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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Friday, 15 May 2015

Why SABMiller's acquisition of Meantime is a good thing.

I wasn't going to write about this because I'm too busy and I don't have time. But I've read too many comments about it and I can't help myself.

Just to be clear, I'm not an apologist for big, corporate brands, OK? And I'll fight with anyone who says I am.

I think most people who love craft beer, good beer, real ale, interesting flavourful beer, whatever you want to call it, share a belief that mass market consumerism and the centralising of production into ever fewer, ever bigger corporations, goes hand-in-hand with cost-cutting, homogenisation, blandness, and a triumph of style over substance. It happens in all markets and it's happened in beer as much as anywhere - I'm old enough to remember when the likes of Stella Artois and John Smiths were well-made, flavourful beers, and it pains me to see what's become of them.

The small scale of craft brewers allows them to be nimble, adaptive and experimental in a way bigger companies simply cannot do.

Also, if you put the rational arguments to one side, emotionally there's an excitement to feeling like you're part of something important, something that challenges the big bad drones of the mainstream. It's a battle between good and evil, or at least good and mediocre, and we're the underdogs and we're winning! It's something that, for many, goes beyond being what you drink and becomes part of who you are, how you define and project yourself. I'm the same with music, and I'm increasingly like that with food and drink more broadly.

So I get it that people feel sad, disappointed, perhaps even betrayed, when one of us sells out and becomes one of them. I understand.

I guess there are breweries which I'd be upset and horrified about if they sold out to the Man. But Meantime, having announced their acquisition by SABMiller, isn't one of them. Not because I don't care from them - far from it - but because knowing and liking them, I think this was always their destiny.

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.

Yes, the innovators are exciting, and much of the time the beers are good. But the person who argues that the only beer that matters is beer that is bold and shocking to a mainstream palate is simply the lagered up twat who orders the hottest curry on the menu to impress his mates, in a beardy disguise.

Meantime pre-dated the modern British craft revolution. Alastair Hook is one of the most talented brewers in the world. If you talk to him, one reason he started Meantime was because he couldn't bear how bad mainstream beer was. He remains one of the fiercest critics I know of the cosy blandness of the British beer establishment. His lagers and pale ales are accessible and easy drinking, but far better made than their mainstream equivalents. It's pointless to judge Meantime's beers in comparison to the outer reaches of crafty experimentation, because they were simply never designed to. They should be judged against the mainstream, as a serious step up from the mainstream. That, to me, is what Meantime has always been about, and that's why their sale to SABMiller doesn't have me rending my garments and wailing.

Craft beer is big and diverse. While some fanatics may disagree, I don't think there should be a huge gulf between craft and mainstream. I think it's better for everyone if there are slight gradations in product character and complexity. I have seen people jump straight from Stella to barrel-aged Imperial Stout in some kind of quasi-religious conversion, but it doesn't happen often. And even when it does, you don't want a barrel-aged Imperial Stout - or even a massively hopped IPA - every single day of your life (If you do, you're lacking imagination just as much as the Foster's drinker.)

The more common complaint abut today's news is from people who did like Meantime's beers, and who now worry that the integrity of those beers will be compromised.

That is at least a worry that is justified, as explained above. But the modern beer world is moving so quickly I think you have to take each case on its own merits.

The paradigm has shifted for the big global brewers. They grew so big in a world where everyone wanted cold, fizzy lager that didn't taste of much, and used the economics of scale to grow and put their competitors out of business. When the market plateaued, they bought each other and consolidated, and now we have four big brewers who each have far too many boring lager brands that they don't know what to do with. They've each tried to make their leading brand the global beery equivalent of Coca Cola or Nike, and they've each failed because the world doesn't want a global, homogenous beer brand.

Now, in most parts of the world, the beer market is stagnant. The big brewers' business model simply isn't delivering organic growth any more. The big money and the smartest talent is going into the developing world, especially the so-called BRIC countries, where there's still lots of scope for growth.

In the old, traditional markets, craft may still be small in volume terms, but its the only bit people are talking about and the only bit that's making any money.

