Tag: Greene King

| Beer, Cask ale

Why Farage’s foaming pint is a testament to European integration and immigration

Thanks to an amazing Stoke Newington Literary Festival I haven’t had time to blog for about a month, which means I missed my chance to comment on the biggest visibility beer has had in national media for ages. 

What a shame it had to be under such circumstances.

Over the European elections last month, beer geeks across the country gloated at the seemingly daily photoshoots of everyone’s favourite former stockbroker hoisting a pint of cask ale. Because most of the time, Ukip’s leader seemed to opt for a pint of Greene King IPA. I can’t imagine there were too many happy executives in Bury St Edmunds each time Nigel Farage’s froggy face appeared with their distinctive branded glassware.

Of course, it was perfect stage management by this most politically astute and media-savvy party leader. Nothing is more iconic of Britain than a foaming pint of real ale. And Greene King IPA initially seems like the perfect choice. Loathed by the trendy craft beer-drinking liberal London media elite, it was until recently the best-selling cask ale in Britain, the drink of the common man whom Nigel pretends to be. 

But how this pint came to be in Farage’s hands is in fact a brilliant case study of the benefits of immigration and European integration – the very things Farage campaigns against.

Hopped beers first became popular in England in the fifteenth century, when they were imported into East Anglia (Greene King’s home) from Holland and Zeeland. The first recorded imports were for Dutch workers who weren’t great fans of sweet, Old English ale. (While hops were among a range of other flavourings used in beer from at least the 8th century, they start being mentioned with increasing regularity from the early fifteenth century). The tastes of the Dutch soon caught on with the English. Over the next century, immigrants from Holland and Zeeland settled in England and began brewing hopped beer that was so good it was exported back to the continent.

By the seventeenth century there was a thriving hop industry across the Weald of Kent. This was established by refugees from the Low Countries, fleeing religious persecution. Hop farms went on to become a defining feature of Kent – which is part of Farage’s constituency as an MEP – thanks entirely to European immigrants.

Flemish brewers also settled in Southwark. Excluded from the City of London by the powerful trades guilds, they set up business just outside the city walls and soon became celebrated for the quality of their beer. There were of course those who opposed this trend, and some of the protests against these brewers strayed into xenophobia. While the story of Henry VIII banning hops is a myth, their cultivation was banned in Norwich in 1471, in Shrewsbury in 1519 and Leicester in 1523. London’s ale brewers harassed and disparaged the immigrants they felt were coming over here and taking their jobs, which led to a writ being issued to the Sheriffs of London to proclaim that:

“All brewers of beer should continue their art in spite of malevolent attempts made to prevent natives of Holland and Zeeland and others from making beer, on the grounds that is was poisonous and not fit to drink and caused drunkenness, whereas it is a wholesome drink, especially in summer.”

The descendants of these brewers eventually made Southwark one of Europe’s great brewing centres, and hopped beer gradually replaced unhopped sweet English ale. 

While we’re talking about hops, the varieties we have today are another direct result of international cooperation and trade. Hops are creatures of climate, and change their character entirely if grown in a different terroir. While Greene King IPA uses English Challenger and First Gold hops, other Greene King beers use hops grown in Slovenia. Hops such as Styrian Golding and Aurora are the descendants of hops that emigrated there from the UK in the mid-nineteenth century. These delicate plants grow better in the microclimate of the Savinja valley, which is broadly similar to southern England but more stable, protected from damaging winds and storms.

At the same time as English hops were venturing abroad, foreigners were coming to Britain to help improve the quality of our beer. Louis Pasteur’s pioneering work with yeast finally solved the great mystery of how fermentation happened. He introduced the microscope (invented by Dutchmen) to British brewers for the first time, showing Whitbread and others how to analyse and understand the behaviour of yeast. A decade later Emil Hansen – a Dane – successfully isolated the first single cell yeast strains that allow brewers to brew consistent beer. 

