While visiting my version of the spirituous holy ground I try to experience more than just every liquid offering from the tasting room. I attempt, as often as is possible, to take a tour of the brewing facilities themselves. I enjoy seeing the professional scale of what I do in my own kitchen and basement and revel in the knowledge that what separates Dogfish Head and myself is simply scale.
The problem with brewery tours is that after a few you begin to realize that brewing doesn’t contain a lot of variety in method or technology. Your tour guide explains that here is where the grains are added, here is where they are steeped. Here is where the wort is boiled and the hops added. Here is where filtration happens. Here is where the canning or bottling or kegging happens. No information or equipment that might blow the mind if you have experience with the brewing process after your second or third tour.
There are two exceptions to this rule. There are those breweries that have such historical significance that their tours include a look back in time to the brewing technology, techniques, and culture around the brewing. Yuengling is a great example of this sort of brewery. Their brewery still has lagering tunnels in their cavernous cellar bricked up during prohibition. A very visceral bit of history that lends a weight that many other fledgling breweries cannot hope to match. The other exception is the type of breweries that overwhelm with enthusiasm and knowledge for their craft. That give you more information than just where the equipment is in their brewhouse but information about the history of their craft, the reason for their passion, and what distinguishes them from friend and foe in the brewing industry. My favorite example amongst this type of brewery is Meantime Brewing Company from London, England.
I recently was privileged enough to visit the brewery and take a two hour sampling and brewhouse tour of Meantime Brewing Company and was ecstatic at the wealth of knowledge, enthusiasm, and quality of information their tour guide and beer sommelier offered during the tour. The tour was easily the greatest brewery tour I ever experienced full of exciting history, trivia friendly factoids, and plenty of samples. But before we get into all that a bit about the company.Meantime Brewing Company was founded in 2000 by Brewmaster Alastair Hook. The brewery takes it name from its location’s longitudinal value of 0.037 decimal degrees. Essentially located on the prime meridian. The founder, Alastair Hook, trained at the renown Technical University of Munich of Weihenstephan. This was unusual as the university taught only in German and thus Alastair had to be fluent enough in German to not only read and write conversationally but to be able to read, understand, and write fluently enough to take multiple classes in microbiology, and impressive feat.
After his formal training Alastair returned to England bringing an incredible wealth of knowledge of the Bavarian style of brewing. Meantime was established with an obsession for quality and a reverent appreciate of England’s historical significance in the roll of beer. Meantime’s London line of beers is attempt to accurately recreate several of the world’s more iconic beers. Using authentic, historically accurate recipes combined with sourcing accurate regional ingredients they quickly created the most historically accurate recreations of English beers on the market today. Their obsession with quality goes so far as to alter their own water supply to strengthen or soften the water to better compliment the style of beer they are attempting to create.
At the same time the company is socially conscious being the first brewery in the country to create a fair-trade beer. Their coffee porter is brewed with only fair-trade coffee beans from Maraba Coffee located in Rwanda.
Our tour guide spent several minutes discussing the history of their flagship beers the London IPA and London Porter. He discussed at length the reasons the two very different style became popular at very different times in England’s history. He told of how beer was considered a mild drink alternative when compared to the ravages that gin was having on the country. “Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for two” was a popular saying during this bleak gin soaked period of English history. During this time a single penny would buy you an entire pint of gin and two pennies bought you as much gin as you could drink before passing out. Beer Street and Gin Lane are artist representatives of the cultural difference between gin and beer in the mid–1700s. Artist William Hogarth created to etchings showing the happy and healthy people of beer street and conversely the destitute and destroyed citizens of gin lane.
But it wasn’t all historical knowledge either. Our tour guide loved adding factoids to the tour. The fact that they donate their spent grains to local cattle farms means the cows fed by the spent grains fart 60% less than cows fed with normal feed. Thus their brewery is helping decrease the creation of greenhouse gasses and thus global warming. The brewery also uses kegs that are covered in a thick layer of rubber for a plethora of reasons not the least of which is because 5% of kegs are stolen and melted down for scrap metal in England, a concern I never considered.
Yet my favorite bit of historical information was the origin of the phase “scot free.” Taxes used to be called scots during Medieval England. Tax collectors were not popular amongst the population and thus those tax collectors who were sent to collect beer taxes would stick primarily to the places where local authorities were in high presence. Those who wondered outside the castle walls to pubs or inns in lesser towns or the woods themselves might not return. These pubs advertised as being free from paying taxes or “scot free.”
The taxes were apparently separated into two levels for lower and stronger ales. Apparently the tax collectors would wear leather trousers (not pants, pants means something different over there) and pour beer on their bar stool. If after sitting in the beer until it dried the bar stool stuck to the tax collector’s trousers the beer was deemed strong and thus the pub was taxed higher. A weird means to testing beer strength.
As much as I loved Meantime Brewing Company for the passion of high quality historical beer I loved them more for their desire to embrace the often enigmatic definition of American craft beer. While Londoners and more accurately the English are not quick ready to accept (as a whole) the wildly disparate nature of styles, appearance, and flavors of the American craft beer revolution Meantime is on the front lines challenging the accepted notion of British beer.
The produce a plethora of exciting seasonal beers that are often an attempt to recreate the magic that seems to be the American craft beer movement. Beers that are strongly flavored, experimental, certainly non-traditional, and often very in your face that are there for those in United Kingdom who want to try them. The tour guide explained that their brew pub often sees these experimental beers have more success with tourists than natives but they are willing to push the palate of the British bitter drinker.Thus Meantime Brewing Company is experimenting, pushing the boundaries of the new while maintaining almost a dogmatic appreciation for the past. Their obsession with quality, process, and execution has created a number of beers of the top most quality while varying across time, style, technique, and taste. I sampled a number of their beers and was impressed with all of them and blown away but more than I ever expected.
While it may be difficult for non-English drinkers to tour the brewery or even find their beers I highly recommend if you can experience Meantime Brewing Company’s beers whether by import or from the source you absolutely must.
I cannot recommend them enough.