And it works in a way that's almost entirely the opposite of the way the big brewers have learned to make and sell beer. They don't understand craft at all. Talking to some of them, it's like they're looking at some kind of alien life form and trying to figure out how it moves. This means they can't launch their own craft ranges, so if they want a slice of the action they can only buy a craft brewery with a proven track record.

So when you look at it from that point of view, having bought a craft brewery, would they then change it to be exactly like their old, failing business model? Or would they simply put a bit more money into it and see how it goes?

This is not the first and will be far from the last craft acquisition by a major. I have absolutely no doubt that some of these acquisitions will be botched, and that once-great beers will be murdered.

When that does happen, it will be by accident rather than design, the bungling of stupid, weak people.

Within big breweries, the accountants will be wanting to put pressure on costs because that is their job. The marketers will be wanting to grow sales massively because that is their job. The brewers - where the original craft brewer remains in the business - will likewise want to carry on making great beer. A strong business leader will balance these imperatives.

Too many weak businesses allow the accountant to call the shots because that's the way to keep the City happy. That's what happens when it goes wrong, and you can see that it's bound to with some businesses at some point.

But I've seen a few examples now where this hasn't happened - yet.

I visited Goose Island last year and the product quality is actually better since the Anheuser Busch acquisition, because they've been given better equipment. So far, they have not been asked to compromise on ingredients or process. AB may be a cost-cutting company, but it knows that Goose Island sells for a lot more than Bud, and it understands that one of the main reasons for this is that the Goose Island drinker cares about what's in the bottle. They'd be idiots to mess with that, and whatever else they are, they're not idiots.

When Heineken acquired the Caledonian brewery via their purchase of Scottish & Newcastle, my mate Stephen Crawley was MD. He told me that a team from head office came and looked around the brewery, were obviously bemused by it, and said, "Well, you clearly know what you're doing. So long as the numbers look as good as they are, just carry on doing it." Two years later, when I visited again, the only change to the brewery was better health and safety signage.

When Molson Coors bought Sharps, everyone involved was interested in making Doom Bar the UK's biggest cask ale. Now, it is. But since the acquisition, Sharp's has released some astounding beers under the Connoisseur's Choice label.

Meantime fits the bill for a major player's foray into craft. Its beers don't scare people. Meantime has now become ubiquitous in London. If I'm in a great craft beer bar, I won't usually drink it. But when I go to a pub that's under, say, an Enterprise lease and therefore has a dull selection of beers, Meantime Pale Ale or Yakima Red are always there, so there's at least one beer on the bar that I know will be good. Today's deal basically means that you'll get this safe choice much more widely in ordinary boozers across the UK, and that's great. Meantime's accessibility and scale will help bring people into craft beer in much greater numbers, providing a useful bridge between mainstream and esoteric.

It's not a cut and dried thing either way, and that's what many people struggle to accept. But on balance, I think this is a good deal for craft beer and for curious beer drinkers.

Finally, several people I know and like have just made an awful lot of money. They deserve it. They backed a pioneer, the first of the new breweries in London, and put a lot of hard work into making it a success. The London craft beer scene would be very different if Meantime hadn't existed. Alastair Hook deserves his millions. And if you still think he's a sell out who has no right to sell the brewery he built from scratch, I dare you to say so to his face.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

Just brilliant.
Bravo! ����

Jb said...

I concur! Except Doombar which is not the same beer it was 2 years ago (but a long way to go before it reaches John Smiths)

StringersBeer said...

Down with those fanatic morons who dare disagree with you!

Jordan said...

Thanks for outlining the thing that people still don't get: The large brewers didn't set out to make shitty beer. They just consolidated themselves to a point where any product is a mongrel of branding and history.

They're not out to make the beer worse at breweries they acquire. They're out to sell beer and they know they can't create anything.

PivnĂ­ Filosof said...

The "Sell-out" thing is frankly pathetic, for reasons that don't need to be explained.

As with every other story like this, I sincerely congratulate the owners for making a sound decision. I hope they enjoy their early retirement.

(And I also hope that SAB-Miller will start importing and distributing Meantime in CZ)

Gary Gillman said...

Lots of other fish in the sea.

I was never a huge fan of the beers I tried anyway, but that's not the point.

Gary

Cooking Lager said...

I think you're an apologist for big, corporate brands, so it's by the bike sheds, after school for a battering.

