london marketing opinion

Five suggestions for Greene King

Greene King, by all accounts, are puzzled and hurt by the disdain in which they (and especially their IPA) are held by beer geeks.

As usual, we (as Tandleman would say) sit on the fence a bit when it comes to Greene King: we recognise they make some good beers, but worry that their IPA is a Trojan horse — a beer so bland it has more in common with John Smith’s Extra Smooth than any other ‘real ale’.

However, inspired by this post at the Campaign for Really Good Beer, we thought we’d be constructive and suggest five things they can do to improve their image.

1. Instead of inviting critics and commentators one at a time to come and stand on your lovely roof and meet you charming head brewer, why not make a lot more information about how your beer is made available online? At the moment (unless we’re missing something) the website is all about branding and packaging.

2. Get out and try GK IPA as it is drunk in pubs all around the country: however subtle, balanced and well-made it might be at source, by the time it reaches, say, Exeter, it is usually, in our experience, warm, vinegary and flat. Has it got more market share than your quality control mechanisms can cope with?

3. As CAMRGB suggested, stop pretending that your pubs serve beers from a range of breweries and, in particular, nix the disingenuous London Glory. This is just cheeky and takes your customers for mugs.

4. With that huge London estate, surely there’s room somewhere for a pub which serves your full range of beers, from the rarely seen but apparently excellent mild, via Suffolk Strong, all the way up to the currently brewery-exclusive 5X? A flagship pub where you could send cynics to taste your best products as you intend them to be tasted?

5. On the subject of mild, given that anyone drinking GK IPA has already foregone any pretensions of youthfulness or trendiness, probably attracted by the low ABV as much as anything else, maybe there’s a market you’re failing to tap? We groan when we see your IPA on sale in a pub in Cornwall, but we’d be delighted to see your mild.

Some of this would also apply to St Austell and some other big regional brewers. If any of the above are already happening and we’ve missed them, let us know.

29 replies on “Five suggestions for Greene King”

As I said on Twitter, GK IPA /is/ a mild (though not a very good one). It’s name is marketing, nothing more.

If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…

I’d only really take issue with one thing you say, and that’s that it’s the brewery’s fault that IPa is served warm, flat, and vinegary. That’s poor cellarmanship.

It may be that it’s not possible to serve it any other way (personal experience says otherwise), but you as the drinker should never find out if that’s the case.

Owen — but when the pubs are owned by them…? Number four above would help, though, because at least then we’d know how it was supposed to taste in optimal condition.

Should add that we’re not saying GK IPA is ‘bland for an IPA’ — it’s also bland for a mild!

I agree with all of that entirely – except I would add (having lived in Cambridge for the best part of 10 years before moving to London) that GK IPA doesn’t need to go as far as Exeter to taste odd.

GK IPA does seem to be a beer that *goes off early and badly*. Given its ubiquity in the pubco universe – and the consequent lottery of cask throughput and cellarship – I suspect this is why it is often so bad. This said, even in pubs I know have an excellent cellar, GK IPA is an uninspiring pint with a curious house sourness that pervades even their rebadged beers. I suspect – Des de Moor is a greater man than I and he thinks the same – that the yeast is to blame. Even as a lambic lover, there is something just *off* about the GK sourness that in a beer without malt or hop firepower like IPA just seems wincingly ill-balanced.

I’ve said before that the XX Mild is an excellent beer – the thick, milky, gluggable body acting as a superb foil for the house sourness. Sublime stuff and maddening that it’s not more widely available. Even in GK pubs it is a rarity, let alone elsewhere.

Finally, I also wonder with Abbot Ale whether the brewery is a victim of old practices hitting corporate targets for turnaround and stock control (I have no idea if this is true – it is conjecture). Dropped bright and tapped, it is an insipid, again sour pint with a rather scummy head. But one of the best pints I ever had was a six week old cask of Abbot (at a freehouse) that had developed serious complexity and where the sourness had seemingly rounded into the malt beautifully.

GK landlords have more than once complained to me that they are expected to turn around casks rather quickly for the bean counters. But if they are being traditionally brewed for a serious secondary fermentation, there is a chance the beer is suffering as a result.

