Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Greene King - Craft Brewer?

While many of us in the blogosphere are getting a bit tired of all this "what is craft?" stuff,  a long foreseen development is, well, developing.  Greene King is to open a £750,000  “innovation brewhouse” at its Bury St Edmunds brewery for experimenting with different craft beer styles.

"Now this isn't new" you'll hoot - and it isn't, as some other fairly large breweries have done so, not least of all, Thwaites and Brains, who have both produced excellent stuff from their breweries within breweries. But GK is much bigger and the very entrance of such a big brewer to the so called craft market may dilute (in the eyes of some at least) the value of the term even more than it already is. As the brewery will include a packaging plant, it seems clear they are aiming at the take home trade as well as the on trade and are looking to compete across all boundaries. Muddy waters are going to be even more muddy soon it seems.

One thing the big breweries do have is fully trained brewers with a huge back up from technical and laboratory boffins, sales and marketing.  They are unlikely to produce dodgy beer and if they give the brewers their head, they'll take market share.  A worry for some perhaps?  While you may view this as a good or bad thing depending on your point of view,  the setting up of this brewery is evidence at least that the big boys are sitting up and taking notice and as these things take time to procure and set up, they have clearly been sitting up and taking notice for quite some time.

Everyone else should too.

Set to open on 20 November and beer available from next year. Photo from GK's own website.


Bailey said...

See also: St Austell's plans for a microbrewery/restaurant/bar in Exeter, which I think is due to open next year.

Ron Pattinson said...

Deinitely a good thing if it improves beer quality. Nothing wrong with larger brewers making it more difficult for their smaller colleagues to knock out dodgy beer without repercussions.

Velky Al said...

I must be getting grumpier as I get older but I really can't be doing with the hysterics of certain sections of the 'craft beer' world when it comes to traditional breweries making 'craft beer', is imitation no longer the highest form of flattery?

If beer rule #1 is that it's only beer, then as long as it tastes good to the consumer who really gives an monkey's uncle?

I think though that the fear within certain sections of the 'craft beer' world stems from knowing full well that the regionals have the power to undercut them on price, thus destroying their premium product unique selling proposition. People will always vote with their wallet and choose a beer that tastes as good but is half the price.

This can only be good for the consumer.

pyo said...

On one hand I hate GK and hope they get it completely wrong, on the other hand I hope they get it bang on, make a range of three or four interesting beers, at least one of which is sold on keg, price them sensibly (£4-$4.50 a pint max) and they're a great success and a lesson to the rest of the market as how to take the craft ethos into the mainstream.

Bailey said...

I can understand why someone who has taken a risk entering an unproven market sector might be disgruntled when, as they see it, someone else waltzes in after all the hard work has been done and cleans up. (Like Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark...)

Although, in fact, most of the brewers we've spoken to don't seem to feel especially threatened by this kind of thing, because they weren't convinced that e.g. Brains really knew how to service this particular niche.

RedNev said...

An inevitable development that I think most of us saw coming. If the regionals' approach to real ale is anything to go by, I don't think small craft brewers need be too concerned. Thwaites, for example, has leapt successfully onto the golden ale bandwagon with Wainwright, which is now in the top 10 best-selling real ales in the country. Wainwright is pleasant, quite acceptable and carefully designed to appeal to a mass market; however, it doesn't really hold a candle to the best real ales produced by some small breweries.

I expect Greene King will similarly go for the middle of the road, which will leave the way open for smaller breweries to continue experimenting and - although I find the word a trifle irritating in this context - innovating.

Phil said...

Thwaites are doing a lot more than Wainwright, though - think 13 Guns, Fallen Nun et al. The 'blackboard pump clip' range are generally pretty good & sometimes superb.

Anonymous said...

It sounds dead good.

pyo said...

Any guesses as to what they'll come up with?

My guess is an "American IPA" that has all the ABV but none of the citrussy new world hoppiness, or some awful sweet concoction with some "innovative" flavours added.

Benjamin Nunn said...

Some of the Brain's 'craft' stuff is good. What I've tried from Bateman's has been excellent. Not really seen much of the Thwaite's around.

GK going 'craft' is taking the trend to a new extreme, but I wouldn't expect it to be much good.

Unlike the others, GK have been determined to rationalise and cut costs at every turn. This has been their business model for 20 years. Whereas Marston's takes breweries over and keeps them open, GK always look to make savings and move everything to St Edmundsbury.

On that basis, they will not splash out on quality ingredients, I can't see them using enough hops to make an American style pale ale, and we'll just see more stuff like the XXXX they sell at GBBF, and the Abbot's Confession, coming to the Wetherfest next month.

