We need to talk about Greene King IPA

The sign outside a Greene King pub in London.

For a beer many peo­ple con­sid­er bland and over-exposed, Greene King IPA does­n’t half get talked about a lot. To us, it’s the cask ale equiv­a­lent of Bud­weis­er – brewed to be near­ly flavour­less, not too intox­i­cat­ing and uncon­tro­ver­sial. It was, in fact, for that rea­son that it was the first cask ale that Bai­ley got the taste for, many years ago.

Zak Avery, Paul Gar­rard and oth­ers stick up for it, how­ev­er, argu­ing that it is sub­tle rather than bland, and that it suf­fers because it is often sold in pubs which don’t know how to look after it. The lat­ter is cer­tain­ly true, and also applies to, e.g., Lon­don Pride when not served in a Fuller’s pub.

Zak sug­gests that we and oth­ers who find GK IPA bor­ing need to recal­i­brate our taste­buds. We know what he means – a pint of our usu­al after a fort­night in Spain last year tast­ed like an extreme hop-mon­ster – but can’t agree that GK IPA is an unfair­ly neglect­ed clas­sic. If faced with a choice between GK IPA and a cold Cruz­cam­po, we’d take the lat­ter every time, and that’s say­ing some­thing.

We recent­ly described GK IPA, rather than ‘craft keg’, as the thin end of the wedge in the bat­tle against crap beer: it’s got more in com­mon with John Smith’s smooth keg ales than it has, say, an excit­ing brown bit­ter like Har­vey’s Sus­sex Best.

Which is not to say that peo­ple who enjoy it are wrong to do so, or that they’re not real­ly enjoy­ing it, just that it would be a shame if that was as far as they got. It’s like upgrad­ing from Dairylea to mild ched­dar and think­ing you’re eat­ing ‘prop­er cheese’. (That sounds snob­bish but we can’t find any oth­er way to express this – and beer and cheese aren’t things you need to be rich or Eton-edu­cat­ed to enjoy.)

What’s most frus­trat­ing, as Zak also points out, is that Greene King make some inter­est­ing beers, but their flag­ship brew just hap­pens to be their worst.

Anoth­er beer which we’re begin­ning to think about the same way is Sharp’s Doom Bar. It’s huge­ly pop­u­lar but, in our expe­ri­ence, often dis­ap­point­ing. We had a great pint of it a cou­ple of years back but, since then, have always been let down by its dusty card­board flavours and believe us, we keep try­ing. Recent­ly, we had a pint along­side one each of St Austell HSD and Marston’s Pedi­gree, and Doom Bar lost. (But now we need to do that taste test blind.)

UPDATE (16/12/2011): we had anoth­er good pint of Doom Bar last night – bright, fruity and very alive. Still not a great hit rate but we’re not writ­ing it off yet.

21 thoughts on “We need to talk about Greene King IPA

  1. beer and cheese aren’t things you need to be rich or Eton-edu­cat­ed to enjoy” – I am nei­ther rich nor Eton-edu­cat­ed, but I am both a cheese and a beer snob.

  2. Nice post – it’s good to see a dif­fer­ence of opin­ion dis­played so calm­ly and can­did­ly.

    The thing is, GK IPA isn’t flavour­less at all. I had a pint of it recent­ly, served cold and smooth­flow (believe me, it was the best beer on offer), and it was full of love­ly, spicy, earthy hop­pi­ness. It was too cold, but still tasty.

    I know it seems like I’m being con­trar­i­an for the sake of it, but I’m not. GK do make some bad beers. Their Extra Spe­cial IPA – which for some inex­plic­a­ble rea­son lots of peo­ple have decid­ed to like – tastes of ace­tone and pear drops to me (I think those are ketones?), but it seems as though if you brew some­thing to 7.5%abv and call it “Extra Spe­cial”, peo­ple are seduced by mar­ket­ing rather than believ­ing what their olfac­to­ry sys­tem tells them – per­ish the thought.

  3. Yup, GKIPA, Lon­don Pride and Doom Bar are all beers that often end up being the sole cask choice in a pub that does­n’t care about and/or know how to work with cask beer. Some of the Wells’ port­fo­lio suf­fers the same fate in and around Lon­don – Courage Best / Direc­tors, Bom­bardier, and to a less­er extent Young’s Bit­ter.

    Some­times it’s so hard to tell if any of these beers are actu­al­ly any good in the first place, or if they are just abused. I know Young’s bit­ter is decent if looked after. Lon­don Pride I think is a mag­nif­i­cent beer when on form. I admit to hav­ing had a decent pint or two of GKIPA in the past, but far more rot­ten or indif­fer­ent ones. I don’t think I’ve *ever* had a good pint of Doom Bar – if that’s how it’s sup­posed to taste, then its pop­u­lar­i­ty mys­ti­fies me.

