Tastings School - Hail to the King (Greene King)

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Hail to the King (Greene King)

Greene King has grown from its Suffolk base to become a national company. Dominic Roskrow went to Bury St Edmunds to rediscover its roots

The two huge businesses that dominate the Suffolk town of Bury St Edmunds have much in common.

They are both massive employers in the town.

They both have large production centres there.

They both enjoy a reputation for quality that stretches far beyond the Suffolk border. And they have both achieved their lofty positions by courting controversy en route.

There, though, the similarity ends.

For the first is British Sugar, a noisy monster of a company, its ugly rusting steel carbuncle of a production site polluting the skyline as you approach the town on the A134, a rag-taggle multi-storey mix of metal and smoke. It lords over a frankly ugly modern ring road that entraps the historic market town in large retailing properties and car lots. It is an industrial 60s mess, an addendum to the town fixed to it like an angry boil.

The other is, of course, Greene King, known in these parts as the local brewer, and it announces its presence in the town quietly. You have to search for it at first and initial signs that you’re in the right place come courtesy of the distinctive green and gold emblem displayed outside the majority of the town centre pubs. The brewery itself, large as it may be, is integrated into the heart of town, its presence as old and historic as most of the period properties surrounding it. Nestling down beyond the Abbey and close to the old theatre, its large gates, the large copper kettle by the entranceway and the imposing high walls hint not at the bustling heart of a modern public limited company but of the work place of a bygone era.

It’s all a matter of perspective, really. British Sugar seems to have attached itself to the town as a matter of convenience and in the modern era. Greene King seems to have been at the centre of the town’s growth from the start.

And the issue of perspective is pertinent to Greene King’s image in general. If you’re on the outside looking in you see an ever-burgeoning super regional brewer eating its way across Britain and swallowing smaller brewers whole.

But if you live in Suffolk you see a success story. It’s very much a case of the local boy done good. You suspect few employees up at the refinery are particularly proud of what they do. But the folk down at the brewery positively beam when they talk of Greene King’s sense.

“There is a great deal of passion and pride among the people who work here,” confirms operations director Steve Magnall. “We have a very small turnover of staff here and some of the people who work here have been here for decades. We’re the second biggest employer in the town and there’s a sense that Greene King belongs to the town.” Bury St Edmunds, though, is an island in a sea of discontent and elsewhere there is no doubting that Greene King enjoys a love-hate relationship with British beer drinkers. The company has bought and closed Ridleys and Hardys & Hansons in recent years, acquired Scottish brewer Belhaven, and has extended its estate across Britain in the process. That has, understandably, angered beer enthusiasts and particularly the Campaign for Real Ale, which is committed to fighting brewery closures and protecting consumer choice. In this context the issue is very black and white. Close a brewery – even an economically unviable one – and you are an enemy of the beer drinker.

And that’s where the old brewery of Bury St Edmunds has ended up. Which, frankly, is more than a little hard on the brewery.

Reason? Because the brewery finds itself between a rock and a hard place.

It is one of four divisions of Greene King plc and very much at the heart of an empire-building business, but at the same time is driven by people in love with, and committed to, real ale. And then some.

“Even CAMRA would have to agree that no other company spends as much money promoting real ale as we do,” says Steve Magnall. “At any one time we have 19 beer streams not including seasonals, so probably in the region of 30 in all. We have the capability to produce big runs of 1500 barrels and 430,000 pints of a beer at any one time, or to do experimental runs of just 50 barrels.

“We are producing traditional beers on a large scale but we’re obviously aware that we’re riding on the back of a declining market. Our belief, though, is that cask beer’s time is coming and to that end we’re responding to what customers want, too. If people want a colder beer, or a lighter beer, or a fruitier one, then we have to respond to that.

“No-one can deny our commitment to cask ale and that creates a problem for CAMRA. On the one hand they’re committed to opposing us but at the same time we produce quality cask ale.

It’s hard to argue with the fact that Old Bob, which was originally from Ridleys in Essex, is now sold in both the on and off trade and is a bigger brand than it’s ever been. It can’t be denied that Old Speckled Hen has doubled in size in five years. And a brand such as Ruddles might taste different to the way it did a few years ago but it has had five owners in recent years and we are the only brewer to work with Tony Ruddle directly, and we have worked with him to recreate the way it tasted when it was originally launched.

“We create a dilemma for many people. It meant that two years ago in a blind judging at the Great British Beer Festival we won a gold for Greene King IPA and we were both booed and cheered when we went to receive it.” This issue is unquestionably a sensitive one, as is the issue of what beers Greene King continues to produce from the stable of its acquisitions, and which ones it drops.

But we’re not in Bury today to put Greene King on trial or to pass judgement on it. We are here to see just how a onetime small regional brewer landlocked in the heart of a market town manages to produce the vast range of beers it has within its portfolio.

The brewery was created by the amalgamation of the Greene brewery on one side of the road and the King brewery on the other. As a result, it boasts two of just about everything except mash tuns, of which it has three.

It’s a typical gravity fed operation with the production process starting at the top floor and working its way back down to the ground.

The company has kindly installed a viewing platform (originally for use by the Wasps rugby union team apparently) on the roof of the brewery so you can see just how the two breweries – known as the East fermenting and West fermenting sites – operate side by side. And how additional equipment has been squeezed into every available nook and cranny among shops, offices and houses. Just two years ago new external fermenting tanks were installed, for instance.

It might not look like it, smiles Steve, but there is room for further expansion if necessary, too.

The brewery sits on top of three bore holes from where it has traditionally drawn its water. In the distance you can see the maltings from which the majority of malt is brought in.

“Not all of it, though,” explains Steve. “For experimental brews and for specialist beers we will bring in small amounts of specific malts.

And that’s the case also with special products such as wheat, organic malt and so on.” When the brewery sets about brewing a beer such as Old Tom or Old Speckled Hen, it will use as far is possible, all its original ingredients.

Steve points to bags of granulated sugar brought in for making one of the Hardys & Hansons beers, even though no other beer on the site uses sugar in that form.

“The matching process is very strict,” he says. “We understand the emotions involved in this. A beer that was produced somewhere else and moved here will never be the same again in people’s hearts. But when we come to making it we go to a great deal of effort. We hold tasting panels and are totally transparent about it. We invite representatives from CAMRA and a range of taste experts and we work until we get it right.” Each beer is assigned to one of a team of brewers. The matching process ensures that the brewing process – from the ingredients to the size of each batch and through to fermentation, addition of hops and storage – are all replicated as accurately as possible.

Such a complex production site requires a high degree of flexibility, and the Greene King operation has been deliberately geared so that batches of just about any size can be catered for.

The mash tuns, externally copper but stainless steel inside and fully insulated, were renovated at a cost of about £1 million to maximise their potential for this purpose. They are all different sizes and can be used collectively or individually, and the fermentation tanks come in an array of sizes.

It’s impossible not to be impressed both by the site itself or by the likes of my tour guide, shift brewer Craig Bennett, who bubbles with enthusiasm and yes, pride – dollops of it.

“We can’t support and promote every beer,” says Steve. “That would be impossible.

Ultimately the customer decides what he or she wants and it’s our job to respond to that. But we are competing with lots of others for the same ‘share of throat.’ But only 20 per cent of what we produce is sold within our own division. The rest is sold externally. We cannot make these companies take our beer, they must want it. We must be doing something right.” It’s a fair point and as we drive out of Bury St Edmunds it stays with me long after the refinery’s ugly silhouette has disappeared from the rear view mirror.