We began at the unearthly hour for beer drinking of 9am with daily quality control tasting in the inner sanctum that is the Sampling Room. Here, all beers (both bottled and real ales) brewed one, two and three days ago are checked for any faults or any other reasons why they shouldn't be released to the trade. Laboratory Manager, Susan Chisholm, led our group through samples of two and three day old IPA, Abbot, Old Speckled Hen, Ruddles County and Ruddles Orchard. Given the received wisdom that most Greene King beers benefit from a period of maturation in the pub cellar, we were surprised by just how good most of the beers were. One two-day old IPA was quite sulphurous but Susan was confident the unwanted flavours would have been driven off by the next day (though the batch would be carefully checked before being given the OK to leave the brewery).

Next up David Fitt, one of the brewers, took us on a lightning tour of the brewery (there was a lot to pack in). I was especially interested in David's exposition on the variety of hops which Greene King use nowadays. The distinctive flavour of the wondrous Ruddles County, for instance, derives largely from the rare Bramling Cross hop, which Greene King now have to have grown specially for them. The summer seasonal beer, Ale Fresco (Greene King's best ever product in my view), employs American Cascade hops; these will also be used in the new winter beer, Fireside, which sounded a fascinating concoction from David's description.

David then took us on the long walk to part of the site I'd never visited before, the packaging warehouse, where Paul Marsden, Production Manager, showed us round. The beer travels here from the brewery by an elevated pipeway. The empty barrels come in from trade and are fed into an almost totally automated sequence of processes where they're cleaned, filled and labeled. The only manual part of the operation involves banging in the shives ("the worst job in the world" Paul reckons). The plant can fill up to 500 barrels of real ale per hour. It was interesting to hear that Greene King suffer from the same problems as micros in getting their casks returned, albeit on a rather bigger scale.

Back now to the sample room for the weekly "trueness to type" tasting where we joined the brewery's panel of highly trained tasters - about 8 people chosen at random from a group of 40 or so trained staff. We were impressed that the panel members were drawn not just from the brewing side but all parts of the business - marketing, IT, packaging, call centre etc. This helps ensure commitment to quality throughout the organisation and means that all staff representing the brewery at events have a sound knowledge of the product. Also as David Fitt himself pointed out, if it was all left to the brewers, they would have a vested interest in giving their products a clean bill of health!

We started with a flavour identification test. Jane correctly spotted that the beer in question had a taste of blackcurrant leaves, or less politely, cat pee. We were then given three samples of IPA, one from one batch and two from another, and asked to say which was the odd one out. The results across the panel showed there was no real difference between any of them, which was the result the brewers were looking for.

Finally, we all sampled three recently brewed beers to see if they were true to type, eg that the IPA tasted like IPA ought to taste. We tried each of IPA, Abbot and Old Speckled Hen, marking them for positive flavours and any negative flavours. The highest marks went to "correctness" with marks deducted if a flavour was less or more intense than it should be. There was an impressive consistency to the panel's verdicts. The IPA for instance was felt to have slightly less dry hop and bitterness than usual, plus a tad too much esters, though it still scored 90% (and we really are talking about minute variations from the ideal here, not the sort of changes you'd notice in the pub). It's only really when you subject a beer to this kind of analysis that you realize just how complex an ale like Abbot actually is. (David amazed us by explaining that their commitment to consistency means that they regularly taste the water used in various processes and even the cleaning fluid!).

As a finale we were left to our own devices to visit the Brewery Visitor Centre, which is open to anyone and well worth checking out.

We departed feeling highly impressed with the very obvious commitment to quality which shone through at every stage of our visit. I can recall a time not that long ago when Greene King beers were annoyingly inconsistent, especially IPA, but it's clear to me that any faults you might find in the beers nowadays must be down to licensees and their cellarmanship (though Greene King are also taking pains to try and improve standards here as well). We in CAMRA may not approve of everything that Greene King get up to but when it comes to brewing consistent quality cask beer, you have to give them enormous credit.

Our grateful thanks to Heather Ryland at Greene King for setting up this fascinating morning for us.

Paul Ainsworth
October 2005