These innovations helped create ‘running beer’ in the 1870s. Before we understood how fermentation worked, beer brewed in warm weather would spoil thanks to infection. Old beer styles such as porter and IPA would be brewed only in winter months, and were made strong enough to store and mature in cool cellars. Some of these ‘stock ales’ would then be blended with fresh beer before serving. But once we understood how yeast worked, and how to control it via temperature (using the scale developed by the Swede Anders Celsius, or perhaps the German Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit) we could brew beer all year round and serve it fresh from the cask, without long periods of storage. These ‘running beers’ essentially form the origin of modern cask ale.  

Throughout this entire period – the golden age of brewing science – it was customary for brewers to undertake study tours around the great breweries of Europe to compare notes. While the work of French and Danish brewing scientists with yeast helped lead to the creation of real ale, English pale malt expertise influenced the development of golden pilsner lager. Carl Jacobsen of Carlsberg studied at Everard’s Brewery in Burton on Trent. Pilsner was born of a combination of Czech ingredients and German skill. Burton-on-Trent would never have become the home of brewing that gave us IPA if it were not for a previous strong relationship with the Baltic states.

British cask ale is the child of immigration and European integration, like so many of our national icons: the first recorded fish and chip shop was opened by a Jewish immigrant in 1860. The Great British cuppa comes from India. The designer of the Mini was a Greek immigrant. Buckingham Palace was originally built for Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz – the German wife of George III. The famous clock and dials of Big Ben were designed by the son of a French draughtsman who fled to England during the Revolution.

And as for Nigel’s favourite brand, Greene King? 

Whether you like Greene Kings beers or not, the business has prospered under the leadership of current MD Rooney Anand, who took the reins in 2005. Rooney was born in Delhi and arrived here as an immigrant with his parents at the age of two.

Sorry Nige – the closer you look, the more you realise that all you hold dear is founded on tolerance and understanding, on the movement of people, ideas and influences around Europe, on Britain welcoming immigrants in, allowing them to shine, and watching as they help define our country with us.

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Another long post about craft beer.

                                       

I did a pub industry conference the other week where I asserted that 2013 will be remembered as the year craft beer went mainstream.
I based this on everything from stats (37% of adults are aware of craft beer; 40% of pubs would like to stock a craft beer, the word ‘craft’, when applied to beer, stands for quality, flavour, and a beer that’s worth paying more for) to personal experience (every major global brewer, or one of their agencies, has approached me to have a chat about craft beer and whether they should be doing something about it) to anecdotal (more of my non-beer friends know their hops and ask to be guided to some interesting craft beers).

Most entertainingly, Hollywood has made a craft beer RomCom, out in the UK any day now, which from the trailer doesn’t look entirely shit, and seems to capture an appropriately indie aesthetic for craft beer.
In my speech I used the analogy – as I always do – of music. This particularly instance was inspired by a conversation I had with Richard King, author of the definitive history of indie music, in which he told me that you could look at blogs discussing the definition and direction of craft beer, substitute the phrase ‘craft beer’ for ‘indie music’, and ten years ago EXACTLY THE SAME blogs were being written, the same arguments, the same factions. 
Of course since then indie music has all but died. The process that began with Oasis breaking through, becoming chart-toppers, tabloid front page regulars, and playing to a third of a million people at Knebworth, ended with the majors cashing in, and indie becoming a debased, meaningless term, divorced from its roots, and applied to any band that had a noticeable amount of hops – sorry, guitars – in it. 
So will the same thing inevitably happen to craft beer? Well, some people think so. I personally think it’s not about the size of the brewery, or its ownership, but the intent of the people who will inevitably jump the bandwagon. Do they want to help craft beer grow while retaining its integrity, to provide a business that has long term profitability and sustainability? Or do they want to cash in and make a quick buck from this trend while keeping an eye out for the next one that will come after it? 
A clear example of the latter is there for anyone travelling through Paddington or Waterloo stations. 
Last year, The Beer House launched in both locations, and there are surely more to follow. The Beer House is owned by SSP, the same company that owns all the other retail franchises on UK train station platforms. If you have ever visited an Upper Crust or a Pumpkin, I’m guessing that sentence has caused chilled dread to start creeping down your spine.

The launch press release says, “This brand was developed to capitalise on the growing trend in the market of consumers looking for something interesting and different as the craft beer movement continues to gain momentum.”

