At the end of 2008, just after I won the big gong from the British Guild of Beer Writers, I got an invite from them to go and visit. I wanted to, I really did, but things got in the way, and so it was almost a year to the day after the invite that I got down to see them.
Like a lot of beer enthusiasts, I have to say that initially I was interested more in the historical bits of the Greene King story than their current output. The brewery itself is pretty central to Bury St Edmunds, now covering a few acres with the town having grown around it. It's a classic tower brewery, and brewery itself is actually pretty interesting, with lots of unusual features that make it worth a visit, from the coppers located at the front of the brewhouse in front of huge windows that face out onto the street, to the unusual dual grain hopper that feeds two mash tuns. Well, OK, you'd have to be a bit of a geek to get excited about that, but I am, and so I was. It's a nice feature that brewer Craig Bennett is clearly proud of.
It means that they can either do a double mash of the same brew, or have two different mashes going on at the same time. Flexibility and capacity are the keywords for a successful brewery, and Greene King certainly have both. Moving through into the fermentation hall, the long uniform lines of fermentation tanks give a slightly creepy feel to the place - there's a definite mad scientist, 1950s vibe to the hall that is snapped up short when you notice the anachronism of a couple of new wooden vats at the far end. As an ongoing process of repair and preservation, Greene King have had to renew the wooden vats in which they age their very strong ale, the 12%abv Old 5X. This is a constituent part of their Strong Suffolk Vintage Ale, blended with a 6%abv BPA. There is also one original Vats left, in the older part of the fermentation hall. It's tucked away in the rafters, with the lid covered in Suffolk marl, a gravelly, sandy soil that is said to help keep micro-organisms out of the beer. It's something of an irony that they work so hard to keep the top sealed, as the beer itself essentially spoils under the influence of various bacteria and micro-organisms in the wood itself.
Moving down into the cellar of the tower brewery, I'm treated to a thorough tasting session of almost every beer in their portfolio, some new releases, some re-releases, and some never to be released. Greene King have a house style, there's no getting away from that, and some detractors say that the beers from breweries that they have assimilated into their portfolio now all taste the same. They clearly don't, but as I say, they do have a particular house style - you can tell a Greene King beer by the chewy, softly fruity malt, the minerally character, and the peppery English hops. I was surprised to find that I actually really enjoyed almost everything in the portfolio, with particular highlights being Abbot Reserve and Hen's Tooth, which is featured in the video below.