Saturday, 2 April 2011

The Greene King Paradox

I had a great night a couple of weeks ago at The Job Bulman in Gosforth, helping to launch the JD Wetherspoon's Real Ale festival. It was a fun couple of hours of tasting through half a dozen of the festival beers with 20 or so guests, interspersed with a few bottles. So for example, alongside the Ballast Point Calico Amber, I brought some bottles of Ballast Point Big Eye IPA. And to taste after the Greene King Export IPA, I brought along a sample of Greene King Old 5X that the brewery gave me when I visited them a while ago.

Old 5X is the 12%abv beer that GK age in wooden vats, and blend with the 6%abv BPA to make Strong Suffolk Vintage Ale. Neither of these beers is released seperately, so having a bottle of something so unusual was quite a coup. This beer isn't a silky, polished wood-aged beer, but an old, oxidised, 'spoiled' beer that bears more resemblance to Belgian beers like Rodenbach than anything that we might think of being barrel-aged, which has come to imply spirit casks.

I introduced the GK Export IPA with my usual spiel about how much I love the regular GK IPA - I do, honestly - and how GK's beers are a paragon of traditional British ale brewing. I also touched on their purchase of various breweries, which also touches a nerve with people. Some people think GK are a horribly rapacious corporation who have bought and closed breweries for the sake of it. GK's take on it is that the breweries were for sale on the open market, and that they are a business, and that the brands and beers still exist, albeit produced centrally.

It's fair to say that things got a bit heated as I talked about GK. There was a shout from the other side of the room that I didn't quite catch, but it was something along the lines of 'this is like Nuremberg'. Everyone stopped short of booing me, but it was clear that I'd overstepped the mark in my praise of 'Greede King'.

I shared out the Old 5X, and it's fair to say that everyone was stunned by it. Its incredible sherry-like complexity and slightly acetic sharpness made for a reflective moment in the room. That's to be expected - Old 5X is a great beer, and the sooner GK can find a way to do a single-release of it, in nip bottles, the better. But after that, as I wandered round chatting to people, and they berated me to my face for my perceived GK propaganda, almost everyone ended their tirade with something along the lines of '...but actually, I had a really surprisingly good pint of their IPA in...'.

While it's easy to get fired up about new and exciting beers, it's not often that people get fired up defending tradition. Quite often, praise for British beer seems to get caught up in some jingoistic tirade against lager, which is perceived as a foreign invader, or American beer, which is still misconstrued to mean solely Bud, Miller and Coors. I thought it was quite refreshing to see such passion expressed about beer at what might be called the 'traditional' end of the market. What was also enjoyable was people publicly denouncing GK for their business practices, but at the same time discreetly admitting that they liked their flagship beer.


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  2. What frustrates me about Greene King is how hard it is to get hold of their more unusual beers in pubs. Their flagship beers split opinions, that's definatly true, but we'd all love the oppportunity to try some of their seasonals, and special versions. My local Greene King pub (and every other I've been in in the last couple of years) serves IPA and Abbot, ocassionally Old Speckled Hen and once or twice a St Edmunds. They claim to do more exciting things, like their Mild. Can't we be allowed to try them?

  3. Greene King XX mild is an awesome point, when you can find it which is not frequently around these parts, despite having a glut of GK pubs from Morrells and Morland takeovers.

    And if you do catch a GK IPA when it's on form, it too is actually a good beer. Unfortunately, I never seem to find IPA in any condition better than mediocre.

    I do find their seasonals much the same as the next too...

  4. Sorry I can't join in the GK euphoria. Their everyday beers are average, at best. I've tried Greene King IPA all over the country and held numerous tastings with it. The results are always the same, it never peaks above "ok". It's certainly not the worst beer, but have we really come down to the level of admiring mediocrity?

  5. You’ve made me want to get out the bike and cycle to the next village’s GK pub; if I don’t enjoy it please send me the price of my pint by return post.

  6. The nearest GK pub to me is selling Everards and Rudgate which is progress.
    I must admit that I was in a Wetherspoons on a works do before Christmas. All the beers were dire so in desperation I tried Abbot which was surprisingly good.

  7. GK alongside Badger and Ringwood were the gateway beers in my conversion from lager to bitter in pubs really. Haven't had one in a while though.

  8. Abbot Ale is 1 of the Classic British beers The IPA is Not. As for Ruddles got to be the most average beer in the world .Though I don't think Spoons did them a Favour by making Green king and Ruddles £1 a pintnearly £1 a pint cheaper than the rest of there beers at the time....

  9. R.A.G. / graeme - I've only ever found the XX Mild at beer festivals, but clearly they don't just run up a few barrels when needed - it must be a full-sized production run.

    Tyson - I'm not really sure it's mediocre, it's just a good example of a particular style that doesn't seem to excite many. It's the meat and potato pie of beer - and sometimes, I like a meat and potato pie.


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