You can just feel the passion for beer bursting from the page can’t you?
The Beer House does not have a website.  There’s a Twitter account that posts scheduled broadcasts of the kind of ‘Hey, what’s everyone doing for the weekend?’ type tweets you get from big corporates and rarely, if ever, talks about beer. It doesn’t do tap takeovers or meet the brewer events. It boasts of ‘over fifty’ craft beers, and then releases a publicity shot with two of the world’s biggest mainstream lager brands in the foreground:

Anyone can ask James Clay to supply them a bunch of interesting beers and stick the word ‘craft’ everywhere on chalk boards. And someone just did. 
Hopefully such places will die out when it becomes apparent to them that they cannot attract people who actually care about beer, or flavour, or integrity, and they realise they’re selling more Heineken than anything else, and they close or rebrand. Hopefully.
So should the major labels of brewing be allowed anywhere near craft beer at all? Are they destined to be rubbish, by definition, if they do? 
I’ve been hugely impressed over the last year or two with craft beer offerings from brewers such as Thwaites and Brain’s. Many of their beers are as good as any from a typical micro – in some cases better, as these are breweries with technical expertise, laboratory facilities and so on. They may not push the boundaries as much as a Brew Dog or a Wild Beer Co, but craft beer doesn’t always have to push the boundaries. (Indie label Creation Records may have broken new ground with the likes of the Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine, but their biggest ever band simply copied the Beatles, and were no less exciting for that – at least at first.)
If a large UK regional brewery is making good, interesting, flavourful beer, then any debate as to whether it is ‘craft’ or not is political rather than being about the beer itself. So what are we to make of Greene King’s foray into craft?
Last week I went to the opening of the brand-new £750,000 St Edmunds Brewery. “Greene King’s long tradition of crafting quality ales enters an exciting new phase as the company throws the doors open on its new innovation brewhouse,” says the press release. They are careful not to call themselves a craft brewer, but have unashamedly launched a new range of what they call craft beers.
From an objective point of view, there was good and bad on display. But it definitely felt as though the intent was genuine. 
Among the bad is Noble Craft Lager. While it is brewed with Tettnang hops (a lager hop) and lager malt, it is fermented with Greene King’s usual ale yeast and is not lagered (stored for maturation) for any significant period, so according to either of the two separate but often interrelated definitions of lager, it’s not a lager at all, but a pale ale that’s a bit sweetish for my palate. I’m sure that sweetness (and the masquerade as a lager) will mean it does very well. But it’s cheeky to call it a lager – and taking the piss to call it a craft lager. 
I’m also a bit dubious about repackaging established Greene King beers as part of this new craft range. Strong Suffolk Ale is one of my favourite Greene King beers, and if it were a new brew I wouldn’t have thought it unusual that it’s here. St Edmunds Golden Ale, launched a few years ago, belongs in the mainstream GK range by any defintion. Simply rebadging these sends out the wrong message, making the whole thing feel a bit too marketing-led (and one of the defining characteristics of craft beer is that it is led by brewers, not marketers, even though the latter have an important role to play).
On positive side, it was a joy to be introduced to beers such as the new Suffolk Porter, Twisted Thistle IPA and St Edmunds Anniversary Ale. Yardbird is a solid pale ale in the style of Camden or Meantime Pale. And while I wasn’t quite convinced by the new Hop Monster IPA – yes, people, Greene King now makes a ‘proper’ IPA! – many of my press colleagues really enjoyed it. I’d be perfectly happy to drink any of these beers, and to refer to them as craft beers while doing so.
After the tasting, we did get the obligatory marketing spiel – “The Greene King of the last few years is going to look very different in the future” – and surprisingly, for me this was just about the most valuable part of the day. Because I think Greene King are helping us get to a place where craft beer UK can mature properly.
I love microbrewers because they act on instinct and intuition. I like larger regional brewers because they can afford to do market research, and when it’s done well, and reveals new insights that can be shared, it’s incredibly valuable.
When Greene King went out to talk to craft beer drinkers they found two groups: a more mainstream group of ‘beer explorers’, who have their favourite beers but like to try new ones, and a generally younger, more specialist group who buy into the core craft aesthetic. As the number of craft brewers grows, and the number of craft beer bars grows, the number of people who drink craft beer is growing. That’s why nearly half of all pub landlords want to stock at least one craft beer. And as it grows, what the broad market thinks of as ‘craft’ is taking a new shape:
This chart (presented, refreshingly, without PowerPoint) is hugely important, as I think it unlocks the headache many British craft beer enthusiasts have been suffering from.
What confuses us about craft beer in the UK is familiarity.
We take our lead on craft beer from America, believing that US craft beer styles, and the flavours they represent, are the ones that matter. We frame any attempt to define craft beer in relation to the American definition. But we, and the Germans and Belgians, have something the American craft movement doesn’t – an unbroken history of interesting, flavourful, small-scale brewing. You could argue – because it’s true – that we have always had craft brewing, long before the Americans coined the phrase in its current context.
There was no discernible craft beer in America before the current microbrewery boom began. Craft in America reacted against the total lack of interesting beer. Every craft brewer in America is a relatively recent arrival. So if we take our cues from America, craft beer is all about novelty. But this is circumstantial rather than intrinsic – the word ‘novelty’ does not appear in the US definition of craft beer.