    The mere men­tion of Har­vey’s has got me sali­vat­ing. Unhelp­ful­ly I’m sat at my desk at 11am on a Tues­day in Buck­ing­hamshire – not much chance of sat­is­fy­ing my thirst any time soon.

  4. Zak – it does­n’t seem like you’re being a con­trar­i­an, although I sus­pect your high­ly-trained palate is detect­ing some­thing in GK IPA we’ll nev­er be able to appre­ci­ate. (That sounds sarky – not meant to be!)

    A cou­ple of years ago, when peo­ple like Ron and Tan­dle­man tut­ted at us for get­ting over-excit­ed about ‘extreme beers’ and big, unsub­tle Amer­i­can beers, we thought they were being grumps. Increas­ing­ly, though, we’re begin­ning to under­stand what they mean. All those Yeti Stouts and dou­ble IPAs did a great job of shock­ing our taste­buds into life, though – the oth­er end of palate cal­i­bra­tion, per­haps?

  5. Hel­lo, Ant! Inter­est­ing­ly, I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad pint of Crouch Vale, and I’ve very rarely had a bad Dark Star. What is their secret? A bit stronger, a few more hops?

  6. And I post­ed exact­ly the same thing as a com­ment on Zak’s blog regard­ing Doom Bar (and the same of GK IPA). One decent pint of Doom Bar in 3 or so years is not a great suc­cess rate – and regard­less of where served (it has been crap in Corn­wall too).

    The same prob­a­bly true of GK IPA – I can recall only a cou­ple of decent pints of it in the last few years. But GK’s “sea­son­als” all taste the same to me (Ale Fres­co being the pleas­ant excep­tion). Their best beer by a mile is XX Mild IMHO. It’s just nev­er on…

  7. Graeme – we’ve nev­er seen their mild for sale. Cur­rent wis­dom is that mild does­n’t sell, IPA does (pure­ly in terms of cus­tomer reac­tion to the lan­guage) so I guess that explains how a beer very like a mild, brand­ed as an IPA, gets such wide dis­tri­b­u­tion.

  8. Zak: Ace­tone is a ketone (gen­er­al­ly bad in beer. Often from hot fer­ments or infec­tion – I’ve had a por­tion of a batch (albeit 4 gal­lons) turn to nail pol­ish from infec­tion before, where the oth­er gal­lon won it’s cat­e­go­ry in a comp.).

    Pear drops is usu­al­ly eth­yl ethanoate (an ester) – some­times bad, though small hints can be quite nice. In Bel­gian style beers it is often desir­able along with the oth­er estery and phe­no­lic com­pounds. Often aris­es from hot fer­ments again, or sim­ply because the yeast strain likes to pro­duce it!

  9. Bai­ley – yes, Brew­ers Gold seems pret­ty bul­let­proof. I’ve drunk it a fair bit in a Ken­tish Town pub which – while fair­ly upscale – def­i­nite­ly does­n’t have cask at the top of their list of pri­or­i­ties. Still, it always seems in good con­di­tion. Dark Star too, yes indeed.

  10. Like many of the mass pro­duced “beer equiv­a­lents to Bud­weis­er” these are best avoid­ed BUT occas­sion­al­ly you can be sur­prised.
    We have a local free­house who, after a refurb, has tak­en the easy route and is pick­ing from the Marston’s beer list. I lit­tle wor­ried I tried the Marstons EPA (ter­ri­ble name!) but as it was served at the right tem­per­a­ture and as it was in prime con­di­tion, was a great drink.

  11. The only time I have ever actu­al­ly had GK IPA was in my broth­er’s local in Ash­ford, a cou­ple of Christ­mases ago – when you are the only broth­er with­out kids, you need to get out of the house on occa­sion. Appar­ent­ly the pub in ques­tion had a rep­u­ta­tion for keep­ing its beer in decent nick, so I was look­ing for­ward to a cou­ple of pints. How­ev­er, the beer that was placed in front of me was a major dis­ap­point­ment, and smelt exact­ly like that rub­ber car­pet under­lay stuff. My next pint was Guin­ness. The pub was three quar­ters emp­ty and only a cou­ple of hand pulls, so I won­der if they have the through put of cus­tom to make cask real­ly viable?

  12. As your blind tast­ings have shown, it is impos­si­ble to com­plete­ly detach the taste of a beer from the psy­cho­log­i­cal asso­ci­a­tions of the brand (as with pink-coloured choco­late milk­shake). It would be inter­est­ing to stage a con­trolled tast­ing where one group were told it was GKIPA and the oth­er were told that it was a sub­tle, bit­ter­sweet coun­try ale from a new micro-brew­ery in mid-Suf­folk.

  13. Zak – “I had a pint of it recent­ly, served cold and smooth­flow (believe me, it was the best beer on offer)” I find it inter­est­ing that you’re defend­ing GK IPA whilst also feel­ing the need to jus­ti­fy drink­ing it. Just say­ing. 😉

  14. I agree espe­cial­ly with the Doom­Bar com­ment at the end. Its like they for­got the recipe and are fob­bing us off with what they can remem­ber.

