It's worth having a look at the history of these beers. The most tortuous one belongs to Ruddles. Back in the 1970s this was a small independent brewery based in rural Rutland. Ruddles County, a splendid strong ale, was an iconic beer of the real ale revival. However, in 1986 Ruddles sold out to one of the - then big brewers, Grand Met, who in turn flogged the brewery to the Danish outfit Grolsch. The next owners were Morlands of Oxfordshire who closed the Ruddles brewery and transferred production to their own plant in Abingdon. They continued brewing Ruddles County (and Bitter) but these were truly miserable counterfeits. In 1999 Morlands sold up to Greene King who thus inherited the Ruddles brands.
Now, reputations die hard and although Morlands had ruined County, it was still a famous and recognised name. It would have been foolish to scrap such a well-known brand. It would also have been silly to replicate the useless Morlands recipe. What GK actually did was to create a brand-new beer, at a lower strength (4.3%), and give it the Ruddles County name. Shame, said many of my CAMRA colleagues - this beer bears no relation to the County we loved in 1975. However, that beer was already dead and buried. The new County was, and still is, an excellent beer in its own right - one of the best that GK produce. If using the old name helps sell more of such a fine real ale, what's the problem?
Old Speckled Hen had been Morlands' flagship brand at the time GK bought the company. In my own view it was a triumph of marketing over quality, being remarkably bland for a beer of its strength. The GK - brewed version was, I think, infinitely superior, a rich, well-balanced strong ale. GK have recently reformulated OSH at the lower strength of 4.5% so as to fill the gap in their portfolio between County and Abbot. The difference in taste, though, is marginal.
When GK took over Ridleys last year, they went to great pains to match the tastes of the Ridleys-brewed ales with the Bury-brewed ones - I know, because I took part in the tasting trials. I really would defy anyone approaching the issue objectively to claim that the Bury-brewed versions are inferior. The plain fact is that the Ridleys brewery was pretty clapped out and their ales were inconsistent. To me, the Bury versions are of a reliably high quality.
However, say my CAMRA colleagues, this is irrelevant. GK are duping the public into believing these ales still come from their brewery of origin. Is that so? To be deceived you'd need to
- (a) know where the beers used to be brewed
- (b) not know where they're brewed now
- (c) consider (a) to be important to your drinking experience
- (b) not know where they're brewed now
What my colleagues seem to be saying is that a beer produced at its brewery of origin is intrinsically better than a beer which started in one place but moved to another. Those same colleagues will, however, not bat an eyelid when one of our beloved micro-breweries outgrows its original micro-plant and moves to bigger premises elsewhere. This is self-evidently a Good Thing (and so it is) - but the same scenario applies, because the beers are being brewed on new plant in a new location. Invariably, they are just as good, and there's no reason why not, given that the skill of the brewer matters most. But the same applies if a "big" brew changes home. It's also self-evidently untrue that just because a beer remains at its original brewery, it will stay consistently good. Take Boddingtons Bitter for example, brewed at Strangeways in Manchester. In the 1970s this was a marvellous, truly bitter ale. By the time Strangeways closed a couple of years ago it was a typically bland big brewers' beer.
Anyway, I'd be really interested to hear from any non-CAMRA activists on this subject. Do you feel misled by Greene King? Are you outraged to learn that these beers are brewed in Bury? Or is it just the taste that matters when making your purchasing decisions? Please let me know.