QUICK ONE: Greene King Heritage Beers Pt. 2

Illustration: Victoriana.

A couple of weeks ago we tried Greene King’s ‘Heritage’ beers and gave them what we thought was a quite clearly caveated thumbs-up. But maybe the caveats need to be bigger in future.

Commenting on Facebook, one passerby disagreed bluntly with our assessment, adding: “Saying something is the best Greene King have made isn’t really saying much either.” And, yes, that’s sort of the point we wanted to get across, in our weaselly way. We certainly weren’t saying that Greene King is now our favourite brewery, or that these are contenders for beers of the year. Greene King’s marketing department read it correctly and wisely omitted that line when they used us to blurb the products.

Still, when we tried the pale ale again a few days later it tasted no less impressive, and we’ve seen some positive reactions from others on social media, often along the same lines: people who aren’t normally Greene King boosters, who were prepared to be let down, conceding that these are a step up.

Meanwhile, Greene King’s use of the word ‘heritage’ niggled with Steve Dunkley from Manchester brewery Beer Nouveau. We met Steve once and have followed him on social media for years and what is clear is that he’s the sort of bloke who does things properly, if he’s going to do them at all. Accordingly, his own historic recreations are painstaking to the nth degree, and he is clearly uneasy about the Greene King’s efforts and others of their ilk.

He argues that beers with HERITAGE on the label ought to use both a historic recipe and heritage ingredients; otherwise they are merely ‘inspired by’ or, worse, just normal beers in fancy clothing. We wouldn’t disagree with that, fundamentally. Transparency and clarity are important and consumers shouldn’t have to undertake their own detective work to establish that a product they’re buying is what the packaging implies. But these Greene King beers, we think, are pretty clear that they’re ‘inspired by’ in the explanatory copy. We underlined that in our review, too.

Another point that’s been made to us by brewer Shane Swindells, both directly and elsewhere, including in the comments on our review, is that these beers don’t really express Chevallier malt character. We wouldn’t know about that because we’ve not had chance to try many beers made with Chevallier but his suggestion that GK might have used this specialist product in rather sparing amounts purely for the sake of the label doesn’t seem unlikely, now we reflect on it. Shane makes a couple of heritage malt beers himself which he tells us do express the malt character to an almost challenging degree in case you want to investigate further.

All this has helped us clarify something, anyway: interested as we are in full-on, serious historic recreations, we also just want to see more old-fashioned beers. We’re sure there’s room in the market for both Heritage with a capital H and inspired-bys, and the beers that will be displaced by inspired-bys aren’t Shane and Steve’s — they’re the dull bottled bitters and diminished big brands of the late 20th century that coast by on goodwill, nostalgia and inoffensiveness. If GK’s experiments with heritage beers translate into a bump in bitterness and a change in character for some of their mainline products, that’ll be a good outcome.

The GK Heritage beers got discounted pretty swiftly by Tesco, though, so perhaps the world outside the beerosphere didn’t agree with our assessment. In which case, it’s likely nothing much will change at all.

Yes, Greene King — More of This

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.

Goose Island Brewery Yard Stock Pale Ale

A meticulously recreated 19th Century pale ale produced with the close involvement of beer historian Ron Pattinson? Yes please.

As with the Fuller’s Past Masters beers, there was never a moment’s doubt that we had to taste Goose Island Brewery Yard, but the talked-about price — £20 for a 750ml bottle — did give us a moment’s pause. Fortunately, when we asked around for where it could actually be bought (lots was given away as, essentially, marketing bling) we were pointed toward Clapton Craft who had it at a much more reasonable £12 a bottle. We ordered two, along with some other interesting stuff to justify the postage, intending to drink one now and leave the other for at least a couple of years.

Brewery Yard in the glass: beer foam.

First, putting aside matters of history, expectation and industry politics, how is it as a beer? The aroma is unmistakably ‘Bretty’, which is to say very like Orval. (It’s a different strain of Brettanomyces, apparently, but, until we’ve had more practice, the distinction seems lost on us.) There’s also something like hot sugar. In the glass, it looks like an extremely pretty bitter, at the burnished end of brown, topped of with a thick but loose head of white. The taste was remarkably interesting with, once again, Orval as the only real reference point: Brewery Yard is thinner, drier and lighter-bodied despite a higher ABV (8.4%). There was something wine-like about it — a suggestion of acidity, perhaps, or of fruit skins? There was also a strong brown sugar tang, as if a cube or two had been dissolved and stirred in. That’s a flavour we’ve come across before, in two of the Fuller’s Past Masters beers — 1966 Strong Ale and 1914 Strong X — and not one we’re all that keen on. So, as a beer, we didn’t love it wholeheartedly, and probably wouldn’t spend £12 on another bottle.

