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.