing you wanted to brew? Yes, absolutely. Well, truth be told, when I got my A-levels [specialized education certificates taken by secondary school students], I was already traveling up and down the country to the Black Country and to Manchester on day trips just to drink beer with some friends. By then, I realized I had a passion for great beer. I'd started an Economic and Social History degree at York University. I was doing a research project on Guinness, the first private limited company. I thought it was enthralling, and I hopped on the train to Edinburgh to speak to the people at the brewing school. I decided I was going to jack in my Economics and Social History degree, which to me seemed to be a bit abstract, and do something real, making people happy with something that I've made. You know that feeling. I went to Edinburgh to do more A-levels—would you believe, because I didn't have the right ones—and started my brewing degree in 1985. By then, I had more A-levels than anyone I knew... During that period I was working the States. In fact, it was 1983, my first trip to the States to work for the San Francisco Boys and Girls Club—I'm actually a lifetime member after the work I put in over four consecutive summers! I'd seen the early days of the microbrewing revolution there. At Heriot Watt, I learnt nothing but the big industry side, all the new cutting-edge technology: it was all “stack it high-sell it cheap.” There was not much passion; it was all about chemical engineering and industrial technology. So I thought, clearly the Brits don't care too much about the product that's been part of making this a great nation, but the Germans seem to, so I learnt German. I went to post-grad for professional analysis at the University of Munich, Weihenstephan. As you know, that's where I met Eric Warner [of Flying Dog Brewing Co. in Denver], and Eric Toft, another friend, who now runs the Schoenrahmer Brewery in southern Bavaria. So, an Englishman, an American and a German walk into a bar...? A Wyoming cowboy, really, that's why Eric's still in Bavaria. Bavaria's no different from Wyoming, really, full of rednecks and horses and great beer. Well, Wyoming has Tommyknockers. By then, I'd had a completely international education. I'd learned German, I'd worked in Switzerland and Germany, and my first job was working for a German brewery in Italy. When I got back to England finally, to set up a German-style brewhouse in Ashford in Kent in 1991, the whole real ale thing was still strong in the UK, but nobody drank good lager or good Belgian style beers or good fruit beers or wheat beers. So you were carving out an unusual niche. I think my history, my education was so different from anything that was conventional in the UK that I had a completely different view. And you can see the American influence. How did you go about winning over drinkers in the UK? The UK by then had nestled into either real ale that was badly kept by pubs that didn't understand real ale, or rather tasteless keg lager or keg ale. With specialist lager—“lager” means to store, anything that's been stored for five or six weeks and is made with marvelous materials—you create tastes and flavors that normal lager doesn't have. It was very easy to impress people. It's no secret, you're just maturing your beer properly, unlike the rest of the industry that didn't seem to bother. So this German-style brewery was before you founded Meantime? Yes, that was way before that, that was 1998. I produced a dunkles, a Vienna and a Pilsen-style, and we'd do specialties like Dortmunder. There was no one doing anything like it in the UK. But it was part of a retail group, and the directors couldn't see the value: they were targeting young people who didn't really appreciate the quality of the beers or the expense of making them. So I left, and set up the Freedom Brewing Co. in Fulham in 1994, producing one non-pasteurized, bottled Pilsen-style beer that was properly matured. I still hadn't brewed a real ale in Britain. Was that the brewery that was prevented from exhibiting at the GBBF? No. Well. (laughs) Yes. They never had this product at the GBBF because I fall between two stools. I don't produce real ale, but I'm not Continental. You're neither. I'm neither. And the fact that I'm a Londoner who cares passionately about beer makes that whole thing even stranger. You're from Greenwich, hence the location (and name) for Meantime. Exactly. We went through Freedom, then I worked for Oliver Peyton, quite a famous London restaurateur. We opened a couple of microbreweries where I started to produce a range of styles. He was a restaurateur concentrating on flavor and taste in his food, in cocktails and wines, so that sat quite nicely for four years. We did some great beers. If you take the log of the Great American Beer Festival, I've probably produced 30 to 40 different styles along those lines. I think the most warmly received beer was my black currant porter. We did a strawberry cream, things that nobody was doing in the UK. For me it was simple. But I'm talking to somebody who's lived through the whole microbrewing scene in the States, so to you it must sound so simple. No, because it all happens in a business and cultural context as well, and that's very challenging... Exactly. But it's not as radical and different as people seem to think. I've sat very comfortably with my bi-annual visit to judge at the Great American Beer Festival, which started in ’96 I think, and Meantime, which was started in 2000, which was I suppose the fruits of all my labors. Meantime was the brewery that was going to produce bottled and kegged beer, brewery conditioned: in other words, beer that I know when it leaves the door is going to be perfect when the customer drinks it. Nobody's going to wreck it, so long as it doesn't get boiled in transport. Meantime was my brainchild, my dream: my own brewery; my own town; next to my own football ground; my football club, Charlton Athletic, playing in the premiership. My friends all chipped in to help. They knew if they didn't find some money, they'd have to listen to me whining for the rest of my life. We probably put about a million pounds into Meantime. It was a huge leap of faith. The other 400 micros in the UK all produce cask-conditioned ale, and they all sell to the limited number of free houses that are able to dispense real ale. And not all of them do it well. A lot of them