But the word ‘traditional’ does.
We have craft brewers that are hundreds of years old. There is no novelty there, and if we think novelty is important, then these brewers don’t feel to us like craft brewers. What GK’s market research shows (and I have seen other pieces of research that arrive at exactly the same point, albeit with slightly different labelling) is that the broader mass of people now getting into craft believe there are two types of craft beer – traditional, which includes pretty much any real ale, and speciality – which could be Belgian speciality, German wheat beer, America IPA or the next thing Evin O’ Riordain dreams up.
And that broad mass of people is right. If a brewer in Portland, Oregon were to set up shop tomorrow brewing exactly the same beers Greene King have been brewing for years, and grew to be exactly the same size as Greene King is now, no one would have any hesitation in calling them a craft brewer. You might think some of those beers are bland, but I’ve tasted bland from young micros too. Worse, I’ve tasted beers that are challenging for the sake of being challenging, and beers that exhibit a lack of brewing skill, but apparently these are still craft beers.
You might think Greene King are too big to be a craft brewer. Sure, the facsimile in Portland, Oregon would be a tiny drop in the US market, but you know what? GK’s share of the UK market too, big as they might seem close up, is relatively tiny. If you’re trying to be objective about craft beer, as opposed to trying to find a definition that includes the beers you like and excludes the beers you don’t, then Greene King – and Marston’s, and Fuller’s, and Wells and Youngs – are craft brewers. But they are traditional (or familiar) craft rather than speciality (or novel, or experimental) craft. And that might be a helpful distinction to make.
When the Publican’s Morning Advertiser tweeted the story about me saying craft has gone mainstream, two responses on Twitter struck me. One said that because the likes of Brooklyn Lager and Goose Island IPA were now relatively easy to find in pubs belonging to the big PubCos, they could no longer possibly be considered craft. The other effectively said that craft couldn’t be considered mainstream because the big PubCos don’t allow their licensees to sell craft beer brands. At least one of these statements has to be wrong.
There’s still confusion and disagreement about what is and isn’t craft, and there always will be. There will always be good and bad craft beer made by microbrewers, and increasingly there will be good and bland craft beer made by regional brewers. But I don’t think the regionals are going to destroy craft beer by their intervention. They will help it grow and mature, which it needs to do, otherwise it will become a fad and recede.
Rooney Anand is not Simon Cowell. Importantly, unlike crafty brands such as Shocktop in the US, Greene King, Brain’s and Thwaite’s make no secret that they are the bigger, more familiar brands behind these new craft ranges. If you want to keep it real and avoid beer from any brewer over a certain size, that’s your call, and the brewer makes it easy for you to do so. But occasionally, you’ll be missing something special.
So long as bigger brewers remember that craft is about brewing before marketing, about flavour before packaging, about integrity and honesty before segmentation and exploitation, there is no reason I can see why they can’t make ‘craft’ beer. In and of itself, this does not represent a dilution of the meaning of the term. They may occasionally need to be reminded of the this (as I have done here in the case of Noble Pale Ale) but on balance I believe the entry of brewers like Greene King to the craft sphere is a good thing.

