The new chief executive of London-based craft brewer and pub company Meantime tells Neil Gerrard about the company's plans for expansion, and the opportunities presented by having a pub/restaurant right next to one of the most prominent Olympic venues
What is your background - how did you end up at Meantime?
I started with Charrington [brewer and pub company] in about 1986 as a free trade salesman and worked my way through the ranks with Bass. I joined SAB Miller in 2005 as sales and marketing director, then became MD in 2008.
I'd had my eye on Meantime for a long time and just thought what an exciting concept it was - a great beer brand which celebrated a lot of different styles and was trying to reinvigorate the slightly homogenised British brewing industry. I was afforded the opportunity to sit down and talk with them and I took the plunge and joined in August last year.
What do you want to achieve with the business? Are there any plans to increase your pub-restaurant estate?
We will look at opportunities to expand our retail estate but it isn't our primary focus within the business. Our primary focus is about building the Meantime brand and offering choice to our drinkers. Our beers are a very different product to what you will get from the big brewers because they are longer-matured, they are unpasteurised, they are cold-filtered and we really believe in accentuating the varieties of the beers that are available.
We will brew about 38 different types of beer this year. We want to talk about the provenance and heritage of our beer. Are we going to get huge? No, because we don't have the capacity to do that. We are very much a premium, top-end, high-quality brand and product.
One of your pub-restaurants, the Old Brewery, will be opposite the Olympic equestrian events in Greenwich. What do you think about the opportunities presented by the games and how do you plan to capitalise?
One of the big problems with Meantime was capacity and that is why we now have extra tankage in our brewery. Capacity at the Old Brewery was also an issue so we spent £100,000 expanding our prep kitchen and improving the size of our fryers to be able to support the demand that we envisage coming from 40,000 people walking past our doors for two weeks. We have also extended our outside seating area and introduced hand-held tills so that we can improve the service out in the courtyard. We have also changed our management structures at the Old Brewery so we have got one general manager and two shift managers, and we are starting to ramp up our staffing as well.
This is a very strange time because we have had the Jubilee, we have the Greenwich Festival which runs for 31 days, and we have the Olympics and the Paralympics. So we are looking at a very busy summer this year.
Do you have any figure in mind for what you expect your weekly turnover at the Old Brewery to reach during the Olympics?
I have a personal target in my head, which is to exceed six figures. At the moment we average about £40,000 to £45,000 a week, although we have had peak weeks where we hit £70,000 or £75,000. I think we will go over six figures if it goes right.
You have recently quadrupled brewing capacity at your brewery in Greenwich, making it the biggest new brewery in London since 1936. What are the plans there?
We have just completed the refurbishment and we spent quite a lot of money on it. We also have a new visitor centre, and that is all about education. We can invite our customers and staff to come and understand the brewing process and learn about how beer is brewed and celebrate some of the varieties that are actually available.
We want to explain to people that it is not just one product - there are many different types of beers available. We also want to show people how to match them with food, which is a big plank within our business. And don't forget the heritage and provenance - London was the brewing capital of the world in the 18th century and we are celebrating that through our London Porters and our London IPAs - some of the classic beers that originated from London.
How does the size of your brewery now rank in terms of other breweries in London?
We are the second-biggest brewer in London but we are still only about a quarter to a third of the size of Fuller's in terms of capacity output and we are minuscule compared with, say, Heineken or Coors or Carlsberg. We are not a scale game - we are about high-quality craft beers.
How much of your beer goes into the on-trade and how much into the off-trade?
About 10% of our volume is off-trade based, mostly with Waitrose. We do quite a lot of own-label stuff with Marks & Spencer, and a little bit with Sainsbury's in London. In the on-trade we have some hotels - we have just gone into Malmaison, and most of the big West End hotels will have some form of Meantime brand. We also sell quite a lot to Young's in the multiple on-trade. But most of our off-trade accounts are the small independent bars and pubs, predominantly in central London.
Some pub licensees Caterer and Hotelkeeper has spoken to have remarked in the past that Meantime's beers are too expensive. Is that a fair criticism?
I don't think it is very expensive. It is purposely differentiated to be a premium product because the brewing process takes more than 30 days, whereas a lot of the beers that they can buy will take a week. Our production costs are significantly higher than the bigger brewers. Why accept that you can buy a bottle of wine for £6 and another one for £500? Surely that same principle for the price elasticity should apply to the beer category?
You have to get out of the view that everything should be the same price. People will pay for better quality. There is a great cash margin opportunity for you to buy Meantime beers and serve them as a premium alternative to the mass brands. I would urge people to start thinking more broadly about the beer category and the variety it can give.
As you have mentioned, beer and food matching is something you do a lot of. How much enthusiasm do you see from customers? It still hasn't really taken off in same way wine and food matching has.
No it hasn't and that is because the industry as a whole hasn't spent enough time accentuating the brilliant matches between beer and food. I went to Michel Roux Jnr's Le Gavroche a few weeks ago and he personally came out and talked about beer and food matching and he was superb. Chocolate fondant with a raspberry wheat beer - superb! An IPA with a plate of cheese - it just cuts through it all. I could go on for hours.
In the Old Brewery, on the first Monday of every month, we do a five-course meal matched with different beers and we sell out every time, and we have done that every month since it launched six months ago. Our menus have a suggested beer with each dish available. These are the little things you can do to highlight that beer and food can go just as well as food and wine. But as an industry we have been fairly emotional in our promotion of the beer category. We are not talking about the provenance and history of beer enough and that transmits itself to the retailers who serve it as a default product.
The Government has recently proposed a minimum alcohol price of 40p per unit. As a brewer and pub operator, what are your views on that?
I am dead against it. I think it is a forerunner to more taxation. The Government is once again meddling in the free-market economy. You have to be careful what you wish for and the industry should be mature enough and big enough to self regulate.
Progressive beer duty should be extended and VAT on food should be lowered instead. Why should supermarkets be VAT-free on food and the on-trade not? My personal view is that the Government should go straight to the supermarkets and have an open dialogue with them about how to regulate the cheap pricing of beer. They are being quite damaging to the category because of how they retail. Of course, minimum pricing will probably actually benefit us. But is it the right way? Government intervention on pricing? I am not sure that is what you want as an industry.
The Meantime story
Meantime was founded by Master Brewer, Alastair Hook (pictured left), with the help of friends and family.
The company started life in Hook's flat before it moved to new premises in Greenwich in 1999. By February 2000, the largest and most expensive start-up brewery seen in the UK for more than 80 years was installed and commissioned, complete with bottling line. The first brew was packaged in April.
The early days were all about brewing and bottling for others but eventually it began brewing its own brands, starting with Union, a Vienna-style dark lager.
Other beers followed and Meantime began selling to restaurateurs, with Oliver Peyton, Hook's old boss at Manchester restaurant Mash, the first to take them on.
Meantime opened its first pub, the Union in Greenwich, in 2001. A deal followed in 2002 to supply Sainsbury's with the entire Taste the Difference range of beers - a deal that ended in 2009.
In 2009, the business won funds to open a new, bar, brewery, café and restaurant at the Old Royal Naval College called the Old Brewery, and in 2010, the business moved its brewing operation to a new site on Blackwall Lane near the O2.
Facts and stats
Pubs Two (and one visitor centre)
Brewmaster and founder Alastair Hook
Ownership 60 private shareholders
Annual turnover £9m-plus (projected for year to December 2012)
Beer brewed per annum 50,000 hectolitres (year to December 2012)