don't. This is a real problem that real ale has. And there's not enough money in cask ale to sustain businesses: there's so much training, and quality issues. And the culture in this country: this is 30 years beyond the keg revolution and people have forgotten how to take care of cask ale. Unfortunately, Campaign for Real Ale has made the mistake of campaigning for real ale, but also campaigning for low prices of real ale. Commercially, it's not sustainable. You have to be willing to pay for it. Yes you do, that's the secret. When you're not brewing, what do you like to do? I've been a golfer since I was ten years old, so I play a lot of golf. I fish a lot. When I come over to the Great American Beer Festival [in Denver], I end up heading to Wyoming, or it was British Columbia last year. I'm going with a very famous chap in the beer industry, Chris Swersey, he's a fishing guide. We're going off to Idaho at the end of next year's Great American Beer Festival for some fly-fishing. Like that famous book, Trout Fishing in America, Brautigan. And I'm a great fan of cricket and soccer, things that are a bit strange to the American psyche. I'm a Charlton Athletic Football Club season ticket holder. Apart from that, I don't have time for much besides the brewery We see your beer here in North Carolina, so you've got great reach. It was pretty much the brainchild of myself and Eric Warner. This was prior to Flying Dog's purchase of the Frederick Brewery. We started the project rolling, then Eric was immersed in the Frederick project. I bumped into Bob Legget, and Sean Knoll and Lanny Hoff, the principals of Artisanal Imports, the offshoot of Manneken Brussel. I met them and they're just beer people. You don't meet wholesalers like those three in the UK, who understand beer they way they do. Anything associated with the American microbrewing scene, it always blew me away how much you guys know about something you knew nothing about 30 years ago, Its been a steep learning curve. You've embraced it marvelously. It shames the Europeans, the way the Americans are really acting as custodians of history. It's typical of the Americans. That's the nicest thing I've heard someone say about this country in quite a while! Don't start talking politics. (laughs) Well, it's nice when we have fans for what we do with beer. It's been my model for quite a while. And Meantime, of course, has the provenance of being a London brewer, with Young's closing—which of course is a tragedy. As a London beer drinker, I am gobsmacked by the whole course of events. It's terribly sad. So Fullers are London's biggest brewer and we are now London's second biggest brewery. There's responsibility. We make an India pale ale and a London porter—India pale ale being, of course, the London beer that made Burton famous. Originally it was a London beer, imitated by the brewers of Burton in a much more successful manner, but of course they had gypsum in their water. And then we have our London porter, the beer that made London great. It was a beer that fueled hardworking millions, helped them up and helped them down. In the early Industrial Revolution, porter was the drink of choice, the ideal beer to be brewed with the waters of London. So we've got that provenance. But of course, in England, Meantime made themselves famous for specialist lager beers, wheat beers and fruit beers. We picked up a contract early on to supply all the beer for a brand called “Taste the Difference” for Sainsbury's [a national grocery chain]. We've been brewing their beers for them ever since we started. A Kölsch-style lager, a Vienna, a hefe weizen, a Münchner dunkles, a raspberry in the Belgian style, a fest beer, and an organic north German pilsner style. They were the early beers that got us our reputation. All the beers are non-pasteurized, properly lagered. I think we also did a late-hop blonde ale, which is a pale ale really, and then came the beer in America. I looked to the American market, and thought, well, I'll get more appreciation there for doing something special. The combination of the beer and the wonderful bottles is very classy. You can be passionate about beer all you want, but of course its only half the story. In the UK, I've watched generations of brewers producing very ordinary beer but nicely packaged, so I thought surely it would be sensible to make sure the packaging is beautiful as well as the beer. There's great heritage in the London Porter and the IPA. The websites London-porter.com and India-pale-ale.com chart the history of these styles. We went to the British Library for a month to find out everything we could. Those websites are projects on why those beers are as they are. It adds to the experience people have when they enjoy the beer. You can't expect people to part with their hard-earned cash if you don't give them more. You have to get the details right. Eric Warner was a great help. He knew the American market through Tabernash and Flying Dog. We pretty much co-designed the packaging. Then the nicest thing was to hand it over to Artisanal, to people who love and care about beer. Think a moment and give me your favorite beer drinking memory. I'll give you two. The most sentimental beer drinking memory is taking a day trip on the train from London with my old music teacher and a friend of mine at school—we were still only 16, how my music teacher got away with it, I don't know. The friend is the head brewer and owner of the Twisted Hop in New Zealand, so he's become a brewer as well. We toured the Black Country in a day and we drank beers from breweries like Simpkiss, Bathams, Holdens, Banks (of course), Sarah Hughes. We visited those brewery taps, and that was sensational. And another great beer drinking memory—because of course sometimes you don't really remember the great ones—was the Aventinus strong beer festival in Kelheim. The tickets to the Aventinus fest in March are like gold dust. And all the people of Kelheim would visit the brewery on this one evening. They'd all arrive at the brewery at eight o-clock in the evening, the brass band would start up, and by nine o'clock in the evening, every single individual—man, woman and child, regardless of age—would be up on the tables drinking liters of Aventinus and singing. And it carried on for another three hours until midnight, then they all got off the tables and walked home.
Julie Johnson is the technical editor of All About Beer Magazine.