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Miller: we'll be dumbed up, not down

Added: Friday, May 15th 2015

Nick Miller

Nick Miller denies emphatically that the sale of Meantime Brewing Co to beer giant SABMiller means the Greenwich brewery’s brands will be dumbed down. “Absolutely not – if anything, they’ll be dumbed up!” he laughs.

Miller, chief executive at Meantime since 2011, says the bid from SABMiller was completely unexpected. He dismisses suggestions the takeover was part of a long-term plan. He was managing director of Miller Brands, SABMiller’s UK subsidiary, but left in 2011 to join Meantime.

“I wish I had the foresight to plan things like that,” he says. “The bid came out of the blue. Someone came to the brewery to buy beer and asked how we were doing. I said Alastair [founder and brewmaster Alastair Hook] and I needed additional resources to expand the brewery and keep up with demand. The man said ‘I can help you – I’d like to buy you’. It turned out he was from SABMiller.”

The track record of global brewers suggests there’s a tendency to cut corners, use cheaper ingredients and speed up production times. But Miller is adamant that won’t happen at Meantime.

“They haven’t got the balls to tell Alastair to change his beers,” he says. “When I joined in 2011, he told me we would quickly part company if I attempted to interfere on the brewing side.

“Alastair just wants to brew great beer. He proved that with his first lager brewery in Ashford – that failed because it was ahead of its time. But look what he’s achieved at Meantime.

“He’s made it absolutely clear to SABMiller that he will have complete autonomy where quality is concerned. We have a great opportunity now to shout about the traditions of London’s great pale ales and stouts in other countries.”

He thinks SABMiller will use its strength to export Meantime beers to the United States, Italy – where it owns Peroni – Australia and the emerging markets of Eastern Europe, with Russia and Poland high on the list. London Pale Ale and London Lager are the main brands but Miller thinks the whole range “has legs” as far as exports are concerned. The takeover will also enable Meantime to build sales throughout Britain: at present its core base is London and the South-east.

One important element of the takeover is that Meantime will become SABMiller’s centre for beer innovation in Europe. Nick Miller says a new pilot brewery will be built alongside the main plant. It will be visible from the street and people will be able to watch the brewing process. The plant will be used to test new styles and recipes for brands aimed at both the UK and wider European markets.

Miller says Meantime has no plans to develop cask ale brands and will concentrate on its key draught keg and bottled beers. He stressed he can’t speak for SABMiller but he wouldn’t rule out the group moving into cask ale production as a result of the style’s popularity.

He says the biggest challenge for Meantime will be keeping up with SABMiller’s demands. “They want to innovate. They want new brands. Their whole ethos is – first and foremost -- the quality of the liquid. Their work on such iconic beers as Pilsner Urquell suggests the beers they brew can only get better, not dumbed down.”

Nick Miller believes the takeover will be good for British brewing and won’t lead to a rash of similar takeovers. He says successful breweries such as BrewDog and Camden Town have raised the money to expand from crowd funding, using the Internet, while Jim Harrison, owner and founder of Thornbridge Brewery in Derbyshire, is too personally committed to the brewery to consider selling it.

Meantime’s second facility, the Old Brewery in the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, is part of the deal with SABMiller and will remain in operation. It’s a venue for dining, matching beer and food, and brewing specialist beers, some aged in wood and whisky casks. The collection of beer writer Michael Jackson’s artefacts will remain at the main brewery.

SABMiller has not disclosed how much it has paid for Meantime as the Greenwich brewery is a private company, not a PLC. But Nick Miller admits the shareholders, some of whom invested 15 years ago when the brewery opened, “are very happy people today.”

Does the money mean Alastair Hook could now buy his beloved but struggling football club, Charlton Athletic? Nick Miller laughs uproariously. “We could buy it five times over – but it’s only worth a fiver!”