I hope I’m not proved wrong.

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Greene King and Bombardier to go head to head on the telly

Real ale is about to burst onto our screens in a big way.

The week before last, two of the UK’s biggest ale brands launched their new advertising campaigns to beer writers and trade journalists.  I was invited to one launch but, for some reason, not the other one the day after – even though seemingly everyone else who was at the first one was.  Please believe me that this in no way colours what I’m about to say about these two campaigns.  I’m bigger than that.  No, really, I am, honest.  But I tell you this so you can filter the following for any perceived prejudice.

Anyway, I used to work in advertising so this, for me, is in part going back to the day job.

The second event – the one I wasn’t invited to – was launching the next wave in the new campaign for Well’s Bombardier.  Now, I get the feeling that I’m going to come across as disliking this development a lot more than I actually do, so let me say some positive things about it first, and hopefully this will prevent a hit squad being despatched from Bedford – home of William Charles Bedford, ‘your dashing hero on the battlefield, with a caddish twinkle in his eye,’ according to the press release (I am at least still on their email distribution list – at least until they read this.)

Basically, what they’re doing is extending the campaign they launched last year, with Rik Mayall playing the Bombardier, drinking the beer and extolling its virtues with what Well’s & Youngs clearly hope will become a pub catchphrase: ‘Bang on!’  They’re going for a heavyweight promotion on Dave, the channel for blokes who like repeats of the programme Stewart Lee refers to as ‘Mock the Weak’.  Ten and fifteen second idents will frame peak time programmes.  I haven’t seen the idents because like I said, I wasn’t invited to the launch, and didn’t get to meet Rik Mayall, but the press release says ‘viewers can expect to see the Bombardier’s take on the English sense of humour, values, our love of pubs and our social habits.’

They’re spending £5m on this, which is great news for Bombardier and great news for ale too.  It’s the highest ever spend they’ve put behind the brand (but not the highest ever spend in the ale category, as the press release falsely claims).  Whatever your views on the beer and the campaign, this is brilliant because it helps propel ale into the mainstream, makes it more visible and more contemporary.  When I do focus groups, many people assume that if a brand is on telly it must be good, must be doing something right, and this leads to greater social currency.  So here Bombardier are helping ale look more modern (with some caveats, below).  It’s also a great sign of confidence – they wouldn’t spend this money if they didn’t think cask ale was in good shape and people were ready to consider it.

Secondly, they’ve got with the programme and done a Facebook page and taken the Bombardier on to Twitter, extending a true brand property and providing content which people can interact with.  That’s a good thing as far as marketing, brand building, and the saliency of real ale is concerned.

But.

For me, this entire campaign feels like it’s aping lager ads of the seventies and eighties, and even lagers don’t behave like that any more.  Rik Mayall is reprising a character he played in Blackadder thirty years ago, in a slightly less funny way than it was then.  Is this really the way to make ale feel fresh, contemporary and appealing to new generations of drinkers?

To make my own mind up, I followed the link to the youtube channel at the bottom of the press release I was sent.  And I got this:

Woof woof! Bang Off, chaps!

The ads launch 16th April and run from 9pm to midnight weekdays for twelve months.

The other campaign is from Bombardier’s rival, Greene King.  Disliked by many readers of this blog and diehard ale drinkers in general, scorned for bland beers and nicknamed ‘Greed King’ for their sometimes voracious business practices, booed when they were runner-up Champion Beer of Britain a few years ago, they can sometimes come across as difficult to love, and have clearly been doing a bit of soul searching.

I think the results are a pleasant surprise.

Greene King IPA is the UK’s biggest cask ale brand.  It still only has a 7% market share – the diversity and fragmentation of the ale market is (most of the time) one of its main strengths. But GK IPA is, for better or worse, still the biggest brand.  I don’t tend to drink it myself, but clearly lots of people like it.  And like Magner’s does with cider, if it attracts people to real ale for the first time who then start to look around and trade up, that’s no bad thing.

