The Greene King IPA Controversy
Added: Sunday, August 1st 2004
Moments after I'd announced that Greene King IPA had won gold in the bitter class in the Champion Beer of Britain competition at Olympia last week, the hall was struck by a thunderbolt. The God Thor clearly didn't approve of the decision.
The Greene King victory was greeted by boos and hisses. One trade paper said Camra members were responsible for the jeering, but the results of the competition were announced at the trade session of the Great British Beer Festival, attended by brewers and publicans.
So the boorish behaviour was not down to Camra members alone. But boorish it was.
The conspiracy theories are starting already. Websites are full of complaints that Camra has sold out to the big brewers and the judging was rigged to allow Greene King to win.
It's nonsense. Did Camra sell out to even bigger brewers when Tetley's Bitter and Ind Coope Burton Ale won awards in the 1970s and 80s? Has the campaign stopped criticising brewers, or championing the cause of micros and small regionals? The questions need no answers.
It's equally absurd to suggest the judging is rigged. The beers that reach the final at GBBF come from three streams: drinkers - not Camra members - voting for their favourite beers at regional and local beer festivals, members voting in the campaign's newspaper, What's Brewing, and regional judging by trained teams of Camra tasters. Anyone who can rig such a complex system had better get ready for duty in this year's presidential elections in Florida.
In the final rounds at Olympia, all the beers - including 14 in the Bitter category - are tasted blind. The judges have no idea which beers they're drinking and, from my long experience, it's foolish to attempt to guess, as you almost always get in wrong.
Greene King IPA, having jumped over all the hurdles to get to the final, won its class on the day and came second in the overall championship. That should nail another lie: that Camra only supports small micro-breweries. I recall one regional brewer storming out of Olympia a few years ago when a micro won the championship and snarling at me: "If a micro brewed a beer from castor oil and glycerine, Camra would give it a prize." On the contrary, I think the results last week proved just how even-handed the campaign is.
The Greene King victory is timely and will give a much-need boost to the entire cask beer sector. There have been occasions when a small brewer has won the championship and has been overwhelmed by orders for the beer that he could not meet.
There will be no problem with Greene King meeting increased demand, while the message on its drays and pump clips that it is the Gold winner of the Bitter class for 2004 will be carried far and wide. The brewery will be taking good news about cask beer - not just its own brand - to pubs throughout the south-east and further afield.
The most depressing aspect of the attacks on Greene King is that it is one of the biggest - perhaps the biggest - brewer of cask in Britain. Over the past 30 years, the company has had several serious rows with Camra, over such issues as top-pressure dispense and closure of rural pubs.
But the company listened to its critics, took stock, did extensive market research, and dramatically changed its policies. That deserves praise, not jeers.
It doesnt mean that I personally - not speaking for the other judges - consider Greene King IPA to be the greatest beer ever brewed. The company knows I disprove of a 3.6% beer being called India Pale Ale, because the strength is not true to the style fashioned in the 19th century.
I suspect Greene King, having again listened to its critics last week, will sit down and take a long hard look at the brand. It has already said it will mount a campaign to ensure top quality and consistency of the beer in all its 2,000-plus pubs, vital if it carries the Gold insignia.
But let us for heaven's sake stop being churlish and say hearty congratulations to a brewer that is a dedicated supporter of cask beer.
See the full list of 2004 Champion beers here.