Monday 16 May 2016

A visit to Greene King brewery

The Brewery History Society AGM was held at Greene King brewery on the 6th May. It was a fantastic day and included one of the best brewery tours I've ever been on.

Many of my fellow beer nerds have a very dim view of Greene King, and seem to consider them to be if not the Great Satan, at least part of the Axis of Evil. I think it's down to them having an IPA which is not very exciting and 3.6% ABV. Despite them making it for the best part of a century apparently IPAs are inauthentic unless they're at least 6% ABV and taste of grapefruit. Having had such a wonderful time at Greene King I'm completely biased in their favour and as far as I'm concerned they can call any beer whatever they like.

We were hosted by their QA manager Susan Chisholm, who'd dug out some of their archives for us to look at:

The books on display were only about one percent of the records they have, though sadly at the moment they're not very well organised.

The historian Richard Wilson was given honorary life membership at the AGM. I knew he'd written the history of Greene King, so I'd made a point of reading that before the meeting. Rather 
embarrassingly I didn't realise he's also the Wilson half of Gourvish and Wilson, authors of a classic brewing history text I haven't got round to reading yet. He's also written on the history of British lager brewing, which I'm sure if of interest to many, but not me.

Rather foolishly I didn't take a notebook on the tour so there may be fascinating facts I've already forgotten.

The tour starts up on the roof where they have water tanks. They have their own wells but the water is treated with reverse osmosis to strip everything out, before salts are added back to match a particular brewing liquor. Greene King brew beers from the various different breweries they taken over and closed, and they match the liquor and still use the different yeasts from them.

There's a great view from the roof:

And you can see a maltings on the other side of the town:

The brewery dates from the 1930s and is a tower brewery, so as we headed down from the roof the we came to the floor with the four roller mill:

They have pale, amber and crystal malt in silos and the other speciality grains and adjuncts are in sack. The hops are pelletised.

Grist cases are on the floor below:

And the mash tuns are next:

They're copper clad but are relatively modern. When looking to replace their old mash tuns they did look into getting a lauter tun or mash filter but decided that as a traditional ale brewery mash tuns were best. With their microbrewery they have the flexibility to very the brew length from 10 to 1600 barrels.


As we were here about the history we had to have a look at the 5X vats, where a 12% ABV beer is stored for two years. There's barely any change in the ABV during ageing so they can't have many bugs growing. Last time I'd look round I'd seen two vats, but I was delighted to find out they actually have four, and have the space to add some more.

Here's the other two: one new, one old.

Here's the new one again:

I think the new one is 150 bbl, and the others 100 bbl. I wonder if I could persuade them to fill one with old style porter?

We got down to the sample room, where of course we had a taste of the 5X. It is wonderful stuff.

And we had a peek at some old bottles from the 1930s. Sadly this beer was around 4% though apparently some bottles are still drinkable.

I also got to try their XX mild at last, which like I've seen others say, I did prefer to the IPA. They brew 60 bbl a week of it. Having various milds in the portfolio from the breweries they've taken over they rationalised it to just one recipe, and had tasting trials to decide on the best one. Despite the name it's sold under it was actually the Hardys and Hansons mild that won.

Susan Chisholm has found in the Green King archives recipes for all the X beers from one through to five.

Here she is getting a certificate from BHS chairman Jeff Sechiari
They have plans to get the archives into order, and I can't help but think that it'll then be time for Ron to have a holiday in Bury St Edmunds.


  1. The beer I'd like to see them release is the Burton Ale that gets blended with the 5X to make Strong Suffolk: about the last authentic Burton Ale apart from Young's Winter Warmer and Marston's Owd Rodger still brewed

    1. Funny you should mention that, but there was some old GK advertising material there that showed bottles of Burton. I'll dig out the pic...

  2. I suspect the reason many of your fellow beer nerds have a dim view of Greedy King is more to do with the company's history of closing down local breweries they've taken over (such as Hardys and Hansons whose mild they like so much).

    1. Beer nerds of a certain age maybe, but I can't see young crafties giving two hoots about that.

    2. Regionally GK are disliked not so much for their beer but for shutting down loved breweries (you're right, this is the older folk) and for shutting down pubs claiming "non-viability" when the real issue is GK squeezing them to death and then cashing in on their housing value. GK are the untimely death of many an East Anglian village pub.

      Their beer isn't so much to do with it, it is grudgingly accepted as no worse than other breweries of its type I'd say. And XX mild is something of a legendary beer amongst CAMRA folk. (Not sure why... maybe just some sort of indoctrinated gold-dusting of milds.) If there's anything against their beer it is more that their managed houses, and even leasehold places, suffer such a churn of low skill licensees that what you most expect from a GK pub is badly kept beer. Amazing that GK don't do more to ensure their stuff is served well... but with a tied estate the size of theirs perhaps it just doesn't matter.

      Sensible beer nerds recognise the <4% "brown twiggy session IPA"[? ;) ] as a legitimate style with roots deeper than US shenanigans.

    3. Thanks for the info Yvan. I think for me the exciement I get when I see a mild is due to the rarity. If they were more common I'd probably mostly ignore them!

      My impression on Green King's staff training is that they do put a lot of effort into it (e.g. but they have a large staff turnover so a lot are still new and inexperienced. I guess like the closing of village pubs the drive for greater profits is the problem.

  3. I love how the Greene King XX Mild recipe was completely changed overnight, and NOBODY NOTICED!

    1. I don't think it was quite like that. They had tasting trials and invited drinkers to say which they preferred.

  4. I was gutted when I learnt the GK brewed 'The King's English' IPA was being discontinued at Trader Joe's over here, it was one of the nicest beers I had had in a while.

    1. That's not one we see over here. GK's sales and marketing people haven't realised that UK beer drinkers would like the beers they sell to the states too.

  5. Abbott Reserve is a great cask beer; the sort of strong English bitter that was revered by beerlovers when I first started taking an interest 30 years ago, but even stronger - 6.5%. Quite a bold move for a brewer that is usually accused of dumbing down.

    1. People tend to forget that, with Strong Suffolk, Greene King make one of the most unique beers still brewed in the UK. They should make more of it and publicise its uniqueness more.

    2. I couldn't agree more, but sadly its latest rebrand was to lump it in with their 'craft' range and give it a cartoon label.