The 5X Factor

Living in East Anglia, it’s hard to get exited by Greene King. As a brewery, the ubiquitous IPA is generally one of the blandest of brown beers (though at the Hoops, Barton it was enjoyable enough), and most of their seasonal beers just seem like slight variations of it, while as a retail business ‘Greed King’ seems more well known for closing pubs than running them.

Then I tried Old 5X…

Old 5X

Old 5X is a 12% abv beer, matured in Victorian oak vats for at least two years. It is not sold singularly but is blended with other beers to produce two Greene King beers – Strong Suffolk Vintage Ale and Old Crafty Hen. Young 5X that hasn’t matured is used to produce Suffolk Springer. On it’s own Old 5X is rarely made publically available. I encountered it for the first time this year when some appeared at the Bury St Edmunds East Anglian Beer Festival in April and later at the Great British Beer Festival in August. The first time I tried it, along with a number of people sat round the same table, I was blown away. I had no idea Greene King kept such a remarkable beer, and although I liked their Strong Suffolk and XX Mild, Old 5X was unexpectedly great – and this from a brewery that makes IPA Smooth and Ruddles Best?!

Then the other week I was given a small plastic bottle of Old 5X a friend acquired during a visit to the brewery. I happened to have bottles of the two beers it is used to produce, quickly got hold of the Suffolk Springer which uses the fresh 5X, and had a back-to-back tasting session (it turns out Des de Moor has already done this, but it’s too late, I’ve done it now)

5X Factor

Old 5X

A strong, warming beer that doesn’t hide the alcohol, a beer to sip. Dry, woody, slightly sour and acidic with raisins, sherry and a growing sweetness as it warms. A rare treat, and as there are only three vessels for ageing the beer, unlikely to become more readily available any time soon. In any case, I get the impression from speaking to them that Greene King quite like to preserve the mystique about the beer.

That said, the distinctive Old 5X taste is evident in the Strong Suffolk, detectable in the Old Crafty Hen, and there only in a homeopathic sort of way in Suffolk Springer.

Strong Suffolk Vintage Ale

Strong Suffolk Vintage Ale

Yep, it’s unmistakenly there, a good dose of 5X swathed in toffee and caramel malt. A very enjoyable beer, deep ruby coloured and full bodied with the woody, dark fruit flavours of the 5X coming through as it warms. I’d been drawn to bottles of this for the past few winters, before I even knew of the existence of 5X. It’s a great beer and has the 5X factor alright.

Old Crafty Hen

Old Crafty Hen

I’m not particularly keen on Old Speckled Hen but I enjoyed this more than I thought I would and have since picked up a few more bottles. A beer of big crystal malt flavours with a crisp peppery finish, carrying hints of the richer, more complex fruitcake flavours of the Old 5X, but enough to make the beer distinct from the regular Speckled Hen.

Suffolk Springer

Suffolk Springer

No hint of old 5X sourness, this beer containing the fresh 5X that hasn’t been matured, it is nevertheless a good beer. The initial chocolatey flavour and full body quickly diminishes though, getting thinner as it warms with the familiar Greene King yeasty flavours becoming more evident. Still, better than expected.


The Strong Suffolk is clearly the best of the beers containing Old 5X but I’d happily drink the others again. Not sure clear glass bottles really suit them, but Old Suffolk and Old Crafty Hen are the nearest to tasting the wonderful Old 5X itself, albeit blended with other beers.

Next I’d like to try the BPA, the other beer used in making Strong Suffolk. According to Martyn Cornell, it’s a Burton Pale Ale, “like 5X a rare survivor of an old brewing tradition” but isn’t available on it’s own either. Maybe some will appear at the next Bury St Edmunds beer fest, you never know…

2 responses to “The 5X Factor

  1. Not sure the reason they don’t let it out is because they like the mystique — I think they genuinely believe, or at least believed, that no one would want to drink it, which to me shows how worryingly out of touch they are with trends in certain sectors of the market. Talking to head brewer John Bexon at GBBF, he was genuinely surprised that the beer caused such a stir, and sold out so quickly, when they took a cask of it to the East Anglian beer fest, and further surprised at the interest it generated at GBBF (did anyone ever expect to see such a bevvy of beer writers, bloggers and influential beer gurus hovering round the Greene King bar?!) I told him they seriously ought to think about producing an annual bottle conditioned limited edition release — the export market would lap it up. Let’s hope they’re starting to get it…

  2. Very interesting that John Bexon was surprised at the stir it created. I also saw bemused looks on peoples faces as the queue for it grew longer – “why would anyone queue for a beer from Greene King?!” But ‘preserve the mystique’ was actually suggested to me in Bury St Edmunds earlier this month by someone who has worked at the brewery for over 20 years, so I think we’re no nearer to seeing it more widely available any time soon!

    I agree they should think about an annual bottle conditioned release. I could live without Old Crafty Hen if the Old 5X used to produce it was sold singularly in nips instead. However, I think it’s put to good use in the Strong Suffolk ale – only last night I listened in as a group of people ordered a bottle in a pub and passed it round for tasting. All were impressed and discussion soon turned to which mature cheese would be best paired with it – surely the sign of a good beer!


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