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Zak Avery

Zak, AKA The Beer Boy, is a prolific commentator on the UK beer scene, with a regular column in trade newspaper Off Licence News and of course his own site, In 2008 Zak was named as Beer Writer of the Year by the British Guild of Beer Writers (a title held previously by our own Roger Protz and Michael Jackson amongst others). Zak also finds time to manage BeerRitz, the award-winning off-licence in Leeds, where we presume sampling and roadtesting is an essential part of the job.

the bogeyman of British brewing?

by Zak Avery

There's a legendary (if slightly distasteful) story attached to Greene King IPA. When it won its category (bitter) at Great British Beer Festival 2004, there were boos from parts the crowd assembled in front of the stage. This marked the start of a prickly relationship between Greene King and certain parts of the beer drinking public. So it didn't come as a complete surprise when I was asked, after a tour of the brewery and a lengthy tasting of every beer in their portfolio (and some not yet released, and some never to be released), how the brewery was perceived by the public.

It's a difficult question to answer truthfully, particularly to a still obviously aggrieved and slightly wounded party, but I have a policy of honesty. I took a deep breath and paused. In that pause, a lot of things ran through my mind. I thought about the conversation I had with brewer Craig Bennett and communications manager Frances Brace on the roof of the brewery a couple of hours ago, as we were surveying Bury St Edmunds, and parts of the countryside that provide some of the brewery's raw materials.

   Standing on the roof, and partly to get it out of the way early, I brought up the subject of Greene King's acquisition and closing of many breweries, breweries whose beers have now become brands in Greene King's portfolio (Moreland's 'Old Speckled Hen' is one example). Brace and Bennett both insist that not only were the breweries openly for sale, and there was nothing hostile in their takeover, but actually they have taken on, preserved, and even improved beers that would have otherwise been lost.

Through a long process of flavour matching and tweaking, the beers were replicated at the brewer's Bury St Edmunds brewery. They use the same ingredients, and even go so far as to Burtonise the water for the brew to replicate the mineral make-up of the former brewery's water source. Tasting them later in the tour, it's clear that they have taken their task seriously - the beers are all distinct from one another, clean, bright and have a classic English ale character to them.

As we move down through the tower brewery, brewer Bennett shows off the unusual dual grist hopper leading to two separate mash tuns, a feature that gives the brewery an added flexibility. They can either make a double mash of the same brew, feeding both worts into the same copper for the boil, or mash two different beers at the same time. As we pass in front of the coppers, Bennett mentions the amount of hops used in Abbot Ale, saying that he doesn't understand why people accuse their beers of having no hop character. It's true that all of their beers do have a signature style, a slightly nutty, softly fruity character, and lots of spicy hops. Perhaps a new generation of drinkers, raised on the bright C-hop profile of American beers (and those influenced by them), have a hard time discerning the classic dry, peppery character of English hops.

Moving across the yard into the older of the two fermentation halls, and alongside the traditional steel fermenters, there are a couple of newly built wooden tuns. Greene King famously carry out the old practice of ageing beer in wood, allowing it to oxidise and sour. The 12%abv beer that goes through this process is known as Old 5X, and when blended with the 6%abv BPA, produces the classic Strong Suffolk Ale. A slightly lighter version of the same beer, Suffolk Springer, is produced from the same blending process, but with Old 5X that has received a shorter maturation time. The pristine condition of these two new wooden tuns stands in stark contrast to the last remaining original, Vat 6, still standing in the rafters of the old gallery behind the fermentation hall. The vats are renewed as they fall into disrepair, essentially when they are no longer beer-tight.

   The last original vat makes a striking sight, blackened with age and hiding in the rafters, but it's clear that Greene King are committed to keeping the practice going. As if this weren't enough history, I'm shown an underground vault with a huge store of unused Coronation Ale, brewed and bottled in 1936 before the abdication of Edward VIII. Stored unlabelled in corked bottles, brewer Craig Bennett recently tried one, which he laconically describes as "a bit sour, but drinkable".

After an extensive tasting session, including soon to be released new beers, and a rare chance to sample Old 5X and BPA in their unblended forms, we move to the brewery tap, where the question about how they are perceived is raised. Over a cool pint of St Edmunds (I prefer the unsparkled 'south' serve, and yes, it makes a huge difference), I tell them what I've heard - that they are perceived as a traditional, slightly staid, English brewery, brewing traditional, slightly staid English beers, and are seen (not by me) as predatory in their acquisition of foundering breweries.

I feel terrible saying it, but I'm just repeating what people have said to me, and it's nothing that they haven't heard before. They take my response with good grace, in the spirit in which it was intended, and we recap the conversation that we had on the roof of the brewery a couple of hours earlier.

Of course, the irony is that rather than being staid and predatory, Greene King are both preserving English brewing heritage, and still pushing themselves with recent new releases (and some yet to come) while doing so. The fruits of their labour are there to be enjoyed for any drinker with a keen palate and an open mind..

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