It is difficult to understand the biases and preferences of a country without first understanding the larger context. In the US, if you want to brew and sell a beer in most states, all you have to do is file the paperwork. With third-party distribution, small breweries have a decent route to entering the market. When beer drinkers walk into a pub, they'll find beers the publican has learned his customers like--no matter which brewery made the beer.
Right. In Britain, the waters are muddied by a system that puts small breweries at a grave disadvantage. The majority of pubs are owned by breweries. In these you will find guest taps, but you'll also find a lot of the host's beers. A pretty small minority (perhaps readers know the figure) are "freehouses"--independent, and able to serve any beers the like. The big breweries and pub companies own hundreds or thousands of pubs, and tend to dominate regions. (For the visitor, that last part is pretty cool; you find yourself in different "catchment areas"--Fuller's in London, Green King in Suffolk, Marston's around Burton, and so on. Thornbridge even has four.) Very often, these pubs are the picture of the quintessential English pub--lots of wood, a cozy fire, cask engines, and opinionated punters sitting at the bar. I am molecularly drawn to these places and can, like a hound, detect one even around corners and down the road. It will gnaw at me to lose these when I return.
A secondary problem is grocery sales. There are a few companies that control most of the grocery trade, and these outlets want beer at rock-bottom prices. While they do pass these along to the consumer, it means breweries make next to nothing per unit. Only extremely high-volume breweries can afford to make money this way. The little guys can actually lose money.
Which brings us to Greene King. The brewery now operates over 2000 pubs and has acquired several brands--Morland, Hardys and Hansons, and Ruddles. It owns Belhaven--which we're visiting tomorrow--though the latter is still independent. Their size and ubiquity, the prevalence of a few brands like Old Speckled Hen and Abbot Ale, and their own flagship, a 3.5% bitter called "IPA" are things that rankle certain folks. On my way to Bury St Edmunds from London, I kept hearing quite harsh criticism. I expected to find one of those uncomfortable corporate environment where everyone's used mandated jargon so long they don't realize it sounds creepy to outsiders. I expected focus-grouped, insipid beers and a sterile, lifeless brewery.
Instead, I found quite the opposite: Greene King is a hodgepodge of facilities and eras, and it feels like a small town unto itself. A traditional tower brewery, it features old coppers and the least interference by technology of any facility we've seen. They vat a 12% strong ale in ancient wooden vessels that slowly sour the beer over the course of two years--the only extant use of this practice I know about. It links their current operation to a lineage that dates back hundreds of years--worthy of historical recognition and protection. Strong Suffolk Ale is a gem in beer's treasure chest, and to my mind puts the brewery rarefied company. Even the despised IPA is a fabulous beer, a tour de force of flavor and balance for such a small beer. (The name is, obviously, unfortunate.)
The irony is that Greene King is hated for being a kind of destructive force--ruining beers and breweries on its way to world dominance--rather than the preserver of tradition and craft. It's a very strange paradox for the visitor--Americans in particular are suckers for tradition. (Our country was 23 years old when Graham Greene's great grandfather founded the brewery.) Yet I understand that there are other concerns, and whenever any one brewery begins to dominate a market, it has a distorting effect. Still, there seems to be little of that--Greene King brews about half as much beer as Sierra Nevada and has a tiny slice of the British beer market. I don't know the particulars of their various buy-outs, but it appears that in some cases, they were picking up breweries in the process of collapse (not uncommon in England, sadly).
From the outside, it looks like this. The British beer market is in the midst of serious churn. On the one side are producers of light lager that sell for nothing in the grocery stores. This is a direct challenge to pubs, which support ale brewers. Whatever a person's opinion of Greene King (and CAMRA's position seems absurd), it's impossible to think of them as the foe of small ale breweries. The real foe makes cheap beer without concern for taste, tradition, or culture. Small craft breweries and traditional ale breweries are on the same team. Know your enemies indeed, and that means knowing who's not.
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