Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The Meantime/Grolsch controversy

Meantime is not blending London Lager with Grolsch, it was revealed today. This rumour, first reported on Beer Insider, always seemed too weird to be true. The truth is still pretty weird, though - as reported by the Morning Advertiser, a "liquid" is, occasionally, brewed at Grolsch's brewery in Enschede in the Netherlands and sold as London Lager. It is, reportedly, identical to the beer brewed at Meantime's facility in Greenwich. Except that Greenwich is in London and Enschede is in an entirely different country.

I have many thoughts on this subject, and I'm sure I'll be just one of hundreds of bloggers expressing their disappointment. For what it's worth, I like/d Meantime. Some of their beers were important 'gateway' discoveries for me and, even if I don't drink many of them any more, a few remain absolute corkers, especially the IPA. About 18 months ago I went on their brewery tour, and the beers all tasted amazing from the brewery tap. I reserved judgement when they were taken over by SAB Miller (interesting reflections on which here and here), reasoning that it wasn't necessarily an act of evil if it didn't affect the quality of the beer.

Meantime's branding relies heavily on its London roots. The brewery name refers to their Greenwich location. As well as London Lager, they also have a beer called London Stout and another called London Pale Ale. They sell merchandise with the word 'Londoner' emblazoned on it.  If you make a geographical location an integral part of your brand, customers will inevitably be disappointed to learn that the beer in their glass was brewed elsewhere. Meantime must know this, and that's why we're just learning about this now.

This is particularly worrying because it smacks of big, corporate business. Meantime are far from the first craft brewer to contract brew at other facilities. But why not be upfront and honest about it, especially if, as they claim, the arrangement is only temporary? Because they know their loyal customers won't like it, and because they know it looks like a money-saving measure imposed by SAB Miller.

But amongst these heartfelt concerns, a more trivial issue troubled me when I first heard the rumours of the London Lager/Grolsch blend. I didn't like the idea that I might have consumed a beer which contained Grolsch, in however small proportion, without realising it. Surely a big, important craft beer connoisseur like me, I reasoned, has a palate refined enough to instantly reject the slightest hint of macro lager in my glass. Had I been handed such a beverage, I'd have instantly thrown my glass against the wall and rinsed my mouth out with Rosé de Gambrinus. I doubt I'm the only drinker to have arrogantly concluded, "that can't be true - I'd have noticed" when they heard this rumour. Or perhaps the craftiest of craft drinkers wrote off London Lager as bland and undistinguished a long time ago. I've always quite liked it myself.

Just to be totally clear, again, London Lager has not actually ever contained Grolsch, But, if Meantime had been even more dastardly and decided to blend their beer with Grolsch, could they have got away with it? Would drinkers tell the difference? Would the better beer elevate the cooking lager, or would the macro fizz overpower the 'craft'? I decided to conduct a little experiment. I would pour half a bottle of London Lager into one glass, and, in another glass, blend the Meantime beer with Grolsch. Then I'd close my eyes and ask Sidony to hand me a glass without telling me which was which. I didn't taste either beer prior to conducting the experiment, and it's a long time since I drank either.

I'm happy to report that I correctly identified the London Lager/Grolsch hybrid. It was more watery and less crisp. London Lager has earthy English hops, a slight honey note and warm, soft malt, but the version with Grolsch lost all of these subtleties and gained an unpleasant metallic tang. A glass that was 90% Grolsch to wasn't improved by the inclusion of 10% London Lager, and a glass that was 100% Grolsch was very ropey indeed.

What is my point? Confirming the superiority of my palate, of course, and having a little fun. I can say, from experience, that I'm very glad that London Lager has not ever been blended with Grolsch, because the results would have been very poor. But I also doubt I'll be buying another bottle of this, or any other Meantime beer, in the foreseeable future. You can be absorbed into a multinational corporation if you insist, but it might not help you understand your own brand.

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