Monday 3 May 2010

A pint of Greene King has me thinking about the politics of beer

It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m sitting by the river outside a local pub, which happens to be owned by Greene King. Inside the bar, dark wood, antlers, the usual stuff, there’s a choice of Old Speckled Hen, Waddies 6X and IPA. I plump for the latter and note that it’s got the stainless steel gizmo that can dispense the beer in either a southern or northern style. The barman pulls a face when I ask him about the system. ‘I think it’s a bit of a gimmick,’ he grumbles. I tell him that I had tried the beer in a pub, first the northern one and then the southern one, and didn’t really notice much of a difference. 

Outside, drinking the beer, it’s a pleasant enough drop: citrus buzz, a flurry of spicy hop notes and a dry bittersweet finish. Having just done a bit of a cycle, it did the job but I would go mad and sign the pledge if I had to drink this all the time — it’s ok. But this makes me think. Am I biased about the brewery that produces this beer? When it won a silver medal at GBBF several years ago, the announcement was booed by the crowd there on the trade day. Was this because it was not a correct IPA? Was it because people were opposed to the way they operate their business? Was it because they are a very big brewery? Or was it because it the crowd in the hall listening to Protz pronounce from on high didn’t like the beer? Did it matter? If a beer has been adjudged to be good by a panel of pros does it matter that it is Greene King? 

I then started musing on the days when I used to write music reviews for leftie London listings mag City Limits and how I would invariably groan whenever someone would come up with a breathlessly written declaration that said radical record would shake the foundations of society or, er, something like that (it wouldn’t and it didn’t, and I felt the Fall and Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel more radical than any Red Wedger with a tambourine). 

In the here and now that translates into asking if the politics of beer matter? I don’t like Budweiser, Miller Lite and John Smith Bitter for a start — is that because of some collective mass psychological party line that is seared into my soul (dislike of their business matters, cheering on the little guys) or because I find the beers insipid and tasteless and besides there are some much better beers being produced by other breweries (large and small). I would like to think it’s the latter (though there’s probably a little bit of the former), and then where does that leave Greene King? Is it a case of if I look deep enough into my soul then maybe I am one with that jeering crowd from London (though happy enough to drink one after a cycle ride)? Or is it a bit simpler: I like Abbot Reserve, Crafty Hen and Strong Suffolk (I applaud Greene King for maintaining the tradition of blending and ageing beer) and don’t like the others? 


  1. Utterly mystified by this post. What's wrong with Greene King? I love their Abbot Ale. It's one of the things I go back to England for.

  2. Keefie, you have to hang around with ‘beer warriors’ and hear what they think of the biggest cask beer producer in the UK, it’s not very complimentary.

  3. I don't like Greene King because all their beers taste the same; because through their Belhaven pubs in Scotland they are pushing IPA and Abbot at the expense of Belhaven's own beers; because they run a fake "head brewer's blog" written by a PR guy; because they have an appalling record of buying and closing down other breweries; ditto pubs – see the Lewes Arms campaign for an example of them removing a local beer in favour of their own, against the wishes of the customers; and because all this leads me to believe Belhaven, founded in 1719 and one of just two surviving old-established cask ale breweries in Scotland, is also in serious danger of closure as long as Greene King own it.

    Is that enough to be going on with?

  4. Oh yeah, I forgot the fake handpumps they use for keg beer in the USA.

  5. Oh, and to come back to the question at hand, the issue is power. Microbreweries who make crappy beer (and there are plenty of those) don't have the power to push better beers off the bar. Greene King do, and they use it, thus reducing my choice and actually removing several formerly good pubs from my roster of places to drink.

  6. I have only had one pint of Greene King IPA and it was rank - smelt like rubber carpet underlay. But I like the occasional Abbot Ale, Old Speckled Hen can be a fine drop, and Ruddles is decent as well in my experience.

    Perhaps though it is a case of group think that causes people to boo them winning an award, just as it is group think that makes American beer nerds suspicious of Michelob being the "craft" arm of AB-InBev, and I fear that group think would decry a superb beer made by Anheuser-Busch simply on the basis of the company rather than the beer.

    Craft doesn't always equal good any more than macro always equals crap.

  7. I'm not a fan of GK, probably due to living in GK heart land. GK IPA isn't bad, I find it average, but the main problem isn't the beer but the landlords who don't keep it in good condition. I've had some lovely pints of it, but mostly utter ***** ones. If they could train their tied landlords better, then may be people wouldn't have such a problem with it. Suffolk Strong on the other hand is excellent and I've drunk that in the pub rather then their IPA before.

  8. "Was this because it was not a correct IPA?"

    This is something that really annoys me. People saying "But Greene King IPA isn't even a real IPA". It is a real IPA, a type of IPA with a long history (120 years, at least).

    It's all those grapefruit-flavoured beers that aren't proper IPAs.

  9. Barm — fair comment(s)
    Velky — I’m sadly old enough to remember Ruddles County when it was a decent and lethal drop
    Bob — not had SS in cask yet, though have had the 12% aged beer on its own
    Ron — put that in for you ;-)

  10. Funnily enough, I touched on this very subject in my last article at

  11. Greene King IPA was the gateway drug that got me drinking ale: it has very little flavour and wass therefore not remotely intimidating. But it didn't take me long to go off it. It's often not in good nick in London -- the kind of places that have it are often just not good pubs -- but, even in good nick, I now find it very, very boring. I'll take a pint of Chiswick over a GK IPA any day.