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.