A few weeks ago I wrote a piece about my local pub, complaining about its beer and talking about my general malaise brought on by all things Greene King.
Shortly afterwards I was approached by the brewery.
They wanted to talk to me about what beer means to them, and so they invited me to Bury St. Edmunds to address some of my issues and to generally get to know what I and CAMRGB feel about Greene King beer.
In the days leading up to my visit there were plenty of jokes, from me included.
Was this some plot to do away with me, and should I take air support or ground troops.
That kind of thing.
Having spent some time with Greene King I have to honestly say many of my questions have been answered and I think of the brewery in a completely different way in many respects.
I tasted their beer in a whole new light, but I still think their IPA is a terrible drink.
Here’s how the visit went.
I had a long train journey over to Bury St. Edmunds, just short of four hours.
I primed myself with a bottle of Punk IPA and a Victory Hop Devil and arrived at Bury station tired but happy and more than a little bit excited, and found a taxi waiting to take me to my hotel.
The Fox is situated in the heart of the town, next to the Abbey Gardens and is one of the oldest pubs in Bury St. Edmunds.
I checked in, dropped my bags in my room and went to the bar.
A hot meal was waiting for me, made with local produce and tasting lovely after my journey.
I ordered a pint of Greene King IPA, took a mouthful and tasted, well, nothing really.
The faintest glimmer of hops maybe? A teeny touch of malt?
On Thursday morning after a smashing breakfast of Eggs Benedict with Suffolk black bacon I was met by Jo and Jonny from Greene King.
Over a cup of tea we got to know each other and I told them in no uncertain terms that I had questions for them that they might not like, or might feel uncomfortable about answering.
To their credit they took everything I said on the chin and I warmed to them very quickly.
These weren’t the faceless, white-coated, evil, corporate villains that part of me had expected them to be.
These were two young and enthusiastic professionals who enjoyed a chat and were very open to discussing what could potentially have been very uncomfortable topics for them.
My opening salvo was along the lines of, “Why doesn’t Greene King IPA taste of anything?”
There was a sharp intake of breath around the table and we moved on (but fear not, this is a subject that we kept returning to).
My next question was about putting their seasonal beers on the bar as “guests” and how misleading I thought this to be.
Initially the response was that it was to differentiate from their core range, but when I told them that I found that argument unconvincing Jonny looked me in the eye and told me he understood my concerns and that they would be looking into addressing that by making sure their seasonals were branded more openly with the Greene King name.
Tea finished we walked across town, through the beautiful Abbey Gardens and past the cathedral to the brewery where we were met by the avuncular John Bexon, Head Brewer.
I’d wanted their Brewer to be a moustachioed villain in a cape and top hat, but John is just an ordinary bloke who’s been making beer for a very long time (he was with several breweries before coming to Greene King). He’s open and friendly and very funny and I liked him immediately.
We began the tour by climbing a lot of stairs up and out onto the roof of the brewery.
From five floors up the view of Bury St. Edmunds is lovely and as John explained some of the history of Greene King I was able to get a real sense of the brewery’s place in the community.
And that place is integral to the community – stuck right in the middle of the town, its footprint is about 44 acres.
The workforce live close by, the brewery oversees a country park, and houses nestle right up against the brewery walls.
John explained to me how they use their water.
Pumped up from a borehole the water is taken up on to the roof and then gravity fed down through the brewery.
Greene King brew beer under several different names, Abbot Ale, Morland and Ridley’s being just three.
They go to great lengths to try and make the beer taste as it would when originally brewed and this includes “engineering” the water to match that which was used in Derbyshire or Yorkshire or wherever the beers initially came from.
I found it very interesting but I was a little unconvinced that creating water is a good thing.
Is the water of an area simply made up from percentages of this and that mineral?
Can one effectively create Buxton water (for example) by stripping local water of everything and then re-inserting the Buxton recipe?
With this I asked what it was that made all Greene King beers taste so similar.
It wasn’t an easy question to answer and I’m not sure I was given a convincing reply.
Maybe it’s just that regardless of what is done to the water it maintains some characteristics of Bury St. Edmunds and that’s that thing that you get when you drink any of the Greene King range.
We worked our way down the building, tasting malted barley (delicious) and burying our noses in hops (divine) and then left the “tourist” trail as I was taken underground through a series of low ceilinged corridors, under the road, and into the tortue chamber.
No, not really.
We walked by Yorkshire squares full of beer, nowadays covered to meet with food hygiene standards and John opened the door on one and asked me to put my head inside.
As soon as my nose crossed the threshold the carbon dioxide pulled every last gasp of oxygen out of my body and sent me reeling backwards.
Like a huge dose of smelling salts, it certainly cleared my head.
It was his little joke, but it was also a quite astonishing experience.
