You love the blog, so subscribe to the Beervana Podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud today!

Monday, December 05, 2011

Meantime, an American-English Brewery?

I began transcribing my audio tapes today, and I'm going back in order to the places I first visited--so today I worked on Fuller's and Meantime. There's a huge, huge amount of fascinating stuff here. A lot of it is at such a fine level of detail that I won't be able to use it in the book--but of course, it's ideal for a blog. So expect a fair amount of quoting in the weeks to come. (Plus I still need to write about some amazing breweries I haven't gotten to yet, like Belhaven, Boon, Rodenbach, Orval, and a couple others.)

In any case, today's quote is actual a story that details Meantime's intellectual development under its founder Alastair Hook, and it describes the evolution of the entire craft brewing movement going back to the time he drank Anchor Steam and Mendocino beer in San Francisco in the early 1980s. It includes a rather amazing comment about American brewing toward the end--one I take slight issue with, and certainly one British, German, and Belgian breweries would dispute. But his point and the narrative is quite fascinating. Enjoy.


I was working for the San Francisco Boys and Girls Club camps. Having grown up in London drinking cask ale, being part of the CAMRA movement, thinking that cask—good cask—is everything (everything else is just crap industrial). I have a North German family; I’ve got North German cousins who got me into beer up in Lubeck and Hamburg, places like that. So I started to drink beer young, on the continent. I went to Belgium Interrailing [riding the train], I went around Europe when I was 17 with Michael Jackson’s guide to beer. And then I went to the states and worked, and suddenly my whole perception of what was right in beer and what was special changed completely—because I got exposed to Germany, Belgium, and the United States. The United States in ’82 was emerging. It was hard to find decent beer.

I did my postgrad at Munich at Weihenstephan. By the time I got back to England in 1989, I had a very different view of the brewing world—and it wasn’t an English view (and I’m a South Londoner, I’m as London as it gets). So I set up a brewery called Packhorse [where we brewed lagers]. Now in London at the time, in the early 90s, sixty percent of the beer drunk was lager—and yet it was all crap. It was all tasteless, flavorless. The British lagers at the time, the ersatz continental lagers, were just awful. They’re still pretty poor now.

Then I set up a brewery in Fullham called Freedom in 1994. Again, bottom-fermented, fresh-brewed lagers. And then I went to the states in ’95 to judge and that of course changed—it just re-invigorated me. It blew my—I think even then there were fifty styles. And you start this collegial judging process where all the people are interested in is the beer and the beer’s qualities.

The craft beer revolution is a worldwide phenomenon that was started in the States. But the big difference between the craft brewers in the United States and those in the UK is that the Americans understood the need to get beers technically sound. There was a bit of a rough ride, but now they’ve come through that, [they’ve] got the best brewers in the world.

[To this, I asked, surprised, "You think so?"] Oh yeah. In terms of specialty, with the provenance and history, you can’t beat, for example, Orval. You know, they’ve got everything. They’ve got the specialism, they’ve got amazing technology, they’ve got all the history, they’ve got a unique beer. And that’s the holy grail for many Americans, and they make their pilgrimages. But it inspires them, and they’ve become the custodians of European brewing heritage for the last 20-30 years. But it’s great. It will have a beneficial effect on Europe and it is, already, and we feel we’re a part of that.

So that’s where we are. We’re here to change the way people think about beer. To do that, you’ve got to meet people who don’t drink beer or people who are drinking very poor beer which has no character. They’re the people we focus on. The London Pale Ale and the London Lager are very much stepping stones to the big, weird and wonderful beers that are day-to-day in the States. The world is working it out. World-class craft beer and the revolution that is craft beer is the best thing that ever happened. And for me, after 25 years as a brewer, to start to see—I’m glad I hadn’t retired and become bitter. I’m glad I’m still in the thick of it at the age of 48 and being able to see it happen all around me.


  1. This gave me the tingles and simultaneously put a huge grin on my face. Thanks for posting!

  2. Damn interesting take on American brewing. Keep that crap's good stuff.

  3. Alastair is talking about the very top of the pyramid of American craft brewing, and I think he's got a good argument. If you want a good pils, go to Bohemia, a good bitetr, to to Britain, a good trappist beer, go to Belgium - if you want one brewery doing all three well, however, you'll find it somewhere in the US. Of course, not all US brewers reach the peaks, but there are only four or five brewers in the UK capable of matching the range and quality that perhaps 20 or more US brewers can achieve, and in continental Europe - none, because, for their own perfectly good reasons, they stick to their knitting, and excellent knitting it is too, but only the one pattern. And don't think I don't appreciate the "single style" brewers - I love Fullers, Tim Taylors, Adnams and the rest. But I'm glad that we also now have in the UK the likes of Meantime, Thornbridge and Kernel.