Something wonderful stirs in Bury St Edmunds
Saturday 27 August 2022
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Based in the medieval town of Bury St Edmunds, Greene King is in many ways the epitome of traditional English ale brewing. At times over the past 50 years though, this has been a double-edged sword; at the height of the macro lager invasion, the business was forced to focus on preserving profit margins, prioritising its sizeable pub estate over its beers, which include the iconic Old Speckled Hen and Greene King IPA. When Greene King was bought by Hong Kong firm CKA in 2018, there was some tutting and head-shaking about yet another heritage brewery selling out, but the primary reaction was, in essence, a resigned shrug.
Since then though, quite unexpectedly, something fresh and vital has been stirring in the sleepy heart of Bury St Edmunds. Rather than simply milking the pub estate (or, worse, selling off swathes for property development) Greene King’s new owners started asking interesting questions of the brewery’s young staff. Questions like ‘how can we make better use of your creativity?’, ‘what kind of brewery do we need to be in 20 years?’ and, crucially, ‘what is it that you need to make these things happen?’
Rather than sit in its ever-diminishing comfort-zone, the brewery has emerged from the enforced hiatus of lockdown with a zeal for fundamental change, which stretches from the boardroom to the brewery floor.
“We know craft beer is an incredibly competitive market,” says Alex Radcliffe, marketing controller for Greene King’s premium beers. “You've got three brands that now account for 50% of the market: BrewDog, which is now private equity invested, Camden, which is now AB InBev, and you've got Beavertown, which is half-owned by Heineken. So entering this market is a big commitment, both financially and strategically, because we recognise that this is probably the future of our brewery in terms of new growth.”
Understandably, this is not a decision that Greene King has taken lightly. It has been meticulous in its planning, always referring back to the views of real drinkers, no doubt with one eye on the other traditional, cask-led breweries whose hubris has scuppered similar craft ambitions in the past.
Alex continues: “At every stage of the journey, we've gone back to the craft consumer to make sure that we're doing this right. I sat down with a research team the other day, and we’ve now done 12 different pieces of individual research, speaking to more than 3000 beer drinkers. We’ve been absolutely rigorous in asking whether we can even play in this space, then sounding them out on the brand, the artwork and most importantly the recipes themselves. That’s led to many rounds of changes and refinement, until we’re absolutely confident in the concept and its ability to stand up against our competitors.”
The first fruits of this period of reinvention are four modern-style beers: two new core beers, a lager and a session IPA, as well as two seasonal specials. The branding draws on local history and mythology for its inspiration, including Level Head – the session IPA, named in honour of St Edmund himself, who was able to recover his own severed head with the help of a kindly wolf – and Subterranea – an oat stout tribute to the mysterious fiddler, said to inhabit the deep caves beneath the town.
While the splashes of neon and glitchy graphics follow the playbook of many a craft-friendly makeover, the beers themselves are more than interesting enough to carry it off. One can see (and taste) the hand of passionate, creative brewers in the background, testing and pushing at the boundaries of their own experience, their kit and the brewery’s own heritage.
Leading this team is head brewer Ross O’Hara: “The beauty of working at Greene King, compared to other places I’ve worked, is that our brief is always to make a good beer, and then it’s up to the commercial guys to price it in a way that makes sense. We're obviously never going to just throw a million hops into the beer for the sake of it, but I think if you start recipe development with ‘this is how much it needs to cost per barrel’ then you’re compromised from the start. That’s surprisingly common, even in craft.”
Ross speaks in glowing terms about the multi-million pound investment now being ploughed into his traditional, ale-focused brewhouse, from sophisticated chilling systems for lager, to a new process for high-volume dry hopping. He says new recipe creation is by far his favourite part of the job, particularly brainstorming sessions that are pub-based. But he becomes most animated when talking about developing the next generation of brewers, and the national brewing apprenticeship programme that he helped develop.
