Saturday, 24 August 2019

In search of Greene King

The news about the acquisition of Britain’s second largest brewer, Greene King, by Hong Kong-based, CK Asset Holdings broke sometime during the day, last Monday. The first I knew about it was a message appeared on one of the WhatsApp CAMRA groups I am a member of.

As with the takeover of Fuller’s, by Japanese brewing giant Asahi, the news came as a complete surprise, but then I’m not one for keeping abreast of how things are progressing financially with these companies.

There’s probably been  more than enough written about the Fuller’s takeover, and I’m sure the same will soon apply to Greene King, so what I want to do here is take a look at the latter from a personal perspective, and ask why what was once a highly respected and well-regarded regional brewery, morphed into the reviled and un-loved national concern that it is today.

I don’t intend going into the history of Greene King here, as there are plenty of online sources available for those who are interested in the early development of the company. Instead I want to start by revealing how I first became aware of the company and how, at one point, I became determined to seek out and sample Greene King beers for the first time.

Whilst I was in the sixth form at school, I had a friend who, unlike the rest of us, was far more interested in beer and pubs,  than progressive rock music and chasing after girls. I have written about this friend before, and probably mentioned that him and his family were originally from London.

It came as no surprise then to learn that my friend's aunt owned a holiday bungalow at Clacton-on-Sea, and what’s more, she allowed my friend to talk her into letting it out to him plus a small group of school friends. This was to be for a week during the summer holiday, after we had finished at school for the final time.

As you can imagine for four 18 year olds about to go our separate ways, it  turned into a proper “lad’s holiday.” Three of us were due to start university at the end of September, whilst the fourth member of  our group had already started out in the world of work.

Apart from anticipating our “A” level results, we hadn’t a care in the world. We spent our time in and out of the pubs and the amusement arcades; our dream girls, or any girls for that matter, having failed to materialise. On one occasion we hired a couple of two-seater pedal trikes, and set off to explore the surrounding area, which really meant stopping off at a suitable  pub, or two.

Now as my friend knew far more about the brewing industry than the rest of us, he not only acted as our guide, but he also managed to select a pub based on its owning brewery. So in the days long before the internet, and several years before CAMRA first appeared on the scene, our school friend guided us to a pub belonging to a brewery called Greene King.

I’ve no idea what the pub was called, or whether it’s still trading, and to be honest, I remember very little about the place, or the taste and condition of  the beer on sale there, but that was my first experience of Greene King, as a brewery..

Greene King cropped up a year later when, having gone our separate ways, I met up with my old school friend when we were working together as contract cleaners, in a hospital, during the university summer vacation. Roughly halfway through our contract, we took the day off and headed up to London for a pub crawl based on the first ever CAMRA Guide to Real Ale in London. I've written about our experiences here, in great detail, should you wish to take a look.

The crawl took place back in 1974, and towards the end of the day we ended up at the Anglesea Arms; a pub which was probably the first free house in London to capitalise on the growing interest in "real ale.”  The pub offered a selection of beers which could not be found anywhere else in the capital, and my friend's guide informed us that the revered Abbot Ale from Greene King, featured amongst the selection of hand pumped ales available at the Anglesea.

Unfortunately, despite the wide variety of beers on offer that evening, Abbot Ale was not on tap, and it was to be several years later that I finally managed to track down a pint of any Greene King beers, and the chance finally came on a weekend visit to Bedford, some time in the mid-1970’s.

A group of friends from university had moved to the town, primarily because during their time at uni, they had formed a rock group and wanted to keep it together after finishing their studies. They chose Bedford because the lead guitarist’s girlfriend came from the town, and her father – a first generation Polish immigrant, owned a poultry farm in a nearby village. There were several empty chicken huts on the farm, one of which was requisitioned as a place for the band to practice in.

My then girlfriend and I were still living in Salford, where until recently, we’d all attended the local university. We’d been threatening to visit our rock musician buddies in Bedford for some time, so after making the necessary travel arrangements, we took a train down from Manchester. We actually took several trains, as we wanted to avoid the much more expensive option of travelling via London.

I can’t for the life of me remember the route we took, but I do remember our train towards Bedford being delayed sufficiently long enough to prevent us being able to enjoy a drink in the town that evening.

Our friends drank in a smashing little Greene King  pub, called the Flower Pot. It was situated just off the town centre, but by the time we found our way there, “time” had already been called. I began to think my quest to sink a pint of Greene King was doomed, but I needn’t have feared, as the following lunchtime, we all met up at the Flower Pot, where I was able to knock back several pints of GK beer.

The beer was probably IPA, rather than Abbot, and it should also be remembered that the Greene King beers available in that part of the country, came from the company’s Biggleswade Brewery, rather than from Bury St Edmunds. For brewery history buffs, the Biggleswade plant was the former Wells & Winch Brewery, which was purchased by Greene King in 1961. It was used for the production of GK beers until 1997, when it was closed following a “re-structuring” by the parent company.

I enjoyed many pints of Greene King on that weekend and on subsequent visits to Bedford, but before finishing I’m pleased to report that the Flower Pot is still trading. According to WhatPub it is one of the oldest pubs in Bedford, with low ceilings, small windows, dark wood and subdued lighting, which give it a cosy, traditional atmosphere. This is exactly how I remember the place.

Footnote: I have unearthed an old photo of the Flower Pot, taken in 1980. I will add it to the post, once I have scanned it in.


retiredmartin said...

Love these long, detailed reminiscences, Paul.

I've certainly walked past the Flower Pot several times, but not sure I've ever been in. Perhaps I will.

Paul Bailey said...

Hi Martin, I’m still waiting for Mrs PBT’s to scan my old photo of the Flower Pot. Looking on WhatPub, it is now owned by Admiral Taverns, and stocks Doom Bar and London Pride as its regular beers.