ALE December 2004/January 2005 No. 315 : Next section

[Campaign for Real Ale logo © CAMRA]

In Praise of Greene King

Back in August, I was present at London Olympia when the results of the Champion Beer of Britain (CBOB) contest were announced during the Great British Beer Festival. The declarations that Greene King IPA had first won gold medal in the Bitters class, then runner-up in the overall contest were greeted with a shameful chorus of boos. Over the next couple of months, the letters pages of CAMRA's newspaper, What's Brewing, were packed with vitriolic missives from CAMRA members disgusted that such a beer should be given "official" approval in this way. Rumours began circulating that the beer in the competition had been doctored or specially brewed; questions were also asked what it was doing at Olympia in the first place.

The last question is easily answered. IPA had been runner up in the previous Champion Beer of East Anglia contest and so automatically went through to the national final. I chaired that East Anglian tasting panel which, like the national panels, operated on a "blind" basis - none of the tasters were told the names of the beers they were drinking. On the day, the IPA was quite excellent, as it obviously was at Olympia.

The simple fact is that IPA is a very well made beer. When served properly it has considerable character and is a far cry from the bland ales which the global brewers try to foist on us.

So why do so many CAMRA members apparently dislike IPA in particular and Greene King in general? Taking IPA first, it is certainly ubiquitous, especially in these parts, and familiarity does breed contempt. It's also not a beer designed for the palate of the average CAMRA member, who tends to favour beers which are at the extreme ends of the flavour spectrum - very hoppy or, like Milds, very malty. IPA is unashamedly a well-balanced beer which appeals to many more drinkers than, say, Oakham JHB (the runner up in the CBOB Bitter category).

Another problem with IPA is that it's often served badly. It benefits hugely from a maturation period in the pub cellar; if served too young it can have a sharp "green-apple" taste which masks the bitterness. IPA also falls victim to other cellar management problems like poorly-cleaned equipment or wrong cellar temperatures. To their credit, Greene King have gone to great lengths to improve cellarmanship standards in their own estate, including joining the Cask Marque scheme. However once beer gets into the free trade or pub company estates, there's little they can do on this front.

Why, then, the more general CAMRA animus against GK? Part of it is definitely the "small good, big bad" viewpoint which has characterised CAMRA since its early days. Back then, the Big Six brewers were seen, with total justification, as the enemy of real ale. Now, the remaining big brewers are on the way to withdrawing from real ale anyway (and good riddance in most cases) so the likes of Greene King and Wolverhampton and Dudley have become the new "big boys".

But big needn't mean bad. Greene King have nailed their colours to the real ale mast and are entirely committed to cask beers as their flagships. Since the arrival of John Bexon as head brewer a few years ago, the quality of their beers has greatly improved. The likes of Abbot, Old Speckled Hen and Ruddles County are, in my view, up there with the very best. The seasonal ales are also excellent - this year's Suffolk County was sensational. When XX Mild became uneconomic to produce at Bury, GK arranged its transfer to Ridleys but have ensured no drop in quality (in fact, it's better than ever). And then there's IPA, now the second biggest selling cask beer in the country (after Tetley Bitter).

So, we have a regional brewery turning out vast quantities of high-quality real ale in a variety of styles and flavours. Surely we in CAMRA should be applauding them, not knocking them? Would anyone care to differ?

Paul Ainsworth

ALE December 2004/January 2005 No. 315 : Next section
Cambridge & District CAMRA