Thursday, 4 February 2010

Greene King Part 1: Hen's Tooth

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.


  1. I still have my last preserved Morland brewed HT. The second last was gorgeous a year ago. I wonder......

  2. did a tasting for Caterer at the White Horse a few years bacn and the Hen’s Tooth was appalling, veered closely to a lambic more than anything else, but as I say this was about 2001.

  3. An interesting difference of opinion there, gents! I will say that HT is a lot cleaner than I remember from 7 or 8 years ago - it had a faintly wild edge as I remembered it, but not on this tasting.

    Brewer Craig said that they've come a long way in terms of micro-bio cleanliness, so that may count for something.

  4. I think that was the first of the GK brewed stuff.

  5. Ah, I'm with you now. I'm amazed that it lasted as well as it did, and surprised at you - I didn't have you down as the beer hoarding type.

  6. I'm full of surprises me. I've done lots of the more extreme stuff in the past, aged beer, loony strength beer, extreme hoppy beer, been all over on beer hunts and now I just pick and choose what I like. I've come out the other end of beer in some ways, though I still like the unexpected. That hop cone in a bottle fascinates for instance. That IS new to me.

    Maybe next week I'll do that Morland Hen's Tooth?


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