Oblivious — don’t think we’re disagreeing — we’ve heard good things about the mild and would like to see more of it around.

John — should have mentioned you by name in the post as our primary authority on matters GK-related, esp. XX Mild.

I’d certainly love to see mild more widely available..even if it meant dropping the “mild” on the pumpclip to stop people potentially avoiding it (do people still do this?)

In the minjor chance someone at Greene King is reading this, please ensure that pub signs aren’t constantly replaced with a Greene King logo. I know its a good way to get the brand ID out, but to me it just serves as a long distance indicator to avoif that particular pub.

++ on the XX. One of the best milds I have tasted, and yet I have only ever seen it once in 8 years, despite being surrounded by oodles of GK pubs after they got bought up in the Morland/Morrells takeovers.

John — no, not at all, it’s just that, having lived in a GK town, you’ve drunk a lot more than we have. The stuff about their yeast, above, is all new to us. (Have you blogged about XX Mild, though? If so, we’ll put a link in the post.)

Graeme — insane. I know they’ll say there’s no demand, but I think they should try again. After all, there was no demand for ‘american brown ales’ ten years ago, but Thornbridge are doing alright.

I dont know where this perception their mild is good comes from. It isn’t!!! THe same thin, bland taste with a hint of caramel… yes, its better than their ipa but that’s like saying Stalin was better than Hitler.

Blimey, our yearly comment from Gazza! Hello. Fair to say you’re not a fan of mild generally?

“a beer so bland it has more in common with John Smith’s Extra Smooth than any other ‘real ale’.”

Would you say then it is significantly worse than other widely-available cask ordinary bitters such as Shepherd Neame Master Brew, Courage Best, Marston’s Burton Bitter etc, many of which often seem to be held in equal disdain by beer enthusiasts?

Of those, I think we’ve only tried Master Brew recently. Fine degrees of difference but, yes, we find GKIPA more bland than SNMB, as if brewed to be absolutely neutral in flavour. (Zak disagrees with us — spicy and earthy, he says, but then he’s probably got better tastebuds than us.)

Fair point, though — that should probably read “many other real ales”.

I don’t think we’re arguing for it be turned into a cutting edge US IPA, just punched up a notch. JW Lees Bitter, for example, is about the same strength, and far from hugely hopped, but has bags more character, probably (as others have said) thanks to a more distinguished yeast.

(Gazza, I’d look away now – praise for balanced brown beers follows…)

Speaking just for myself, I do think (assuming all are well kept) GK IPA is worse than all those beers, Mudgie. Master Brew has a decent underlying spicy bitterness; Courage is inoffensively malty, albeit being a bland drop; Martson’s (which I contend doesn’t travel well outside of the north and is carbonically harsh when unsparkled) was a revelation to me on visiting Manchester – not *too* far from its home – as a decent drop, with the Burton snatch welcome through a thick, creamy head.

As I suggest, I think GK IPA is not (as often it’s accused of being) *bland* as such – it’s that the house sourness of the yeast creates an ill-balanced brew in a beer without sufficient malt or hop firepower to match it (particularly the former).

I’d make it mandatory for all GK employees to spend a few days working at the Cask Pub & Kitchen or the Craft Beer Co – two GK pubs that they could not make a go of but which have been transformed into thriving enterprises by an adventurous beer range and enthusiasm. OK, I don’t expect that to happen but they might at least learn the lesson that the best way to run a huge pub estate is not necessarily to rely solely on pumping through as much of their own product as possible, augmented (sometimes) in a half-hearted fashion only by an uninspiring “guest” ale or two. I’m not one of those who feels that GK beers are necessarily stinkers – most beers have their place even if, in my view, that is not “everywhere” – but in some areas where GK dominate, the level of consumer choice is woefully inadequate.

The Spotted Dog in Brighton is also GK, though I noted Tony Leonard’s comments re: how much GK are selling him Dark Star Hophead for at another of his pubs.

GK IPA sits in the middle of the line of beer engines at The Spotted Dog (I assume Tony/Emma have to sell it), though I didn’t see anybody drinking it on my sole visit to date.

Chris — interesting suggestion. There does seem to be a bit of confusion/tunnel vision over what will sell: yes, weaker, more straightforward beers will appeal to more people, but that doesn’t necessarily mean people actively like your brand and product, or have loyalty to it.

