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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Friday, 21 May 2010

The Jewels in Greene King's Crown

He's the Guv'nor, Brian Blessed.  If Labour had used him during their election campaign, they'd still be in office with a healthy majority:


And now he has a marketing relationship with Greene King, telling Man Walks into a Pub jokes on Dave in the sponsorship idents during Friday night comedy.  The more I think about it, the more perfect that seems.  Here he is doing my favourite ever MWIAP joke:


And best of all, he's from Barnsley - Mexbrough to be precise, a small mining village on t'other side of town from the mining village I grew up in.  I met him last week.  He's 72 now, and he was telling me how when the war ended and he was just a lad, he ran down to the prisoner of war camp at the bottom of the village and bellowed - even at the tender age of 7 or 8 - "HITLER'S DEAD!" through the fence, and all the Italian POWs were really pissed off because it meant they would have to leave the paradise of an open prison in Barnsley and return to shitholes like Tuscany and Milan.  

From "Hitler's dead" to "Gordon's alive" - the symmetry of genius.

I met Brian because I was invited to a couple of events being hosted by Greene King, one of which he was doing a speech at - but more of that later.

I spent two days in Bury St Edmunds, having a brewery tour and tasting, a meeting about the forthcoming Cask Report, a charity black tie dinner and a head brewer's lunch for publicans.  I came away with a changed impression of Britain's biggest  (depending on how you look at it - Marston's would probably disagree) cask ale brewer.

I'm not going to sit here and pretend I love Greene King IPA, or tell you they're my new favourite brewer, or defend corporate howlers like the debacle they had in Lewes over trying to make people drink their beers instead of Harvey's, but I saw a different side to them, and detected a change of attitude.  Greene King is perceived in many places as the cask ale brewer we love to hate, what with them being booed when IPA was runner-up Champion Beer of Great Britain a few years ago.  I've never written a single favourable word about them on this blog before now and I'm not sure many other beer bloggers have either, so in the interests of fairness and balance, I merely offer the following observations:

1. The brewery tour starts on the roof.  From up there, you can see the whole of Bury St Edmunds, incredibly green and pretty.  You can see where the locally sourced malt comes from, less than two miles away.  You can see that while the brewery is big for such a small town, it's nowhere near the size of the big corporate behemoths the multinational lager companies own.  And inside it still looks like this:


2. I have never met a brewer who is more obsessed by quality and rigour throughout the brewing process than head brewer John Bexon. I've started having nightmares about being caught in a crossfire conversation between him and Stef Cossi from Thornbridge, staring down an eternal abyss of enzymes, sugars and Kieselguhr.  GK does product tastings every morning in a tasting room deep in the bowels of the brewery, where there are no atmospheric effects or odours to interfere with the palate.  Tasting is done from black glasses, under red light, so all stimulus apart from the aroma and taste of the beer is stripped away.


3.  I'll never really get on with Greene King IPA, but tasting it in the brewery tasting room, fresh and perfectly kept, almost made me utter the words, "There are some amazing beers from around the world, but none of them can match a cask ale at its peak" (a sentiment I've seen on other blogs this week, but not in relation to Greene King IPA).  There's a light in the tasting room that they use for checking the condition of the beer.  This is what it looks GKIPA looks like in front of it:



4. The water for GK's beers comes from artesian wells beneath the brewery.  This water has to be purified because fertilisers and chemicals from the surrounding farmland have got into the aquifiers.  Once it has been purified, Bexon adds back in the salts for Suffolk water for Greene King beers, the salts for Nottinghamshire waters for Hardy & Hanson's beers, the salts for Essex water for Ridley's beers, and so on.

5. Greene King have a reputation for going around swallowing up smaller brewers.  But in two high profile cases over the last few years - Ridley's and Hardy & Hanson - it was the other brewer that first approached Greene King asking to be bought.

6.  St Edmund's Ale is nothing special but a perfectly pleasant drink on a balmy spring evening on the lawn.  Strong Suffolk Ale is a really good beer.  Abbott Reserve is one of the best beers I've tasted this year. And they're just launching a 7.5% 'Special IPA' based on an authentic Victorian recipe.  They've compromised on the hop levels (the simple fact is Bexon is not a hop-head) so it's not a hop bomb, but it's strong, complex, nicely balanced and fantastically and dangerously drinkable for 7.5%.  So yes, Greene King IPA and Abbott Ale are fairly unchallenging if you're really into your beer.  I choose not to drink them if I have a choice.  But this brewery can and does produce some pretty special beers.  

7.  I get the distinct impression there's been some soul searching going on.  It felt like GK has realised they're seen as the big corporate baddies of the ale world and taken some of that on board.  I found them more reflective, more open, more friendly, than ever before, with a renewed emphasis on being proud of being a Suffolk brewer, proud of Bury St Edmunds.

