I was not present at Olympia [the Great British Beer Festival] when the judges' verdict was announced, but I did access the web site that evening and was moved to immediately write to What's Brewing. My letter was published, slightly edited, in the September edition and I stand by what I wrote.
I should state that I have absolutely no vendetta with Greene King and used to be a fan of their products: in particular I have admired their commitment to a wide range of bottled beers including such rarities as Audit Ale and Suffolk Strong. The fact that Greene King survive and thrive when other East Anglian breweries have gone (Tolly Cobbold, Grays and Paines in fairly recent years) must mean something.
During the 1970s I lived in the real ale desert that was Northampton and really appreciated visiting Bedford where the pubs were mainly divided between Charles Wells and Greene King, each of whom produced a passable bitter. I preferred Greene King IPA which I remember as an excellent session beer being hoppy, but not too bitter, and malty, but not too much so. It was good beer and I would go so far as to say that I would happily have chosen it as my sole beer on a desert island.
Times change, however, and the current beer bears little resemblance to the true IPA and is bland stuff that seems designed to offend nobody by carefully avoiding any real taste. Other large brewers produce similar beer of course. It is unfortunately further evidence that "more means worse". My understanding of the brewing process is that quality need not be lost with increasing throughput, so there must be another reason for diluting the taste. From the point of view of those who only wish to maximise sales this is of course understandable: why put off potential punters by producing something that is distinctly bitter, hoppy, malty or dark? This is the commercial reality. I appreciate that East Anglian branches of CAMRA are in an awkward position in being critical of a large local brewery that certainly does produce real ale. Greene King IPA may keep the shareholders happy but it can never be considered a good beer, let alone a champion.
I am not sure what a "well made" beer is (unless it just means one that is not brewed in conical fermenters, or with dubious ingredients, or brewed at high gravity and later diluted). However "well made" it is I still maintain that it is a bland beer and is little different from the beers still produced by the remaining nationals for mass consumption. I am not sure that there is a "palate of the average CAMRA member", after all there are 75,000 and we are not clones. Speaking for myself, I like beers of all types from low gravity dark milds, through golden bitters to barley wines, but I do not like bland "nothing" beers. I like coffee and tea but I don't want a drink that vaguely resembles both.
Surely to praise a beer as being "well-balanced which appeals to many more drinkers than say JHB" is to damn it with faint praise. JHB is an excellent beer, which may offend drinkers who object to hops, Greene King IPA is bland. It tastes like a beer that has been dumbed down so as to offend no one. It used to be a virtue of regional breweries that they produced "local beers for local palates" but that becomes a handicap when an expansionist brewery is now selling to tied houses (let alone the free trade) 150 miles away. This is not a fault of Greene King alone of course; breweries not a hundred miles from Southwold and Faversham produced really distinctive beers 30 years ago. Now in a blind tasting you would hardly recognise them.
In my original letter to WB I said that that very day I had been drinking Deuchars until it ran out, and then switched to Greene King IPA. The contrast was so great that, coming on top of the news from Olympia, I felt I had to write that letter. Maybe Deuchars counts as "beers at the extreme of the flavour spectrum" and I would agree that it is a very bitter beer that I would not personally choose to drink all evening, but I would then switch to something less hoppy but with its own character, not to a characterless beer like IPA.
It is also claimed that Greene King IPA can become a really good beer with proper cellarmanship. Maybe so, but if this is true I would suggest that it is not really "fit for purpose" in that it will rarely get the right treatment in practice. If Greene King is so concerned about the poor treatment it gets in the free trade, the solution is in its own hands but somehow I can't see them withdrawing from that market! This is not a totally facetious remark because there are brewers who jealously restrict the outlets for their beer so as not to ruin their reputation. Most Greene King beer that I drink is in the free trade, so that is how I must judge it.
I was also rather intrigued by the comment that the recent appointment of a new head brewer had greatly improved quality. Being cursed with a good memory I recall similar comments being made about an earlier head brewer in What's Brewing back in the 1970s or 1980s. (I remember it claimed that he had virtually "saved" Abbot which had hitherto been very poor.) With this sequence of improvements the inference is that either Greene King beers were undrinkable in the 1970s or are the very best now. Clearly neither of these is true.
So I still maintain that Greene King IPA is a bland mediocre beer that should win no awards. I cannot comment much on other Greene King beers: Abbot does not appeal, I like XX Mild but that is now contracted out, "Morlands" Old Speckled Hen seems OK. I have no axe to grind; I have a history of liking Greene King and its beers but, as a free agent, there is nothing to stop me pointing out that the emperor has no clothes. Nothing has been done to convince me that to call Greene King IPA, certainly as found in most outlets, a champion beer of Britain is a travesty and one that sends out the wrong message to those that CAMRA is trying to convert.
31 Jan 2005