  15. Boak and Bai­ley Hi,

    I am sor­ry that you feel this way about my beer. Every­one is enti­tled to an opin­ion and it is appre­ci­at­ed. How­ev­er as some­one who is obses­sive­ly pas­sion­ate about what he makes I find it hard not to take it per­son­al­ly. I have been respon­si­ble for every aspect of Doom Bar pro­duc­tion for 11 years and taste every liquor, water, wort beer and forc­ing sam­ple. It is the same beer to me. It is also the same beer accord­ing to the lab (bit­ter­ness analy­sis, GCMS, pH, PG etc) and to the 14 mem­bers of my tech­ni­cal­ly trained and screened flavour pan­el who have been tast­ing every batch of the beer for 5 years. The recipe and the process are the same now as they were when I took over. In 15 years Doom Bar has gone from sell­ing a few to 31million pints per year and is only sold to pubs which can choose what they buy (we have no tied pubs). As a brew­er you can’t please all the peo­ple all the time (but it doesn’t stop you try­ing) but I’d rather please those drink­ing the 30million pints than a select few who feel they should pro­tect peo­ple from enjoy­ing their beer of choice.

    I under­stand that you are due to vis­it Sharp’s in a cou­ple of weeks. I look for­ward to see­ing you then but I must warn you that if you are expect­ing to see a machine that we use to take the flavour out or the one which adds the card­board you will be dis­ap­point­ed. All you will see is a brew­ery using only the best Eng­lish malt, whole hops, our own yeast strain and Cor­nish water to make beer with pas­sion accord­ing to clas­sic cask ale pro­duc­tion meth­ods

  16. Stu­art – thanks for stop­ping by to com­ment.

    I know that you’ve been get­ting a lot of stick from peo­ple who think you’ve done some­thing to make Doom Bar worse. We’re not say­ing that. What we are say­ing is that, sad­ly, it has been some­thing like three years since we had a pint that in any way excit­ed us, and we do keep try­ing it, both in Lon­don and now we’re liv­ing here in Corn­wall.

    Why do we keep try­ing it? Part­ly because of your rep­u­ta­tion and the pas­sion you demon­strate on your blog and else­where.

    As you say, it’s just our expe­ri­ence, and our opin­ion, and you cer­tain­ly don’t need us to pro­mote Doom Bar…

  17. I lived in Cam­bridge for the best part of 10 years, where famil­iar­i­ty has bred a con­sid­er­able amount of con­tempt for GK IPA.

    For my mon­ey, it is – even when well kept – a dish­wa­ter beer, man­ag­ing to com­bine a thin, life­less body with an unpleas­ant sour­ness (and I love lam­bics, so I’m not down on sour per se).

    This said, I cer­tain­ly agree with those above who’ve not­ed it’s a beer (along with Lon­don Pride and Land­lord – both beers I rate very high­ly) that seems to be the default in ‘don’t drink it myself’ pubs.

    (On that point, to answer your ques­tion re. Dark Star and Crouch Vale, I’ve nev­er seen those brew­eries in these pubs. Nei­ther seems much on the guest beer trail, either. Though I have seen CV Amar­il­lo at the Duke of Welling­ton, Dal­ston – I for­get which pub­co that’s with.)

    Back to GK, I agree whole­heart­ed­ly with Graeme that their XX Mild is a very, very good beer indeed. My hunch is that the thick, milky dark body bal­ances the house sour­ness into some­thing glug­gably inter­est­ing. It is worth seek­ing out. Those who can man­age a trip to Cam­bridge – a seri­ous ale city with some astound­ing pubs – can find it on con­stant­ly at the Free Press.

    Final­ly, I’d add that one of the finest pints I ever had was at the Cam­bridge Blue, a free house. The land­lord said ‘try an Abbot Ale’. I was nat­u­ral­ly a bit sniffy. He insist­ed and promised me my mon­ey back if I did­n’t like it. It was uncom­mon­ly rich, well con­di­tioned, stun­ning beer – think the glo­ri­ous body and aro­ma of Bate­mans XXB.

    I asked how such a feat was pos­si­ble – while I don’t hate Abbot, I’d nev­er rat­ed it. He said ‘sim­ple, I keep it six weeks in the cel­lar’. He added all the GK beers ben­e­fit from such age­ing.

    My view is if their beers require such lengthy treat­ment to hit top form, we’re van­ish­ing­ly unlike­ly to find them in decent nick.

  18. John – “I don’t drink it myself” pubs! I know exact­ly what you mean. Our local in Waltham­stow was one of those but the land­lord did even­tu­al­ly get the bug. Until then, he had a cou­ple of CAMRA mem­bers as reg­u­lars and would just bow to their exper­tise, which seemed to work.

  19. OK, we’re not writ­ing Doom Bar off just yet. Had a good pint of it last night and have added a quick update to the post as a result.

Comments are closed.