A Tale Of Two Sittings
The Knowledge And The Secret Bar
Drinking Beer With Meantime And Sharp's
Having just returned from Paris (about which I'll post about separately soon) this was a title that I simply couldn't resist. You might think that it's one that I've used simply for literal effect, but there's more than clever wordplay behind it. as sitting, drinking and talking was very much the order of the day on each occasion.
Both breweries are now owned by multi-national national drinks firms, with SAB Miller acquiring Meantime earlier this year to much consternation, whilst Molson Coors bought Sharp's from the founder and owner Bill Sharp back in 2011. I was interested in getting both breweries perspective on what some have seen as selling-out and was pleasantly encouraged by what I heard from both parties. I'm jumping a little ahead of myself here however, and it was Meantime to which I was invited first of all, so that's where I'll start.
So it was, one Thursday evening a month or so ago, I made my way to their brewery in Greenwich, a fifteen minute walk from London's O2 arena, for the launch of The Knowledge a series of beer appreciation courses for those wanting to delve a little deeper into this liquid that we love.
We were met at the new Tasting Rooms which were opened shortly before the buy-out was announced, by the current Beer Academy Beer Sommelier of the Year, Rod Jones. He was our host for the evening and gave us a brief tour of the brewery before we made our way to the upstairs Brewhouse bar, home to some of the late beer writer Michael Jackson's astonishing bottle collection.
On our way there we were treated to a view of Meantime's small but interesting barrel-ageing area, home to a very small batch of the much missed and much sought after Thomas Hardy's Ale. Originally brewed by Eldridge Pope from 1968 until 1999 when they ceased brewing completely, it was briefly revived by the Devon-based O'Hanlon's Brewery. After only five years they too stopped brewing it as it proving too expensive for them and their limited resources. Sadly the bottles from the cask we saw won't be seen in the UK however, as they we be shipped of to Italy, however it was hinted that a very limited amount may be made available. I live in hope.
We also got to see the first contribution SAB Miller has made to Meantime as Rod proudly introduced us to four shiny new fermenting vessels that inhabit the brewery yard. Standing proud and tall like the buildings just across the water in London's Docklands, they were certainly an impressive example of what investment can bring.
Finally, when we are all seated and have a full glass of Meantime beer (what else!) in front of us, Rod proceeds to tell us about the reasoning behind them taking this initiative.
"We have wanted to do this for some time, and indeed have been doing so on a limited basis" he began " and it's something we are hoping to roll-out to the on-trade shortly, as well as those who sell our beer in places like Waitrose"
"The thinking behind this, particularly for trade customers, is to educate them. It's about reclaiming working in the licensed trade as a career path, educating and helping them promote better beer. It's about realising that beer is not going to go back to the 'old men in pubs' thing."
"The industry is renewing itself constantly anyway. Bottles of light ale, the traditional pale ale and Mackeson have all-but disappeared from pubs. We think that there is plenty of interest in beer now, ... and we want them to come in and experience a working brewery ... and learn something about beer, This is a genuine education programme within the industry."
He then went on to explain the two levels of courses on offer.
The first level is split into four 'mini-courses': Beer Appreciation/How to taste beer; How beer is made; London beer history; and Beer and cheese, the latter being an informal talk and tasting of Meantime and other world class beers paired with various cheeses, with the aim of bringing out the best in both.
The second level consists of the Masterclass, a one-day five hour course that includes lunch and a full beer tasting, and covers all aspects of beer, including it's evaluation, identifying faults, serving temperatures and beer and food.
A limited level of knowledge is assumed when people come on these courses we are told, and should you be interested in finding out more about any of these, or would like to book yourself on them, then you can follow this link which will enable you to do so.
We talked about beer for quite some time with Rod impressing us all with his detailed level of knowledge. He talked to us on a wide range of beer related subjects from the simple and complex sugars in barley and malt, to the ancient Mesopotamian poem, the Epic of Gilgamesh (in which beer plays a part in creating the first man), to hop oils, and the history of brewing in London.
There is one subject on which he won't be drawn, and that is on the SAB Miller acquisition itself. I ask him if it was larger company that approached Meantime or if there was any courtship on their behalf. Rod deftly side-steps this issue by stating that he wasn't party to the deal so cannot comment on it, however he is keen to stress the benefits that the larger brewery will bring, from increased distribution and investment to a wealth of industry knowledge. Most importantly though, for the time being at least, Meantime is being left largely to it's own devices and continuing to do what it does best, brewing good beer.
I finished the evening in good company and with good food and plenty of Meantime beer, talking more informally this time with Rod, along with Pete Brown and Jerry Bartlett before I had to drag myself away. It had been a very satisfying and informative evening and being issued with a certificate to say that we had completed the course was a rather nice touch.
A few weeks later, it's the first Saturday in August and I've just finished work for a couple of weeks annual leave. Rather than going straight home I change in the office before heading up to Finsbury Circus, a short walk from Moorgate tube station to attend the annual London Beach Rugby event as a guest of Sharp's Brewery.
You may think that the city of London is an odd place for a beach rugby tournament, however as I approach the venue it becomes clear from the noise level that quite a lot of people think this is very much the place to be.
The London Beach Rugby tournament was held in Covent Garden in 2013, and has been sponsored by Sharp's from the beginning. It moved to London's Docklands last year, but this year the Finsbury Circus venue became available and I gather that it will be held there next year too. The format is basically five-a-side touch-rugby on sand, but should you wish for a more detailed version of the rules they can be found here. The Sharp's team was coached by former England Tighthead Prop Phil Vickery, and it was my pleasure to meet and chat with him a little later in the day.
