We went to Bury St Edmunds Christmas Fayre again this year, and as you might expect in the home town of one of England’s largest breweries and pub retailers, Greene King had quite a prescence, even the towering brewery chimneys are visible from the market on Angel Hill. Nevertheless, we were surprised this year to see their new range of beers from the recently installed “innovation brewhouse” already available to buy in bottles, and there were plenty of other local breweries selling their own wares throughout the town.
Greene King are one of the sponsors of the Christmas Fayre and have a couple of stalls and the nearby brewery centre selling a range of beers, beery condiments and merchandise (having owned a couple of MGs, I was tempted by the Corgi replica of the Old Speckled Hen MGB until I saw the price). Much of their focus was on the new range of ‘experimental’ beers coming from the St Edmund Brewhouse, an additional small batch brewery that will apparently “enable greater exploration into more craft beer styles”. Even leaving aside their pub retail shenanigans, this could be seen as an attempt to cash in on the ‘craft beer’ bandwagon as part of the aim to “capitalise on impressive sales growth”, but not for the first time we spoke to a brewer there who seemed genuinely passionate about the brewery itself and enthusiastic about the new line of beers.
This enthusiasm is reflected in the language now being used to describe the beers. Take Double Hop Monster IPA, described as “the wildest, hoppiest beer we’ve ever brewed, a ‘big’ beer in every way, it’s bold, bitter and fabulously aromatic”. Contrast this with their existing range of traditional beers which have relied more on adjectives like ‘balanced’, ‘smooth’, ‘clean’ and ‘refreshing’, at times cautiously picking out “slight citrus” flavours or “subtle aromas”. Meanwhile, the exceptional vintage 5X sat maturing in oak vats, quietly being added to a number of brews, including perhaps their finest regularly available beer, Strong Suffolk (I previously wrote about 5X). More recently 5X has made a few brief solo appearances at beer festivals, large queues forming to sample it at GBBF, its sherry like qualities spoken about in reverent tones.
Strong Suffolk has now been relabelled and brought under this new brand. I can see why they’d want to give a new lease of life to this beer, drawing attention to the big flavours the new brand seeks to capture, it seems like the penny dropped and they’re rediscovering its allure, the new label drawing attention to the “oak aged… very special and very rare vintage 5X”. Reassuringly, behind the rebranding it turns out Strong Suffolk carries the same malty goodness as always. Despite being disappointed to find it will now only be released in smaller bottles, 330ml rather than 500ml, we’re told supplies of 5X can’t match the demand for the beers which contain it, and at least now it benefits from being bottled in brown rather than clear glass.
So are the new beers driven by a genuine desire to create innovative beers, or are they just the result of clever market positioning? Probably a bit of both on the evidence of these bottles. Having already had the Noble Lager, Yardbird IPA and St Edmunds on draught, I wasn’t tempted to buy any in bottles. The Noble Lager in particular seems to fall well short of being a genuine “craft lager”, the “wicked and pernicious hops” barely evident, although it’s no worse than the Becks Vier and Stella it seems to be displacing from the bars of Greene King’s own pubs. Likewise, any citrus flavours in the St Edmunds Anniversary Ale seemed to be smothered with a familiar dreary flavour we’ve always attributed to the yeast (and if that’s the case, we’d love to see them experiment with different strains).
The Double Hop Monster though, while not nearly as wild and hoppy as we’d have liked, is surely a step in the right direction, a pleasant enough beer (really spoiling us!) with more generous hop flavours and aroma than we’ve tasted in any of their previous brews. Likewise the Suffolk Porter is chocolatey, though not as dark, rich or treacley as the label suggested, but at least they’re trying out more dark beers. We came across it again on draught at the Fort St George in Cambridge, at least it seemed to be the same beer – it was labelled as ‘Trial Brew Batch No.1’. We’re interested to see what other new beers come out of the new set up, although we’re unlikely to seek out any more of these current batches, as apart from the existing Strong Suffolk, the beers didn’t really excite, though we appreciated the more spirited label designs on the bottles. Still, I can’t help wondering how the beers would have developed, and in what regard they would be held, if the brewery was within the abbey walls.
Elsewhere in Bury St Edmunds, the Christmas Fayre in the Abbey Gardens included brewery stalls from St Peter’s, Growler, and Two Rivers, a fairly recent brewery from Denver, near Downham Market, Norfolk. We sampled a couple of their beers, a thin but roasty porter and a golden ale, pleasant if not flavoursome enough to tempt us to buy any bottles, although it’s early days for the brewery. Then there are Bury St Edmund’s other breweries, Old Cannon and Brewshed, whose Beerhouse near the station was holding it’s Winter Beer Festival. No trip to Bury is complete without a visit to Beautiful Beers, which had a fresh selection of this year’s seasonal releases from Begium and closer to home.
As much as anything else at the Christmas Fayre, here in the hearltand of Greene King, it was the first sighting this year of the familiar Rocking Rudolph flashing pump clip that really heralded the arrival of Christmas.