The history of brewing at Greenwich from Saxon times until the 1860’s is a story of brewing by institutions – a monastic community, Royal residences, Greenwich Hospital and the Royal Naval brewhouse at Deptford. After 1860, however, Greenwich has a strong tradition of commercial brewing with, in particular, two ground-breaking breweries.
When Greenwich University acquired the site on Stockwell St, where the School of Architecture is currently being built, it instituted an archaeological dig before ground-works began. The main part of the dig focused on an 18th century former maltings, which once supplied malted barley to local inns for use in brewing - buildings behind the Spread Eagle coaching inn, now a restaurant, were used as malt stores. Originally run by partners Frederick John Corder and Alfred Conyers Haycraft, these buildings were acquired in about 1906 by Hugh Bairds & Sons. There also seems to have been a small brewery which probably supplied the Spread Eagle.
There was an important breakthrough in brewing technology at Lovibond’s Brewery, which was located in the brick building that still stands next to Greenwich Station. Joseph Williams Lovibond invented the Tintometer, which analysed colour comparisons with a series of glass slides - the first objective way of measuring the colour of beer.
When J.W.Lovibond joined the family brewery he found that there was no objective method of measuring the colour of beer or wort (malt solution). Joseph is said to have “borrowed” a tea caddy from his wife’s kitchen and cut slots in front and back, so that two glasses of beer could be compared with each other. After searching several glass merchants, Lovibond found samples of amber-coloured glass which matched the colour of malt worts and beer. He then invented an instrument with an eyepiece that allowed the simultaneous observation and comparison of the sample and one of a series of numbered coloured glass slides. The sample of beer or wort was poured into a glass cube.
The Lovibond scale was adopted throughout the English-speaking world and is still in use in some breweries, and other industries, and the Tintometer Company still exists – members of the Lovibond family still live locally.
Lovibonds started brewing in Greenwich in 1847, with the purchase of the Nag's Head Brewery on Bridge Street, now Creek Rd, selling beer to public houses and direct to private households. In 1865 a new brewery was built on Greenwich High Road on land purchased from the London and Greenwich Railway. This is the building now mainly occupied by Davy’s, next to Greenwich station. Lovibonds started to expand by increasing the number of their 'depots', which acted both as shops and also stores from which local deliveries were made – by 1936 the number of depots had increased to 71.
In 1944 the Greenwich brewery was damaged by enemy bombs, as were several of the London depots, and the brewery had to close for rebuilding works. By 1959 smaller traditional family breweries were coming under pressure from large brewing companies and Lovibonds discontinued brewing, re-inventing itself as a quality wine merchant. In 1968 Lovibonds were purchased by Wine Ways Supermarkets. At that time there were 104 depots in the Lovibond empire.
In 1969 the Greenwich premises were sold to John Davy & Co., and house their winebar/restaurant and warehousing to this day.
The Beasley brewery in Plumstead was founded in 1845 as the Park Brewery - in 1878 it changed its name to the North Kent Brewery. The brewery was rebuilt in 1889. It was taken over by Charles Beasley Ltd in 1943 and brewed Pale Ale, Bitter, Brown Ale and Stout. Courage bought Beasley’s in 1963 and seemed to have tried to run it as a bottled beer brewery. In addition to Courage Light Ale it also produced Brown Ale, IPA and 3 Star. A Beasley employee named George Mitchell was the last of the true draymen in South East London with two shire horses - Prince, renowned to be a biter who would take your finger off, and Muffin who was gentle and docile. Beasley's final brew was on Wednesday 3rd March 1965.
After a gap of around 36 years, commercial brewing returned to Greenwich with the founding of the Meantime Brewing Company. Meantime was the brainchild of Alastair Hook, whose degree from Heriot-Watt in Edinburgh, and a Meisterdiplom from Weihenstephan, the world’s leading brewing school, gave him the formal training required to become a world class brewer. Having a more cosmopolitan outlook than the average British brewer, Alastair was convinced that the British drinker was being short-changed by the brewing industry and he made it his mission to demonstrate the full flavour potential that beer has to offer.