Continue reading “Goose Island Brewery Yard Stock Pale Ale”

Why Not Bitter Pils ’73 Before Bad 2002-style IPA?

We were interested to read an article in The Economist about the latest trend in Eastern European beer: Cold War retro.

One of the most interesting, Zlaty Bazant ’73, is a version of the biggest Slovakian lager brand based on a half-century old recipe, from the, er, good old days. We’ve heard that one reason larger breweries are reluctant to do this kind of thing is because it acknowledges the truth in the idea that ‘fings ain’t wot they used to be’. We suppose that might be an issue for brands trading upon their history, e.g. Guinness, but Zlaty Bazant (Heineken) seem to be dealing with it: the modern beer is a modern beer, for modern tastes, and good in a different way. There’s no conflict.

Zlaty Bazant 73 bottle.
SOURCE: Zlaty Bazant website.

(We’re not saying ZB is good — I drank a fair bit when I lived in Poland travelled and around Eastern Europe a decade or so ago; it was fine, but not one of my favourites. – Boak.)

This is happening in Western Europe, too. Through the fog of PR and junket-based razzle-dazzle it’s possible to discern genuine admiration for Carlsberg and Heineken’s experiments with ancient yeast strains. As one noted beer writer suggested to us recently, paraphrased, these breweries don’t like being unpopular and seem to have made the decision to distinguish themselves from AB-InBev by making decent beer again.

In short, we don’t understand why established breweries everywhere aren’t doing this as a way of offering an accessible ‘premium’ product. We’d have loved to have tried the recent 1955 London Pride brewed by Fuller’s in collaboration with Sierra Nevada – wouldn’t Pride ’55 that be a great thing to see as a regular beer in their pubs? Or Young’s Ordinary ’77 with a whiff of The Sweeney about it? (As long as they taste decent, and noticeably different, obviously.)

Bass in particular is a brand crying out for this kind of revival – a pep up (Bass ’65) rather than a total reinvention (Bass Sour Lime Flavourbombz®) — preying on nostalgia for the days of full-employment, World Cup wins, Pop Art and Beatlemania.

On a related note, this trend also indicates a way forward for European ‘craft beer’. While we don’t object fundamentally to Germans brewing IPA, as some people do, it does seem a shame that the reaction of ‘alternative’ brewers to ever-blander industrial lagers isn’t more often just really good takes on native styles. Old recipes, old yeast, old specifications might get people excited about Dunkel again, for example. (Yes, we know you’re excited about Dunkel already, but you’re a massive nerd.) And imagine an indie pilsner that is dead clean and traditional — no elderflowers or citrusy hops — but so bitter that it makes Jever taste restrained. That’d go like a bomb among craft beer fans, wouldn’t it? Or maybe Jever themselves will get there first with Jever ’83.

N.B. We’ve said most of this before in one form or another so consider this a premium retro-ironic post under the sub-brand B&B ’09.

Old recipes, etiquette and wallop

1912 St Austell Stout

Being some notes and queries on subjects diverse.

Even more beers brewed to historic recipes

About this time last year, we tried to compile a reasonably complete list of beers being brewed to historic recipes. Now we note that one of the beers in the Sainsbury’s beer hunt is J.W. Lees Manchester Star, supposedly brewed to an 1884 porter recipe, and also hear news of a St Austell 1913 stout. (We’ve seen a recipe in their books from 1912, pictured.) The latest Fuller’s Past Masters beer, 1931 Burton Extra, has just been released. This summer also saw Camden brew a 1908 pale ale which was very tasty, but seemed (too us) rather too far from the original spec to really deserve the ‘historic’ tag.

Questions of pub etiquette

Maxwell asked this question on Twitter last night:

It’s a good question. Our feeling was that, if you need to ask, then you’re not eligible, but can anyone give a more helpful answer?

The meaning of ‘wallop’

Watching the BFI’s Roll out the Barrel DVD again the other night, we particularly enjoyed Down at the Local (1945), a propaganda short made for British troops serving overseas. It was designed to remind them of home, and of why they were fighting, and shows scenes of pubs in London, Lancashire and Somerset. In London, the narrators decide on mild and so ask the barmaid for ‘two pints of wallop‘. In Preston, incidentally, they decide on bitter and mild and so order ‘mixed’.

A second talk at Eden

The Boak and Bailey edutainment roadshow was at the Eden Project again last weekend. There was no Oakham Green Devil  IPA to demonstrate with this time, though, as it all got pilfered from a store cupboard. They left behind the St Austell HSD and Franziskaner.