Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis
Recently I've been very privileged to be the guest of Greenwich's Meantime Brewing on not one but two occasions as they've launched a couple of brand new seasonal beers. With the host of brewing talent that London now has to offer such as Redchurch and Brodie's it's often easy to overlook Meantime who are one of London's original modern craft brewery's. I for one have been guilty of overlooking this particular brewery on a number of occasions as I am constantly searching for new flavour sensations and beers that bowl me over and I've always found Meantime's core range to be a little too 'safe' for my tastes. Now I'm on my way to their brewhouse which lies just over the water from the towering skyscrapers of Canary Wharf with a clear palate and an open mind ready to rediscover just what this brewery has to offer.
After Fuller's Griffin Brewery in Chiswick, Meantime own the second biggest brewing facility in London itself but to put this in perspective for my American readers, Fuller's is 3 times smaller than California's Sierra Nevada. The first time I headed south to Meantime it was a cold evening in late January and the brewery, which lies on an unassuming industrial estate, was shrouded in darkness which made it a little difficult to find. Eventually I walked up to a large security gate an was buzzed in before being escorted up to a tidy little tap room which overlooks the main hub of the brewery.
I immediately spot a friendly face among the small throng of guests in the shape of Pete Favelle from Pete Drinks (@PeteDrinks) and join him at the bar. Brewer Rod Jones who I had met only a few weeks earlier at the Greenwich Union was hosting this evening of food and beer and within moments a glass was handed to me containing Bohemian Dark, a Czech style dark lager that is being released as a limited edition seasonal draught that will only be available throughout the late winter/early spring.
It only took a few sips to be impressed by this exceptionally well made beer, it was clean and moreishly bitter with the finish being reminiscent of chewing on a piece of burnt toast thinly spread with damson jam. Within moments those roasty, bitter flavours are all but history but they're so good that you can't help but dive back in for more. After we finished our first beer Rod then took us into the Bavarian built brewhouse, which is apparently the most expensive brewing kit in London. The brewery is a beautiful thing, all gleaming chrome and glass with a healthy amount of Meantime branding constantly reminding of you where you are. We stand on a platform above the brewery in front of the mash tun, lauter tun and kettle behind which lies a veritable forest of towering fermentation vessels, literally every inch of floor space is occupied by some sort of brewing device.
Behind the FV's lies a second forest, this one of maturation vessels where most Meantime beer rests for six to eight weeks before release in order to develop the natural, tight carbonation that gives Meantime beers their signature. We are regularly reminded by Rod how this is a costly process and that their accountants would rather them release these beers into the market much more quickly, we chuckle but I think to myself about how many other breweries condition their beers this way how much do other beers suffer that are not given this much time to condition. Ultimately it's the brewers choice how long beer is given to reach maturity before it leaves the brewery and as long as the end result tastes good then I'm happy to leave this decision in the hands of the brewer.
We are then ushered into another part of the brewery, on one side lies a tower laden with sacks of malt and opposite this is the breweries very own water treatment plant which they use to treat the water for all their beers bar the London Porter, which uses untreated London tap water so as to remain as authentic as possible. Opposite this facility are three very different packaging lines, one for kegs, one for their smaller bottles and one for their champagne style bottles. I wonder how many of the new wave of British brewers struggling to meet their customers demands would kill for a piece of kit like this.
After the tour we head back to the tasting room where the smell of a freshly cooked traditional Czech stew fills the room and we tuck into a delicious meal that has been prepared to compliment this beer. Rod, who is also a certified Beer Sommelier, gestures towards the many rows of bottles and glasses that adorn the tasting room walls and explains how they are a small part of the collection owned by the late, great Michael Jackson (no not THAT Michael Jackson) and on display is around a third of his bottles and an eighth of his glassware which was gifted to Meantime brewmaster Alastair Hook by the great mans widow. The hours pass, the stew soon disappears and more and more pints of Bavarian dark are poured, each pint is as delicious as the last and slips down just as easily showing off its legs as a true session beer.
