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.