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.