8.  Brian Blessed's dad drinks Greene King IPA. 'Nuff said.


So back to Brian's speech.  It was mad, hilarious and inspiring.  He holds world records for going up in planes to the edge of space, and going up Everest without oxygen.  He tells us this is because his brain doesn't need oxygen to function.  

He warns us of the dangers of going out from a tent just below the summit of Everest for a shit, of how the howling wind can catch your turds, throw them back into the air so they land on your shoulder as you climb back into the tent.  

He tells us of the time he told this story to the Queen.

He tells us he's almost finished his astronaut training, and that next Spring he will become the oldest person ever to fly into space, when he will enjoy a stint on the international space station.  He'll be 73 years old.

And he treated us to "GORDON'S ALIVE!"

Anyone who is alright by the guv'nor is alright by me.

15 comments:

BeerReviewsAndy said...

I LOve BB, he was the honary graduate at my graduation, brightened up an otherwise boring day and was a true gent, making time to talk to everyone!

Darren T said...

Brian Blessed hosting Have I Got News For You was a sublime moment in the history of light entertainment. The man is a Legend.

jesusjohn said...

Dunno if you tried the GK XX Mild. I really think that is a properly classy beer. Not just the best GK beer but actually a very fine beer indeed. I notice GK have been pushing the mild of late, with ads and the like, where even a year ago there were very, very few pubs that stocked it. Perhaps this is the change in tone you spotted at work?

There's a house sourness in GK IPA and Abbot that doesn't appeal to me, but I think part of it is to do with cellar conditioning. One landlord in a beer palace-style pub had GK Abbot on, much to the surprise of everyone there.

He insisted I have a pint, on guarantee that if I didn't like it he'd refund the punt. It was unbelievably good. How had he done it? He'd kept it in the cellar for six weeks. Anecdotally, many beer hounds have told me the beers taste best when kept for a while, which seems to tally with my experience that GK beers are better guests than regulars.

Anyway - this is the best Brian Blessed video, I think:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NacppJ_vWQg

The Bocking Kellys said...

Living as I do in Mid/North Essex it's quite difficult for me to avoid Greene King and they've certainly got a less than stellar reputation round here as a pub company.
It's great to read that they're potentially taking some of the criticism on board.
Having been born in Bury St Edmunds I'd love them to be a brewer to be really proud of.

ATJ said...

I thought that was you with your arms around the two ladies
very pertinent points re GK which I totally agree with, I love Old Crafty Hen, Springer and Suffolk Strong, I mean these guys are blending beers!
did my formative drinking in their pubs in Cambridge

Zak Avery said...

I agree with you about Abbot Reserve - it's a really tasty beer. And I also agree that there seems to be a sea change at GK, and I'm not totally convinced that it's PR driven. They are genuinely curious about how they are perceived by drinkers, and a bit crestfallen by the responses.

I wrote a bit about that here.

Ed said...

I had a good pint of Greene King IPA once, and that was in Bury St Edmunds. Other than that it's just the stuff blended with the aged 5X that I think is worthwhile.

Oblivious said...

"Brian Blessed hosting Have I Got News For You was a sublime moment in the history of light entertainment. The man is a Legend."

Amen


Am green king xx mild is fanstastic!

Martyn Cornell said...

I grew up in Greene King land, and Abbot could be an exceptionally fine beer on occasions, drier than beers of its OG often are – and while Hen's Tooth can be variable, on form it's one of the very best BCAs around. So yes, they certainly can brew. Now: who remembers Brian Blessed in Z Cars?

DJ said...

Abbott reserve is a quality ale so it does show what they are capable of. As for Mr Blessed the guy is a legend I was regularly dragged to the panto when my daughter was younger and one experience was made tolerable by his presence and even boomed out the famous words.

http://beerdemon.blogspot.com/

The Bocking Kellys said...

I was at an old haunt of mine on Saturday night where they used to sell GK Strong Suffolk Ale in bottles (the consumption of which may have had something to do with my woeful inability to score darts matches accurately). I remembered this post and was hoping they'd still do it. Sadly they don't but their IPA and Youngs Bitter were perfectly acceptable.

Dan said...

I can't think about Blessed without picturing that gigantic codpiece he wore in the original Blackadder series.

As a kid, I was convinced that it has he who sang the 1990 World Cup theme "Nessun Dorma". I think I was 15 by the time I realized that Blessed and Luciano Pavarotti weren't the same person.

Anonymous said...

I wish GK had Jennings - might learn something!!

Anonymous said...

It's not conditioning - it's the keeping!!
Fly on the wall etc !!

Anonymous said...

So, beerheads, what is the Greene King Guv'nor I was drinking in my local last night?