I would still turn down GKIPA when served in its best form. In fact there is a GK tied house, the Red Lion in Bromley, that always serves all of its ale (3-4 from GK plus Harveys) in excellent condition and has been recognised by CAMRA on numerous occasions for doing so. The beer just does nothing for me and is a waste of a potential handpump as far as I’m concerned. I also

Same goes for the ‘guest’ beers from the Westgate Brewery that they try oh so hard to conceal their true origin.

The only way they could win me over now is by creating an off-shoot, experimental, trendy brand (call it something like ‘GK’ and give it a funky logo) that produces challenging, 21st Century ‘craft’ beers with some character and bloody hops in them.

“A flagship pub where you could send cynics to taste your best products as you intend them to be tasted?”

Such “great” GK pubs do exist – pubs with landlords who love real ale and serve it in consistently great condition. The problem is that we almost never go into them – those of us who like good beer see the GK logo and go elsewhere. There are too many GK pubs and on average they’re awful. Chances of walking into one randomly and getting a good pint are slim – and even if you do get a good pint it’ll be IPA, Abbot, Hen… etc.

Good GK pubs do these “everyday” beers and also the less common ones (all good GK pubs do XX in my experience) and the specials, fake “guests”, and these days real guests too!

In Cambridge the Green Dragon used to be one such pub (it went downhill – haven’t been back for quite a long while). In St Neots there is the Pig ‘n Falcon too.

We’re lucky in my area that in Baldock the new landlord at the Orange Tree has taken a Greene King pub and turned it into an example of the best a GK pub can be! I’d recommend anyone wanting to study what can be done under the wing of Greene King has a look at this place. I can see it getting our area’s Pub of the Year sometime.

The success of the pub comes down to the landlord’s knowledge of the product (a real ale enthusiast) and his business nous in dealing with GK. We’re talking 8 handpums: 4 GK beers – 2 “fake” or real guests (GK do have a non-GK-brewed guest list – but pubs have to care to get hold of these beers) – and (amazingly) 2 actual free-of-tie pumps! (GK will let Rob get whatever he wants on these so long as it comes from a “micro” – of course he pays GK a nasty barrelage for the privilege!) He also gets to hold 4 totally free of tie beer festivals per year.

I think the main problem that Greene King suffers from is crap landlords. What’s the solution to that?

With regard to point 2, I am not convinced the beer needs to go as far as Exeter to suffer. The last pint of GKIPA I had was in a pub in Ashford, Kent and it smelt distinctly like rubber carpet underlay. Thankfully the pub in question also had Guinness.

Yvan — “I think the main problem that Greene King suffers from is crap landlords. What’s the solution to that?” Good question. Do the terms of their licenses put off the best landlords? And/or put them under pressure to, e.g., sell beer after it’s passed its best? Is there a flagship GK pub in London?

Al — we were being kind with Exeter but, yeah, struggled to find a good pint in London, in GK owned pubs in prime spots. Would we go Guinnes or GK IPA if that was the choice? One pint of GK IPA; if in good nick, we’d stick with that. If not, Guinness (or another pub…) would beckon.

I recently had cause to complain about a Greene King pub to the Cask Marque company, the accredited pub had none of the 4 handpumps operational, the reason being ‘its all downstairs standing for another day or so!’ Fantastic cellarmanship there!!!

Trying to complain on the GK website is not possible though, you have to do it by snail mail, which i never got round to i’m ashamed to say.
(Never heard back from Cask Marque though)

@arn This could have been legitimate. I’d rather a pub leave the beer off than put it on too soon. It may have just been delivered! So they have a logistics problem – that could be the landlord not ordering enough, or could be upstream (I’ve heard a few landlords complain about Greene King’s timeliness and correctness WRT deliveries.)

Also, what time of week was it? A few pubs I’ve come across put beer on on Thu & Fri and then let it run out – so you’ll often have no beer on Wednesday! This is simply because they don’t sell enough during the week to keep the beer in good condition, it is better to run out of beer than pour beer down the drain (or worse still, sell bad beer to punters!) If it was a Saturday then yeah, they need to be a bit better organised!

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