In marketing theory, one classic strategy for the brand leader is to do a job that grows the whole market rather than trying to steal share form your competitors.  The theory is that if you’re already the biggest, advertising what’s good about the whole market means you benefit everyone else, but if the market grows proportionately then you’ll gain more in volume terms than everyone else does.  Most new entrants to any market tend to go for the biggest brands, so you’ll probably grow disproportionately, benefiting everyone but, most of all, yourself.

This is the strategy GK has chosen, and I think it’ll paid off.

They’ve created an ad that quite simply celebrates the joys of good cask beer in a good pub – not the joys of hops and malt and yeast, but the moment that beer – and only beer – can create.

This has always been what’s excited me most as a writer, and it’s lovely to see a brand that has wonga to spend and an ad agency with creative skill taking this aspect of beer and celebrating it.  It’s an ad for the pub as much as it is an advert for beer or Greene King IPA specifically, and I think it’s rather fucking wonderful:

I particularly like the opening, in the cellar – just enough beer craft for the mainstream viewer without getting too technical or boring.  Even if you don’t understand what you’re seeing, you get the impression of craft and care, the sense that this is something a bit more special than what you can buy in the supermarket.

The ad was shot in the Hornsey Tavern, north London, and the music is by a precocious eighteen year-old called Jake Bugg, who is to my ears like Ed Sheeran, only good.  The gaffer is an actor, but many of the people are real punters, sharing real beer moments.  The finished ad has been culled from about five hours of footage, the film crew just passing through the pub as people relaxed and shared a good time having a beer.  It’s the kind of positive image of beer and pubs the whole industry sorely needs more of.

GK is spending £4m behind this, and it’s breaking on 14th and 15th April, during the FA Cup semi-finals on ITV and ESPN.  It’s also going to be on Sky and Dave.

Coinciding with this, they also launched two new beers under the Greene King IPA brand: IPA Gold, a 4.1% golden ale, and IPA reserve, a 5.6% rich, mellow, fruity ale.  For anyone who drinks or works in a Greene King pub, these beers are welcome additions.  The golden ale is a golden ale, no better or worse than many in the market just now, while the reserve is in Fullers ESB territory, and dangerously drinkable.  They won’t set RateBeer alight, but they’re not meant to – that’s not what they’re for.  But they are quite drinkable beers that bring Greene King’s portfolio a bit closer to what drinkers want.

My only, obvious, quarrel is that, already under fire for calling a 3.6% session beer IPA, they’ve now brought out two new beers that are very different from the original, obviously not India Pale Ales in any shape or form, and called them India Pale Ales.  This reveals that as far as Greene King is concerned, IPA is a brand name and not a beer style.  I could just about defend the mainstream GK IPA because while it’s not a traditional IPA, IPA is an evolving style and in the mid-twentieth century this is what it was to most brewers and drinkers in the UK.  But by calling these new beers IPA rather than just ‘Greene King Blonde’ or ‘Greene King Reserve’, GK have created a needless rod for beer enthusiasts to beat them with – a silly own goal at a time when they’re doing some big things right.

GK has also launched an attractive Facebook page to support the campaign.

One tip to both brands: Facebook is an interactive medium.  If people ask you if it’s possible to buy Bombardier in North America or who did the music on the IPA ad, it’s good manners and good business sense to reply.  Don’t fall into the trap of bigger brands who pretend to be there on Facebook but don’t actually read or respond to comments, thereby actively alienating some of your biggest fans.  oh hang on – EDIT – GK actually did respond.

I’m anticipating many tiresome comments about how both these beers are shit, boring and bland, made by big corporations, and that it’s a bad thing they’re on TV.  My answer to that would be that these beers, and these ads, are not aimed at people who write beer blogs and drink in craft beer bars.   We’re fine – we don’t need to be told that real ale is a decent drink or that pubs are nice places to be.  No one who is already drinking great craft beer is going to suddenly start switching to Bombardier or Greene King IPA as a result of these ads.  The useful job that big brands can do is bring more novices into ale for the first time – and remind people how great pubs are.  With nearly £10m being spent advertising real ale over the next few months, this is fantastic news for beer as a whole – whatever you choose to drink yourself.

Cheers to both of them.  Especially the second one.

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The Jewels in Greene King’s Crown

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.