Pete Brown said...

As we used to say in Barnsley, coits off, bags darn.

Robert Wicks said...

Well said...as always. I was inspired by the beers in the Union while toiling in the City a short walk away. We have 5 pieces of Meantime now brewing our beers 12 years after that inspiration. I've no desire to sell but I respect and salute Alisatair and his team for taking the bold move. Just visit Pilsner Urquell and you can believe that SABM can look after great brands.

David Goater said...

Spot on ...

Gary Gillman said...

I agree with Jordan above. It's really astonishing how, at the larger corporate level - excluding that is surviving old-regional companies - it took only a generation for mass-distributed quality beer to leave the scene, especially cask.

The Big Six plus the old Guinness knew how to make and distribute some great beer, mostly (but not entirely) cask ale:

http://barclayperkins.blogspot.ca/2013/10/the-big-six.html

But the internationalization of big brewing in the U.K. has meant it is easier to buy up successful craft brands than make anew something a long-closed brewery made or develop internally what a distant head office never had much interest in.

The important point is not this deal, but the diversity and strength of the craft and regional beer industry in England. We can disagree about whether Meantime made great beer, but the only real danger is if cask and other good beer will wither again in the U.K. That can't happen now, not for another 30 years at least.

Gary

PhilBob said...

Intelligent piece. Worth reading The Audacity of Hops by Tom Acatelli on how the U.S. craft beer scene began and evolved to see how this may play out for us.

StringersBeer said...

Isn't there an ex SABMIller man bossing Timothy Taylor's nowadays? You know, like there was at Meantime?

Stuart Inman said...

Fair enough they've created a very successful business, but it has always been about the money with Meantime.

I've never forgiven them for jacking the prices in their 'Old Brewery' when the Olympics rolled into town. I hate the way they charge a fiver a pint in their own bloody backstreet boozer. I hate the way the staff in the Union last Friday continued to say no:
'you can't go in the garden, its closed'
'you can't have that non-meantime beer, its gone'
'you can't sit there'

I only popped in for one pint, bunch of c**ts!!

With or without this takeover, they are just another corporate outfit.

Writing this I've realised I am actually disappointing in myself for supporting them on the odd occasion I'm in Greenwich.

Don't worry folks it won't happen again.

Oogywawa said...

Caledonian Brewery is a bad analogy on which to illustrate a generally well argued case as the beers fell through the floor in terms of quality post-Heineken. Deuchars IPA went from being a crisp distinctive hoppy bitter to a vapid homogenous national brand that had everything to do with cost cutting behind the scenes.

Alistair has every right to sell something he has built from ground zero but that does not negate any argument about whether it's in the best long term interest of the brewery.

mark justin said...

3 years ago when I criticised the lack of any real ale at Meantime and the parallels with the 1970's Keg Revolution. I was smacked down by many as not knowing what I was taliking about Meantime themselves invited me to a PR "one on one" session at their £10 million pound (mostly borrowed money) brewery to explain their position. I was told that in no way was this 1970 again. For a start "its not as if the smaller breweries are ever going to be swallowed up by the big boys". Well it has started to happen. And there is a distinct feeling of deja vu for anyone over 55 years of age.
But good luck to Meantime and a few quid in the pocket for the original investors is a lot better than a £10 million debt.

Dragos said...

Well written, I also believe that the goal of the major breweries wasn't to drop on quality but when a brewery hits that high level , marketing and high branding becomes more important and I believe that this applies for large businesses in general.

Simon K said...

Fair play to them for doing different (in 2000), growing their business and ultimately making a mint from it. But I share some of Stuart's reservations. Their beer has always been very expensive everywhere and if I'm paying that much I want beer that is more than average. I've never, literally ever (including at the brewery, the Old Brewery and the Greenwich Union), had a Meantime beer that was more than average. Their success is a mixture of first-mover advantage and good marketing, and not so very much about the quality of the drink in the glass.

As such I personally don't have any issue with their being swallowed up by SABMiller because their products just objectively aren't very interesting and so I find it hard to imagine them becoming less so. But I guess if this results in their turning up in more outlets where the only other 'premium' beer available is Peroni then that's not a bad thing. They remind me of Peroni in many ways really.