The sample room are posts mostly dedicated to straight reviews of beers. This one looks at some new beers from Greene King brewed exclusively for Tesco and labelled Metropolitan Brewing Co – something which caused a bit of controversy among beery Twitterites…
Because (in the UK) we still can’t agree on an official definition of ‘craft beer’, when a large(r) brewer uses the c-word it puts a lot of people’s backs up. For many, craft brewer means microbrewer and microbrewer means small, independent brewery.
Late in 2013 Greene King announced they’d spent £750,000 on a new 30-barrel craft brewery to be called the St Edmund Brewhouse. The company was aware of increasing sales of craft beer and understandably decided to see if they could get a piece of the action. The resulting beers were average. Nicely made, reasonably drinkable but not earth shattering (or in my case, dancing) beers.
As well as introducing these new beers into many of their pubs they selected a number of British and US craft beers to stock too and they held a training day for pub managers and other staff to explain what a big seller craft beer could be – at which (disclaimer) I delivered a session called Surfing the Craft Beer Wave which was aimed at informing, enthusing and providing a vocabulary for managers and bartenders to talk about the flavours found in craft beers. The day was a good one and people were genuinely enthusiastic. It was encouraging to see this big brewery with a huge pub estate showing some love for beer.
Fast Forward to October 2014. The lovely Greene King PR people (meant genuinely) send me a box of their latest beers, “A new range of distinctive brews crafted to experience and savour,” they were apparently developed in partnership with Tesco and according to GK Brewmaster Craig Bennett are, “A fusion of new flavours and brewing styles designed to bring drinkers fresh experiences and tastes to discover.” I don’t often write negative things about beer – but these beers just don’t live up to that description.
The Twitter debate wasn’t about what the beers tasted like though – it was all about the packaging, the branding and whether it was deceptive for ‘the UK’s no 1 premium ale brewer’ to release beers that appear to be from a new, small brewery when actually they are from a multi-million pound brewer with a significant share of the UK beer market. I suppose it comes as no surprise to me that big business will use whatever tactics it sees fit in the pursuit of profit – we live in a capitalist society after all – but perhaps it’s less of a worry if the product isn’t that good?
So here’s what I thought of the beers…
Under Currant Pale Ale (5%)
The beer poured a pleasing brassy gold with a small white head. Its aroma reminded me of a mixture of blackcurrant jelly and orange squash. There was a teeny hint of hop leaf fragrance too. I was expecting a powerful but fruity bitterness but instead I got a mouthful of juicy malt with a brown sugar finish and aftertaste. The main flavour was one of biscuits. There were hints of hops but it was as if someone had turned the volume right down so you could hardly hear (taste) them. It tasted just like any not very hoppy golden ale. To my palate it was bland – but so are many of the UK’s biggest selling beers because let’s face it the British (Indian restaurants aside) aren’t always the best at coping with lots of flavour.
Big Bad Wolf IPA (6%)
Similar colour to the pale ale, perhaps a little lighter. Virtually no aroma. First sip had me screwing up my face and thinking, ‘weird’ but then it started to remind me of palma violets. I asked Beer Husband – who hates pretty much all the hops listed as being in this beer – to sample it. He said it reminded him of a scene from one of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series of books in which Arthur Dent asks a spaceship computer to make him a cup of tea. It creates something with all the right ingredients but it tastes nothing like tea. I sipped again and taste lots of cerealy, brown sugar with a feint hint of perfumed flowers – although this was swiftly overwhelmed by malt. It developed a little more flavour as the temperature increased but essentially it was dull and in no way resembled a big, hoppy IPA or the description on the front label, “Huge hoppy character, brewed with 7 hop varieties and dry hopped for extra intensity.” Really?
Optical Infusion (5.5%)
I like the name of this one. A play on the addition of whisky – as served in the pub from an optic measure. This one is golden again with the same small white head. The aroma is of whiskey with woody notes, hints of vanilla and perhaps a little bit of baked apple with sultana. It has a soft woody whisky flavour – much like its aroma – but the whiskey is more bourbon that Scotch. It’s quite sweet but not cerealy like the two beers described above. I’m not sure how much of this you’d want to drink though. I manage about a quarter of a 330ml bottle before I feel like I’ve had enough. It needs to be boozier and more full bodied to carry off the addition of whiskey. I can’t help thinking adding whisky to beer is the cheat’s way of getting something akin to barrel-aged beer. It’s a quicker process and you can taste that in the resulting beer.
Brew T Amber Ale (4.5%)
For me this was the best of the four. It’s also the one that made me feel the IBUs (International Bitterness Units – a scale used for measuring levels of bitterness hops contribute to beer) listed on the neck labels of the bottles bears little resemblance to the contents – as this beer has the lowest IBU but had a good level of bitterness that I enjoyed – whereas the others claimed to have a higher IBU but tasted much sweeter to me. I am now considering having my tongue analysed in case it has some bizarre IBU-neutralising properties I am unaware of. But I digress…
This beer poured golden amber but didn’t keep its head too well. At first it smelled of sweet, white wine with a hint of light dried fruits but this soon disappeared to be replaced by an aroma of caramel with hints of something floral. It has a decent, bitter hoppy tang with an earthy-mineral quality. There’s a hint of floral flavour – as if a flower fairy has waved at you from afar but disappeared as soon as you tried to get a closer look – but mostly this tastes like a fairly traditional bitter which to me is no bad thing.
The biggest falsehood surrounding these beers is not the pretence that they come from a new microbrewery but that they are something new delivering a big flavour experience. These are average beers packaged to resemble the sort of beer which as come to embody the ‘craft beer revolution’, or the new age of beer, or modern 21st century beer – whatever you wish to call it. Beer lovers and new beer fans know there is something new and different going on in beer – and this is a traditional brewer’s attempt to jump on that bandwagon.
I don’t always think of beer as a craft (although literally it often is) I think of brewing as art. Some brewers can take those four basic ingredients and combine them in such a way as to produce not just a delicious drink but something inspirational, magical and memorable – like seeing an amazing painting that lives on in your mind. Not all brewers can do this.
No matter how hard some brewers try they will end up with, at best, something resembling beer that is drinkable and does the job but is instantly forgettable; at worst something that tastes (looks) like a kid’s drawing from play group. If you’re the parent you will love it and treasure it but to anyone else it looks like a random scribble in ugly, overlapping colours that have descended into a brown mess.
Great beer has something behind it that goes beyond thinking up a recipe that will sell. You can dream up all the branding and do all the PR in the world but unless the brewer has that certain something – or is allowed to fully practice his or her art – you may sell plenty of ‘units’ but no one will remember what they tasted like.
Greene King’s Metropolitan Brewing Co beers will be available exclusively at Tesco from 27th October. I’m interested to hear what you make of them!