“I've only got to where I am today thanks to the opportunities I've been given by other people in industry, so that’s always been really important to me,” he says. “I have two young brewers, José and Zoe. Jose was fresh out of Nottingham University doing his master's, and his professor rang me and said ‘I’ve got this guy and he’s shit hot – can you print that? – future master brewer material’. It was between lockdowns, a bit of a strange time to move from Nottingham to Bury St Edmunds, but we made sure he had plenty of freedom to get to know the beers, the suppliers, sniff the hops, really settle in. He’s played a big role developing the new range.”
“Then Zoe, our first brewing apprentice, came into the business about six weeks after Jose joined us. She was very much part of the work Jose did on our microbrewery setup here, which we call St Ed. It’s a chance to learn how to brew beer on a smaller scale, but also doubles up as an R&D sandbox, where all the brewers have carte blanche.”
It’s easy to be cynical when a traditional brewery decides to hang out with the kids; we’ve seen it before, too many times. But there’s a refreshing lack of pretence, even a humility to Greene King’s approach. The amount of effort it’s put into ensuring every element of the beer is spot-on suggests a degree of respect that is vital for long-term success. Combine this with the obvious passion of the team and a dollop of genuine creative flair, and this British beer institution might just be about to surprise us all.
HAIL TO THE KING
Blending local mythology with a jazzy craft colour palette, Greene King’s new range of modern can and keg beers are definite crowd-pleasers, while still incorporating enough tricksy brewing flair to impress the jaded craft hound. Head brewer Ross O’Hara talks us though the new line-up.
FLINT EYE DRY-HOPPED LAGER
“We knew we wanted to brew a lager, but doing just another helles or pils felt a bit pointless in the current market. So we decided to brew a dry-hopped lager; there’s obviously nothing new there either, but what we felt nobody had really done was use Germanic hops to accentuate what's great about German lagers. So unlike most British lagers, which tend to be very crisp, clean and fizzy, what we’ve got here is a lot of that herbal, earthy character of dry-hopped noble hops, then more modern hops like Mandarina Bavaria, which give it a slight orangey note. I love it – I think we’ve ended up with something really delicious and distinctive.”
LEVEL HEAD SESSION IPA
“We’ve made some really good, successful pales now, with Yardbird and Icebreaker, so we thought this would be the easy one! In the end though, we had to brew it quite a few times; as Alex says, we did a lot of consumer research, and the feedback we kept getting was that it was too bitter and too hoppy.
“That really gave us pause for thought, because we loved those original hop-heavy brews, but as brewers I think we’re often looking for something different. So we went back and focused on making it sessionable in taste as well as ABV, bringing out all those beautiful juicy, fragrant hop characteristics, but expressed in a softer, more easy-drinking way. We’re glad to have done those extra rounds, because what we have now is an incredibly drinkable, accessible beer that people enjoy every single time.”
SUBTERRANEA OATMEAL STOUT
“We’re blessed at Greene King, in that we now have a great archive stretching back several hundred years – actually, that’s been another good lockdown project – and that’s where we found a recipe from 1926, for a strong oatmeal stout. I piqued my interest as a brewer because there’s no way we’d make a stout like that anymore; it had a very complex malt bill, and things like caramelised sugar additions. Anyway, we brewed it out of curiosity and it tasted absolutely phenomenal. It’s delicious, but not particularly burnt or thick like a lot of oatmeal stouts you’d find these days. So to be honest, that’s not even a new recipe! It’s a brewer from 1926 who saw the craft movement coming nearly 100 years ago.”
“One of the first things we did after lockdown was get across to the hop farmers at Charles Faram, and kind of got talking about experimental varieties and the future of British hop growing. I was really inspired by those conversations, and started wondering if it would be possible to brew a classic west coast IPA – which is a style I’ve always loved – using only British hops. So we started experimenting with a bunch of different hops, some of which didn’t even have names yet, and then things like Jester and Godiva. But it was Harlequin that really shone out for us, so that’s the lead hop in this. When we told Paul at Charles Faram, he was so excited that he drove all the way over to try some!”
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