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.