He’s the Guv’nor, Brian Blessed. If Labour had used him during their election campaign, they’d still be in office with a healthy majority:
And now he has a marketing relationship with Greene King, telling Man Walks into a Pub jokes on Dave in the sponsorship idents during Friday night comedy. The more I think about it, the more perfect that seems. Here he is doing my favourite ever MWIAP joke:
And best of all, he’s from Barnsley – Mexbrough to be precise, a small mining village on t’other side of town from the mining village I grew up in. I met him last week. He’s 72 now, and he was telling me how when the war ended and he was just a lad, he ran down to the prisoner of war camp at the bottom of the village and bellowed – even at the tender age of 7 or 8 – “HITLER’S DEAD!” through the fence, and all the Italian POWs were really pissed off because it meant they would have to leave the paradise of an open prison in Barnsley and return to shitholes like Tuscany and Milan.
From “Hitler’s dead” to “Gordon’s alive” – the symmetry of genius.
I met Brian because I was invited to a couple of events being hosted by Greene King, one of which he was doing a speech at – but more of that later.
I spent two days in Bury St Edmunds, having a brewery tour and tasting, a meeting about the forthcoming Cask Report, a charity black tie dinner and a head brewer’s lunch for publicans. I came away with a changed impression of Britain’s biggest (depending on how you look at it – Marston’s would probably disagree) cask ale brewer.
I’m not going to sit here and pretend I love Greene King IPA, or tell you they’re my new favourite brewer, or defend corporate howlers like the debacle they had in Lewes over trying to make people drink their beers instead of Harvey’s, but I saw a different side to them, and detected a change of attitude. Greene King is perceived in many places as the cask ale brewer we love to hate, what with them being booed when IPA was runner-up Champion Beer of Great Britain a few years ago. I’ve never written a single favourable word about them on this blog before now and I’m not sure many other beer bloggers have either, so in the interests of fairness and balance, I merely offer the following observations:
1. The brewery tour starts on the roof. From up there, you can see the whole of Bury St Edmunds, incredibly green and pretty. You can see where the locally sourced malt comes from, less than two miles away. You can see that while the brewery is big for such a small town, it’s nowhere near the size of the big corporate behemoths the multinational lager companies own. And inside it still looks like this:
2. I have never met a brewer who is more obsessed by quality and rigour throughout the brewing process than head brewer John Bexon. I’ve started having nightmares about being caught in a crossfire conversation between him and Stef Cossi from Thornbridge, staring down an eternal abyss of enzymes, sugars and Kieselguhr. GK does product tastings every morning in a tasting room deep in the bowels of the brewery, where there are no atmospheric effects or odours to interfere with the palate. Tasting is done from black glasses, under red light, so all stimulus apart from the aroma and taste of the beer is stripped away.
3. I’ll never really get on with Greene King IPA, but tasting it in the brewery tasting room, fresh and perfectly kept, almost made me utter the words, “There are some amazing beers from around the world, but none of them can match a cask ale at its peak” (a sentiment I’ve seen on other blogs this week, but not in relation to Greene King IPA). There’s a light in the tasting room that they use for checking the condition of the beer. This is what it looks GKIPA looks like in front of it:
4. The water for GK’s beers comes from artesian wells beneath the brewery. This water has to be purified because fertilisers and chemicals from the surrounding farmland have got into the aquifiers. Once it has been purified, Bexon adds back in the salts for Suffolk water for Greene King beers, the salts for Nottinghamshire waters for Hardy & Hanson’s beers, the salts for Essex water for Ridley’s beers, and so on.
5. Greene King have a reputation for going around swallowing up smaller brewers. But in two high profile cases over the last few years – Ridley’s and Hardy & Hanson – it was the other brewer that first approached Greene King asking to be bought.
6. St Edmund’s Ale is nothing special but a perfectly pleasant drink on a balmy spring evening on the lawn. Strong Suffolk Ale is a really good beer. Abbott Reserve is one of the best beers I’ve tasted this year. And they’re just launching a 7.5% ‘Special IPA’ based on an authentic Victorian recipe. They’ve compromised on the hop levels (the simple fact is Bexon is not a hop-head) so it’s not a hop bomb, but it’s strong, complex, nicely balanced and fantastically and dangerously drinkable for 7.5%. So yes, Greene King IPA and Abbott Ale are fairly unchallenging if you’re really into your beer. I choose not to drink them if I have a choice. But this brewery can and does produce some pretty special beers.
7. I get the distinct impression there’s been some soul searching going on. It felt like GK has realised they’re seen as the big corporate baddies of the ale world and taken some of that on board. I found them more reflective, more open, more friendly, than ever before, with a renewed emphasis on being proud of being a Suffolk brewer, proud of Bury St Edmunds.
8. Brian Blessed’s dad drinks Greene King IPA. ‘Nuff said.
So back to Brian’s speech. It was mad, hilarious and inspiring. He holds world records for going up in planes to the edge of space, and going up Everest without oxygen. He tells us this is because his brain doesn’t need oxygen to function.
He warns us of the dangers of going out from a tent just below the summit of Everest for a shit, of how the howling wind can catch your turds, throw them back into the air so they land on your shoulder as you climb back into the tent.
He tells us of the time he told this story to the Queen.
He tells us he’s almost finished his astronaut training, and that next Spring he will become the oldest person ever to fly into space, when he will enjoy a stint on the international space station. He’ll be 73 years old.
And he treated us to “GORDON’S ALIVE!”
Anyone who is alright by the guv’nor is alright by me.