I was taken into the brewery’s quality control and testing area where I was asked to take part in that day’s quality assurance tests.
Sat in a booth, I was presented with five black containers of beer and asked to do a number of taste tests with them and record my findings.
I found this rather exciting and enjoyed it immensely.
After this I was invited to sit around a table.
There were ten of us with three glasses of beer each and some grading sheets.
The people around the table with me came from the secretarial, marketing, brewing and warehousing parts of the business and it transpires that the staff take turns in helping with the testing.
Following this we moved into the sample room where kegs of beer lined the walls and I was given a quick lesson in the constituent parts of beer before being told that there was something they wanted me to taste.
Something not many people get to try.
Earlier on we had passed two enormous and rather beautiful wooden vats.
These are used to mature Greene King’s 5X.
Now, 5X isn’t on public sale.
It’s used in blending some of the stronger beers in the range, but the brewery simply can’t make enough to make it a viable product.
I was poured a glass.
5X is around 12.5%, pours thick and rich and red and is full of raisins soaked in rum, apple skins, rich fruit cake and biscuity malts. It has that big bold flavour of a good barley wine and is, in a word, delicious.
It was at that moment that my brain did a hyper speed retake of everything I’d so far learned.
Greene King aren’t supposed to be making this.
Their brewer isn’t supposed to be standing with me, slugging a twelve percent beer and grinning.
Before leaving the brewery and finding some lunch I was guided further into the belly of the building.
It was explained that on emptying some of the deepest darkest basement rooms a false wall was found and behind it they found beer.
Lots of beer.
Unlabelled and in beautiful old bottles stopped with corks, some research found that this was “Coronation” beer.
Brewed in 1936 for Edward VIII’s coronation, the beer never went on sale because, as we all know, Edward abdicated.
It was a quite humbling experience to be standing in this old dank storeroom surrounded by hundreds of crated beers made over seventy years ago and to be one of very few people to get to see this.
And then they handed me two bottles.
One to drink and one to keep.
I was blown away.
I’m looking at them on my kitchen table now as I type and I can’t wait to open one and see what it’s like.
Over lunch back in The Fox we talked about CAMRGB and Greene King and exchanged a few beer related stories and just got to know each other a little.
I drank a Speckled Hen and enjoyed it and at that moment I realised something fundamental about the way I drink beer.
There are still Greene King beers that I don’t like.
I still believe their IPA is terrible and tasteless and I told them so again and to their credit Jo, Jonny and John conceded that it is brewed for market share.
It’s a beer brewed for people to drink without thinking about it.
A beer so accessible that it has quickly become a rod with which people like myself can beat Greene King.
But I did realise something fundamentally important to the way I drink and enjoy beer.
A few years ago I would have drunk a Speckled Hen (for example) and enjoyed it, but I’ve been learning about beer and I’ve been getting to know BIG flavours, enormous hops, brain crushing malts, and as a result the way I taste beers like those made by Greene King has changed.
Many of them seem to lack flavour but I think that’s as much to do with me as them.
The Speckled Hen I had with lunch I really enjoyed.
I’d not had any of my usual drinks before hand.
There was no Punk IPA clouding my palate, and as a result I found a subtle toffee malt pricked with peppery hops that went brilliantly with the sausage and mash I was having for lunch.
I left Bury St. Edmunds thinking about the way I think about beer.
Some of the questions I had for Greene King went unanswered, but there’ll be another time for those.
What I decided was that I wouldn’t immediately dismiss any of the beer made by the UK’s “big” brewers anymore.
Instead I’ll be a little more careful about how I match the beer I drink.
I won’t stick something like a Magic Rock Cannonball at the front of my evening if the next bottle in the fridge is going to be a Greene King or a Marston’s or…you get my drift.
Last night I started with an Elgood’s beer.
A brewery that I have enjoyed in the past but have always thought made safe, subtle, quiet little beers, but this one tasted amazing.
And it tasted amazing because it didn’t have to fight against the big bullies that are usually waiting on my tongue to beat down these softer drinks.
Many of you might think I’m wrong, many of you may not agree with anything I’ve said.
Greene King make some beers I don’t like at all (Abbot’s Reserve has a bad alcohol burn no matter how you look at it), but they also actually make some very good beers too – St. Edmunds is a really nice, soft beer with American hops that gives a pleasing and playful grapefruit and citrus tang.
But Greene King isn’t a faceless corporate brewer, they’re just a brewery who happen to be enormous and that maybe haven’t kept up with the changes that beer has been going through over the last few years.
From the conversations that I had with them I think we might be about to see some changes in the not too distant future.
I’d like to thank everyone at The Fox, Bury St. Edmunds for their hospitality and Jo, Jonny and John for being so open to my questioning.