For some years now we’ve been repeating one message: old family brewers should be focusing on their heritage, not trying to keep up with BrewDog. So we were delighted to hear that Greene King has upped its historic beer game.
Their new limited edition bottled heritage range doesn’t quite approach the full-on authenticity of Fuller’s Past Masters series being, as far as we can tell, only vaguely ‘inspired by’ archive recipes rather than painstakingly recreating them. What is notable is their use of a once near-extinct variety of malting barley, Chevallier, the revival of which you can read about here:
Starting a few years ago with only a handful of seeds, by 2013 half a tonne was available for brewing.… Now the 2015 harvest is nudging 200 tonnes and there’s Chevallier malt aplenty. With another 15 tonnes reserved for seed, the expectation is that similar harvests will be possible in future years.… “People that have tasted it say that it has a very rich, malty flavour. We’ve had comments back from the States such as, ‘It’s the most aromatic malt that I’ve ever brewed with.’ … There’s a perception of a difference, of richer maltiness.”
We bought one bottle of each of Greene King’s heritage beers at our local Tesco supermarket for £2.49 each. That’s a touch pricier than many bog standard supermarket ales but then the bottles are full-pint sized and the beers are both relatively strong.
Suffolk Pale Ale at 5% ABV knocked our socks off. We found it vigorously bitter, almost too much so, with a remarkable freshness that suggests the pop of just ripe gooseberries. (It’s bottle-conditioned which perhaps helps.) It has a beautiful aroma which is hard to pin down – a certain sappiness might be the way to describe it, with some suggestion of fresh-baked bread. There’s nothing of the new world about it though the use of German hops (obvious once you read the label) offer a subtle twist, herbal rather than fruity. If you can’t bothered to brew one of the 19th century pale ale recipes from Ron Pattinson’s book this is a decent substitute. It’s delicious, thought provoking, and perhaps the best Greene King beer we’ve ever tasted. In fact, it’s one of the best beers we’ve come across in recent months.
Vintage Fine Ale at 6.5% less brilliant but it’s still very much a step in the right direction for Greene King. Deep red-brown in colour it has a distinct autumnal feel. On the plus side there were the various facets of richness – golden syrup, Christmas pudding and plums. The only things holding it back were a husky stale note (which we suspect might disappear with a few months ageing) and the fact that Fuller’s already makes similar but better beers in this style. On the whole, though, we liked it and would – indeed probably will – buy it again.
Let’s hope these sell well, that the Pale Ale becomes a regular, and that there are more heritage beers to come. But, seriously, when do we get the funk? Bring out the nip bottles of 5X and let’s get some blending going.