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 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)
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
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
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.
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…