Saturday, 8 October 2011

Competition for Greene King stirs in Suffolk

Anyone who has been to Bury St Edmunds will know that it is a very handsome town but compromised, as far as the travelling beer enthusiast is concerned, by the overbearing presence of Greene King. Now, I’m not necessarily one of those that regard Greene King beers as particularly poor, although a lot of them are less than exciting, and I would put them in the “must try harder” category. I actually rather enjoyed my brewery tour there a few years ago, and the fresh beers I sampled afterwards in the tasting room. 

The Nutshell
I’m not averse to a pint of XX Mild just along the road from the brewery in the welcoming and staunchly traditional Rose & Crown pub, which I had always assumed was owned by Greene King but, if so, is strangely missing from the pub finder feature on their wensite . And squeezing into the delightful and miniscule Nutshell, which has claims on being the smallest pub in the country, for an Abbot or two can be a pleasant, if sometimes rather cosy, experience. But this is Greene King heartland and its beers are just too ubiquitous. Consumer choice has been sadly lacking although, to be fair to Greene King, they do often allow guest beers into their pubs, although the range can be restricted.

The Dove
When I was last in Bury St Edmunds, admittedly a few years ago, competition to Greene King domination was largely restricted to the Old Cannon brewpub. A glance at the 2011 edition of the Good Beer Guide suggests that the Dove, a free house with six handpumps, mainly dispensing brews from independent East Anglian brewers, has more recently entered the fray. And there’s Bartrams brewery based in nearby Rougham, whose bottled beers you can pick up at Barwells store in the town centre, although I can’t remember ever seeing much of their beer in the pubs around town. But that has been about it for challenges to Greene King domination. Even JD Wetherspoon, often a source of some respite in places where a single brewer dominates, doesn’t have a pub within 12 miles.

Brewshed brewery
However, there’s a new kid on the block. On the beer list for Egham beer festival a few weeks ago I noticed two offerings from Brewshed brewery of Bury St Edmunds. A little research revealed that the owners of a small pub group in the town - comprising the Beerhouse, the One Bull and the Cadogan – have installed a brewery at the Beerhouse and its first beers appeared in May of this year. Even without the on-site brewery, the Beerhouse looks to be a worthwhile venue for the beer enthusiast, with eight handpumps, whilst The One Bell stocks the Brewshed beers and a guest or two. Judging from their website, the Cadogan seems less promising to those of beery persuasion, listing just Greene King IPA and Abbot as the ale choices. This may, of course, just be a case of delayed website updating and I would hope to see the Cadogan serving at least the Brewshed beers. When the new 2012 Good Beer Guide arrived through my letterbox, I was pleased to see that both the Beerhouse and the One Bull have made it into the latest edition, although rather surprised that the One Bull entry made no reference to the Brewshed beers. I was also rather surprised to see that the Old Cannon is no longer listed.

As for the Brewshed beers, the first I tried at Egham was Brewshed Best Bitter, a likeable, traditionally-styled, darkish best bitter at 4.3% with some fruity notes on the palate, a decent bitter hop presence and a quite full mouthfeel. Brewshed Pale Ale, at 3.9% was a very respectable and drinkable golden ale with plenty of tart citric hops, a firm bite on the finish and a crisp mouthfeel. 

Understandably slightly cautious choices for their first brews but a solid foundation - the beers are well-made and certainly preferable to Greene King IPA. The Brewshed brewery, and the related pubs are a very welcome addition to the Bury St Edmunds beer scene and I wish them all the best in their efforts. The presence of two brewpubs in a modestly sized town suggests that drinkers there may be eager for a more varied beer diet than Greene King, Greene King and more Greene King, which can only be a good thing. I have also just discovered that a specialist beer shop - Beautiful Beers - opened in Bury St Edmunds earlier this year too. It’s probably time for me to pay another visit.