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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 replies on “We need to talk about Greene King IPA”

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.

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.

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?

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?

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…

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.

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!

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.

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.

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?

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.

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. 😉

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.

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

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…

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.

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.

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.

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