In 1999 Alastair persuaded his family and like-minded friends to invest and help him form Meantime. The company was founded in Alastair's flat and in December 1999 the concrete floor of Units G & H 2 Penhall Road, SE7, a pre-war former tramshed, were dug up to lay drains. By February 2000, the largest and most expensive new brewery seen in the UK for over 80 years was installed and commissioned, complete with bottling line. The first brew was packaged in April.
Meantime’s first beer brand was Union, a Vienna-style dark lager with label design by London artist Ray Richardson, an old school friend of Alastair. The original painting from which the design originates now hangs in Meantime’s Greenwich Union pub. Ray also came up with the beer’s name. Meantime, he said, was a 'union' of friends just as the beer was a 'union' of malt and hops.
It sold extremely well and the company was quickly brewing to full capacity – indeed, Penhall Road was operating pretty much at capacity for its entire existence. New tanks were soon added and new brewers were employed.
In 2002, Chancellor Gordon Brown was finally persuaded to introduce a system of progressive beer duty for small brewers - a change which was of immense value to Meantime and allowed further expansion, including the replacement of the first bottling line, which had become inadequate.
2002 was also the year in which Alastair negotiated the supply to Sainsbury's of their entire Taste the Difference range of beers - a hugely prestigious contract, which ran until 2009, by which time the Meantime/Sainsbury’s collaboration had completely redefined the popular perception of supermarket own brand beers.
Meantime was the first British brewery to win medals at the World Beer Cup, in San Diego, for its Munich Fest Beer and its Vienna-style lager, Union. With this recognition, it was decided, with Meantime's 5th birthday only some nine months away, that the time was right to start to build the Meantime brand.
On the 25th of May 2005 Meantime held a launch party to present the new branding and product range, including IPA and London Porter in corked and wired 750ml champagne bottles, unique in the UK market. The launch party was attended by Meantime’s long-time friend and supporter Michael Jackson, the world-famous Beer Hunter.
Meantime grew steadily, and in 2009 embarked upon two major projects - moving the production brewery to a new site, and opening The Old Brewery, a microbrewery, café and restaurant at the Old Royal Naval College. It was called The Old Brewery because Meantime were bringing brewing back to a site where Greenwich Hospital had brewed from 1717 until the 1860’s.
The new restaurant-brewery opened officially on March 23rd 2010, and no sooner were the builders out of The Old Brewery than they were into Meantime’s new production brewery site at Blackwall Lane, building a home that would lift the firm into a new division and house the new state–of–the-art Bavarian brew house. English and German teams of welders worked together to put the brewhouse together in time for the first brew on August 27th.
In 2011, teething problems with the new brewery were ironed out and Meantime’s range of seasonal draught beers started to take shape - at the end of the year new tanks were installed and further expansion plans finalised.
Nick Miller was appointed Meantime’s new CEO, coming from SAB Miller, and his arrival marked a major shift in the level of activity at Meantime. Nick joined the firm in September 2012 - new sales and marketing staff were hired, sales volumes increased and more production staff were taken on.
2012 continued as a period of change - office staff left the brewery for new premises closer to the heart of Greenwich town centre, which freed up space in Blackwall Lane for a visitors’ centre and shop. Distribution was outsourced to third party logistics providers, freeing up warehouse space into which the packaging line was moved. This freed up space in the brew hall for further tanks, meaning Meantime has plenty of future capacity and is now considerably further ahead in terms of growth than was envisaged in 2009.
Ten years after being founded, Meantime has built, at Blackwall Lane, the largest new brewery in London since Giles Gilbert Scott opened the Park Royal brewery for Guinness in 1936. Today Meantime have tripled their capacity and have factored in yet more capacity for the future, and are looking forward to telling this exciting story to thousands of eager visitors to their brand new visitors centre.
The thousand year history of brewing in Greenwich is a story that is far from over.
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