Despite playing well, the Sharp's team only made it to the semi-finals, with the eventual winners being a French team who are apparently the dominant force in the game, having won every year so far. Spread over two afternoons it's a thoroughly enjoyable way to watch competitive sport up close whilst working your way through Sharp's core range, so if it sounds like your thing then keep an eye out for it next year.
I had been promised a very special tasting experience and I'm met by Lara from Red Consultancy who has set this meeting up and she introduces me to James Nicholls, Sharp's Senior Brand Manager.
I immediately warm to James and his easy going manner. He is friendly, knowledgeable and most of all passionate about the brewery he has been with for over twenty years. Having started washing casks and helping out in his spare time, he has worked his way up to a senior position in the company but this hasn't jaded him in any way shape or form. The Sharp's fire still burns fiercely inside him.
We talk about beer in general and about Rock and the area of Cornwall where the brewery is based. It's an area I know well as I used to visit every year from 1988 until 1993 as, along with a group of friends, I'd spend the summer surfing and drinking in and around nearby Polzeath.
Inevitably the conversation turns to brewing in Rock, and when I ask him about the recent revelation that some Doom Bar isn't actually brewed in Cornwall he gives me an honest and straight-forward answer.
"I know this has caused a lot of fuss" he says "but It's only the bottled version that's brewed by Molson Coors in Burton upon Trent, and this only accounts for 15 per cent of production. It's all a question of resources, and the remaining 85 per cent, which accounts for all of the cask production, is still brewed in Cornwall."
This actually makes a lot of sense, and having discussed this with a few people whose opinions I respect since then, I've come to the conclusion that if you're going to have your beer brewed elsewhere then Burton upon Trent, with its rich and historic brewing tradition, is certainly the place to do so.
It appears that Sharp's have largely been left alone by Molson Coors, with the multi-national bringing investment, distribution and industry knowledge, in fact exactly the same answers I got from Rod at Meantime.
The only difference between the two that I can see is time.
Remember that it's been nearly five years since Sharp's were sold, and in that time it cannot be denied that whatever you think of Doom Bar, its profile has been raised significantly and it has attracted a huge army of fans who actively seek it out. I myself have friends who talk about it in almost hallowed terms, and it's the one beer that they look out for if they want a pint of 'real ale'. Publicans undoubtedly know this and they will tell you that it always sells well, so much so that it has become a regular fixture on bars up and down the country. This of course raises the issue of consistency and I'm assured that even though this is hard to ensure on a practical level, Sharp's tries its hardest to make sure that this is so. It's clearly a brand reputation they're very proud of and very keen on protecting.
The reason for my visit was a VIP tasting, and I was soon led over to a mobile home-style vehicle towards one corner of Finsbury Circus. This, I'm told, is the 'Secret Bar'.
James says he'll be seeing us in a minute or two and promptly disappears whilst Lara and myself are ushered into the back of the vehicle and some fairly and quite cramped seating, but there is a partition door slightly ahead of us. The main door is closed, and with it the sights, sounds and smells of the rugby tournament beyond fade into memory. The partition door is rolled back and the 'Secret Bar' is revealed ...
Unfortunately that's as much as I will say as I have been asked by Sharp's not to reveal exact details about the bar itself suffice to say that it is designed in such a way that you whole focus is solely on the beer.
James is there of course, assuming the guise of barman, and I am served beer, as you might expect, and more besides. He is very keen to hear my opinions and those of Lara, as well as offering his own and we evaluate the beer as we go and talk about the flavours we find and the way they are brewed. It is a fascinating and enlightening experience and we are in there for some considerable time, nearly two hours, and though I'm told that this is a fairly new thing for them as well as me, they are normally in and out in around twenty minutes.
We emerge into the sunshine with the rugby tournament into its closing stages. Beer tokens are pushed into my hand and I'm given a hessian goody bag full of Sharp's beer. I'm not left to my own devices however and even though the tasting is over James and other members of the brewery team are attentive and on hand to talk about beer, answering any other questions that I have.
Several pints later it's time for me to leave, and although the rugby has finished the party will be continuing long into the night.
On the train home I reflect on the day the relative experiences I have had with both breweries. Meantime obviously had a product to sell, The Knowledge, and even though they were genuinely friendly the feel was a little more clinical than the easy-going charm that I felt from the staff at Sharp's. The events themselves obviously went some way to contribute towards this, and whilst Sharp's were obviously very comfortable with the role their parent company held in the day to day running of things, I didn't quite get that same feeling at Meantime.
Time will of course tell, so let's hope we continue to be drinking good beer from both of these breweries for may years to come.
I'd like to thank Rod and James at Meantime, and James from Sharp's for entertaining me and my questions and answering them in an open and honest way. I'd also like to that Don at Hope And Glory and Lara at Red Consultancy for inviting me along to their respective events. I had a great time at both and everyone without exception was extremely friendly.
Addendum: Some of you may have read this week, this article on the Beer Insider site regarding Grolsch, one of SAB Miller's other brands, now comprising 10 per cent of Meantime's London Lager. Whilst this is obviously a worrying development as it shows that the larger brewery is already influencing production, it might not be a huge cause for concern yet. It does however make me think of those four shiny new fermenting vessels that had recently been delivered and what beer they might contain in a few years time.