Stono said...

GK have been busily experimenting all year with different beer types through their music themed guest "craft" ales, something they will be repeating next year through another theme of their choice, maybe inspired by entries in the design your own beer competition they are running, so are easily able to tick the middle of the road box assumptions people will have had of this, theyve been doing the "we make this craft beer stuff as well" (noticed the IPA crafted for the moment ad's) for some while now.

but from what Ive been told about it and seen of it so far, this craft/innovation setup in the brewery is much smaller scale, size terms, its really only microbrewery size, and literally those new vessels just about fit into a corner of the brewery that theyve managed to tidy up & make enough space for.

its just not stuck in a "craft" brewing shed but probably the tallest building in Bury itself :)

But it will give them much more scope to experiment with ingredients and flavours that they just couldnt do on their normal larger scale because of the costs involved.

so these will be small production runs of limited edition beers that Im expecting will seem quite radical for a regional such as GK, which will be available through selected outlets, at festivals etc and also in bottles, but the bottling will be done all by hand (which again really indicates the scale as they have a massive bottling plant available to do this stuff) though they werent sure yet if they might be bottle conditioned as well - though Im not sure if thats they werent really sure, didnt know, or just werent going to tell me, probably a little of all three :)

Im for one not expecting just more generic golden beer from them as a result of it, and Bury St Edmunds does have several "craft" microbreweries & bars from which any aspiring "craft" brewer could well take inspiration from.

Anonymous said...

There is precedent with Guiness R&D in Dublin putting out Breo and a number of other ill fated and ill conceived notions. They, also, have a legion of highly qualified types. Who knows, they may pull it off.

Curmudgeon said...

Marston's are already producing Shipyard American Pale Ale on keg, of course.

Martyn Cornell said...

The "craft brewery in a big brewery" movement is in large part to make sure your tied pubs don't suffer compared to the freehouse down the road with its constantly changing range of micro-brewed beers - now GK pubs, too, can have a constantly changing range of micro-brewed beers, only made by GK ...

There's nothing wrong with that, provided the beers are good. But what I do find tedious is the chorus of "It's Greene King, so it won't be any good." Let's taste it first, eh?

m.lawrenson said...

Personally, and do realise by saying this here the future could end up mocking me mercilessly, I doubt this will be a real threat to microbreweries. I doubt any Crafty would go out of his way to try a GK beer. And if they did, they sip and swirl endlessly in an effort to find faults which they'd forgive in microbeer.

I myself will look out for Crafty King if it makes it this far North, but I can imagine it being any more than a curiosity.

Gary Spedding said...

I have the pleasure of testing beer here in the US and have been telling the craft guys to quit knocking the big brewers for a number of reasons. Especially so as the time would come (as it has) when the giant would awake and start gobbling up the market with beers that it once knew how to make and that it sees craft brewers now doing. Also, and I was born in the UK lets not forget that many UK brewers are still producing craft - cask-conditioned and traditional beers while fighting the modern beer drinker who thinks its still sexy to drink the mass produced beer of the big US brewers along with wearing their blue jeans. Stick to producing the beers that Britain became famous for and that half the US craft brewers are trying to emulate. There is room for all and success to those who maintain quality and consistency. Also long live the British pub - there is nothing like it anywhere in the world.

Oblivious said...

"I doubt any Crafty would go out of his way to try a GK beer."

There mild is something I enjoy, when I can get it.

Erlangernick said...

So, "craft" just means "small" then?

I also really like their mild.

BeeryPerson said...


This was always going to happen. Like any industry, when companies which have responsibilities to shareholders staring losing market share and lowering profits, it will look to growth areas, espically ones in a premium price market.

I think to beer drinkers in the know, this won't change anything, they will ignore big brewery attempts to bring new products in. However, the mainstream, which let's face it GK, Marston's etc are, will be more open minded. So, the guy who pops into his tied house to Marston's, might go for a craft beer, such as the new Shipyard American Pale Ale, rather a cask Pedigree or a keg John Smiths.

Tandleman is very right that big companies have the economies of scale to do things right if they want to. They get consistency, steady supply lines, lab know how, distribution. They can brew good beer if they want to, it's just never been a big enough market to serve

I think whether the product is cask or keg matters little, if big brewers are going to start brewing decent beer, then they will take market share more easily than it was taken from them. You may think GK may make poor beer and just call it craft, however I was very suprised when I was in a Marston's owned pub (through no choice of my own) and thought I would try the Shipyard American Pale Ale. It was very drinkable, even to say a good drink, above average what you get in the so called craft brewery.