Also present this evening was Meantime's colourful Cockney tour guide Alex who enthuses about Meantime beers with such gusto it's impossible not to be convinced. He tells us many a tale but my favourite is when he tells us about his first visit to the Greenwich Union, one of Meantime's brewery taps, when he was bored of his usual local. There he was first turned on to the craft brews of Meantime and it was there where his craft beer adventure began. Tourists must giggle with delight when they have a tour of the brewery led by Alex, he's a brilliant character and soon he's enthusing about his current favourite Meantime beer, Yakima Red, a red ale that started life as a seasonal but has proved so popular it's now part of their core range. It's not up in my grill as much as I like my hops but big flavours of pine, orange marmalade and mango are supported by a digestive biscuit-like malt profile making it very pleasing to my palate.
Eventually the night must come to it's end and before long I'm staggering out of the brewery gates towards North Greenwich station. Fast forward three months, it's early April and I'm at the brewery gates once again although this time they are illuminated by daylight so I find my way much more easily. This time I've brought a companion in the shape of my good friend Justin Mason (@1970sBoy) from Get Beer Drink Beer and we're also joined by Sid Boggle (@BoggleAbout) from Boggle About.
We are once again ushered into the tasting room and are introduced to Bar Manager Jack who will be hosting this evenings launch of another seasonal brew, Californian Pale. This beer has been brewed with a combination of Crystal hops grown in Washington State's Yakima Valley and Celeila hops from Slovenia. Meantime's brewmaster Alastair Hook describes this beer as being 'complex' and 'full flavoured' and sadly I have to disagree with him. Don't get me wrong there is fruit in here, lemon and grapefruit combined with grassy overtones but I find it a great struggle to detect them. It's here where I realise my love for big beers has probably ruined my palate for life, I'm yearning for more flavour in this beer but I'm not disliking it's clean 'freshness'.
Jack once again gives us a tour of the brewery, a tad unnecessary for me as I'd been shown around so recently before but I'm a beer geek and I love being in breweries so I still stroll around the towering chrome brewing vessels with a smile on my face. After the tour we are once again served food to pair with the new beer and seeing as this is supposed to be a Californian Style beer we are given a trio of most excellent pizzas cooked fresh at the brewery. Ultimately, bar it's extremely well masked ABV of 5.5% I don't think I would count this beer as a Californian style pale ale as there is not enough bitter fruit flavour and most certainly not enough sweet, robust malts holding up the flavours. What this beer is however is an excellent example of a modern British pale ale, it's a little bit more challenging than a traditional British pale and as it's only available on keg it's the kind of beer that could open up a world of flavour to someone who doesn't normally drink bitter beers.
I'm definitely not the target market for this beer, if I saw it on the bar I'd probably not order it but then my taste in beer is quite different from majority of the UK's beer drinkers. Californian Pale is a very well made beer, the flavour is clean and it's incredibly drinkable, Justin and Sid say they even detect a pleasant hint of burnt rubber on the nose but sadly it's lost on me. Bohemian Dark and Yakima Red are both on the bar tonight and I enjoy a pint of each but it's the last beer we have, Meantime's usually unassuming Wheat beer that blows us away. Hefeweizen is perhaps the most underrated style in the UK, most of us Brits just don't get wheat beer but with their take on the style Meantime have hit the nail on the head and following the sad news that Camden Brewery have discontinued their excellent hefeweizen it looks like I've found a more than worthy replacement.
Ultimately, as a beer geek when it comes to London beer I'd rather have a full flavoured IPA from the likes of The Kernel or Redchurch but these two visits have really made me appreciate what the talented brewers of Meantime can do and that they're not a brewery to be overlooked. While we hop perverts continue to tick away increasingly extreme beers on Untappd, Meantime will continue to convert London's drinkers to well made, local beer be they a lager, ale or stout drinker. One word to Alistair Hook though, apparently we Brits aren't ready for those big beers that you brew exclusively for export to the United States, I think you're wrong, take a chance with your bigger beers in Britain and I guarantee we geeks will prove you wrong.
I'd like to thank the guys at Meantime for inviting me down to the brewery on both of these occasions. Californian Pale is out now and Bohemian Dark is still available, both are available on draught at The Greenwich Union and The Old Brewery so those of you wanting to taste these beers for yourself, I suggest you head to Greenwich, post haste. For those of you expecting the next scintillating part of my recent trip to the US, this is coming very soon.