Now as a consumer I think that is generally good to widen access to better beer. However, breweries that I think are the best in the world, may be hurt by this development over time. Using Magic Rock as an example, just for ease of explaining the point, because I doubt Magic Rock would be hit. They provide a range of beers for the different beer markets. So they have the standard stuff in the 3.5 - 5.0 cask beers which seem to be their bread and butter, majority of their trade sold to many pubs in West Yorkshire and beyond. I imagine that revenue helps them pay for the more experimental beers such as Bearded Lady, Salty Kiss etc.

If they start losing their bread and butter income, can they afford to do the more interesting stuff? Put it more simply, if GK brew a beer that is near to the same as High Wire and sell millions of barrels of it, then where does Magic Rock stand? Evento go further and say why would we need micro breweries if the big brewers do it just as well?

I think the craft brewery industry would be wise to start a Craft beer association to protect itself, as the Americans have. Stick the label on their product to educate the consumer and build brand loyalty.

Gary Gillman said...

What they're doing, to all appearances, is producing beers styled in the way popular for some 30 years in America. It's not crafty (IMO), GK make about a dozen real ales, some very creditable, which par excellence are craft ales by the criterion of how they are made, dispensed and taste. (Whether popular amongst the majority of real ale fans is neither here nor there, it is their style and authenticity that count). So, GK knows all about craft - they and the predecessor breweries kind of started it, from a North American optic.

So this new direction can only enlarge the palette of their offerings, all to the good. Hopefully some will be cask - the British breweries should not assume that U.S. craft beer means keg or bottled/canned, there is plenty of cask in North America. And some may be pretty good. Let's wait and see as Martyn said.


Stono said...

GK will have produced this year alone 16 cask ale guest beers by years end, that go alongside the other dozen or so semi regular brands and brewery beers they own, that go alongside the Belhaven beers, and then finally the half dozen core brand beers the IPA etc + all the bottle variants, oh and they do a "craft" keg lager as well now :) they even produce beers brewed especially for some of their pubs, so they must be getting on for at least 50 different beers already.

so all of the middle of the road, just adding a "craft" angle ,million barrel and minor variation stuff is well catered for in the existing setup, they dont need to setup a brewery within a brewery to do that kind of stuff, or even pretend its not really GK brewing it, as quite a few of their beers the pump clip already doesnt feature any overt GK branding, and simply state they are brewed at the Westgate Brewery (which is the actual name of the GK brewery)

this is AIUI about trying something very different for them, wanting to produce beers in smaller volumes to allow them to experiment and use ingredients that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive based on their normal scale, and to yep hand craft beers to see what comes from it.

Im more interested in how the other regionals/family brewers react to it than what the "craft" ones make of it

Tandleman said...

Great comments Folks. I think some do underestimate how good big brewers can be if given their head. The key question to me is why buy a new brewery to do the same on a smaller scale?

Be interesting either way.

RedNev said...

"The key question to me is why buy a new brewery to do the same on a smaller scale?"

Big brewers aren't set up to do small quantities. A mini-brewery can produce trial runs of a recipe, thus limiting the losses if it's not popular, and exclusive house beers for pubs (as opposed to just blending and/or rebranding existing brews). If a beer is successful, they can then transfer production to the main brewery. In time, it should, in theory anyway, make the ranges of the bigger brewers more interesting.

Anonymous said...

I once had some of the best sex of my life after a night on Abbott Ale so I really have a soft spot for Greene King.
Fortunately I didn't have a soft spot that night.
Wahaay !

RedNev said...

"the best sex of my life" - I hope your partner felt the same way. There was a partner, wasn't there?

Anonymous said...

@RedNev ... once I'd blown her up.
Wahaay !

Chris said...

Obviously they are in a sense jumping on a bandwagon, but isn't that what Brewdog, The Kernel etc have done too?

I'm sure Greene King are capable of pulling it off - they make some good stuff (e.g. Abbot) and regionals already have form in this area - St Austell Proper Job is certainly comparable to the American IPAs made by some of the trendiest breweries.

I do wonder though whether we need even more of this American-style stuff. Surely British-style beer is more important for British brewers to be making?

Erlangernick said...

What could be more British than brewing beer with ingredients brought back home from the colonies?

Anonymous said...

Let's taste what they put out. To condemn it before it appears is merely prejudice.

And to be fair, I've been surprised just how much I've enjoyed some of Marstons "craftier" Single Hopped beers. Hardly lip-puckering, but tasty nonetheless.