X marks the spot for historic beer
Added: Wednesday, October 24th 2012
There’s history in abundance behind Greene King’s 1930s Art Deco facade and brewhouse. There are areas that date back several centuries, including tunnels that once linked the monastery in Bury St Edmunds with the abbot’s house, the site of the original brewery. The tunnels were dug as hiding places for monks at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century and the persecution of priests that followed.
For beer lovers there’s another piece of ancient and no less fascinating history. It comes in the shape of three large 60-barrel wooden casks known as tuns that stand in the fermenting area of the Suffolk brewery. They hold a beer called Old 5X that is a potent link with brewing practice in the 18th century when “country ales” were a blend of beer aged in wood and fresh “running beer”.
There’s also a link from country ales to the first porters brewed in London. Porter was a mix of pale, brown and “stale”, the last named being a strong beer aged in wood for a year or more. Old 5X is similar to stale, also known as stock ale. It’s 12% and it ages in the untreated wooden tuns for between one and two years. During that long ageing, the beer darkens, matures and also picks up a slight sourness from the action of wild yeasts, tannins and vanillins trapped in the wood, along with the build-up of lactic acid. The lids of the tuns are sealed with sandy gravel, known as marl in Suffolk (see image below). The weight of the marl prevents the lids lifting during fermentation and, head brewer John Bexon says, stops oxygen and yeasts in the atmosphere infecting the liquid. But the tawny beer that emerges from the tuns has a degree of lactic sourness with a pronounced port wine vinous note and hints of liquorice, vanilla, oak and iodine. It’s tart and fruity in the mouth followed by a bittersweet finish that has rich vinous fruit, vanilla, oak, liquorice, iodine, caramel and a light hop note.
Old 5X is used as the base for St Edmunds barley wine and a draught Winter Ale. But its main role is blending with a 5% BPA – Best Pale Ale – to produce the 6% bottled Strong Suffolk Ale (Olde Suffolk in the United States). BPA, in common with Old 5X, is not sold on its own but it’s a rich copper-coloured beer with a predominantly malty character.
The two beers are brewed with Tipple pale malt, crystal malt and wheat sugar. Molasses or black treacle is added to Old 5X and gives the beer its liquorice note. The beers are hopped with Admiral, Challenger and Target, with a small amount of Goldings. The blended beer has 32 units of bitterness.
Strong Suffolk is bright amber in colour and the nose has a vinous note that is more sherry than port with delicious pear drop fruitiness. There’s a cracker-like malt note with some sourness and a powerful hint of oak, vanilla, and peppery hops. The lactic note develops on the palate but is countered by rich, sweet fruit, oak, vanilla and spicy hops. The finish offers creamy malt, iodine, vanilla, oak and tangy and peppery hop.
There used to be four tuns for storing Old 5X but one of them sprang a leak a few years ago. I saw some of the staves from the vessel: they were coated with a thick crust of yeast and protein that impart their own rich and distinctive character to the beer. John Bexon is anxious to replace the vessel as interest in and demand for Strong Suffolk at home and abroad is putting pressure on him to fill four vats.
The manner in which Strong Suffolk is made is not dissimilar to the production of Rodenbach’s Sour Red ale in West Flanders in Belgium. Rodenbach stores its Grand Cru in unlined wooden vessels. The beer is deliberately allowed to stale as a result of attack by wild yeasts and other micro-organisms in the wood.
In the 1870s, a member of the brewing family, Eugene Rodenbach, toured England to study brewing techniques and it’s thought he may have visited Greene King to see how stale or stock ale was matured in wooden vats. There’s no documentary evidence to prove this but the beers do share similar characteristics and Suffolk would be a comparatively easy journey for a visitor from Flanders. On one visit to Rodenbach I took some bottles of Strong Suffolk for a comparative tasting Grand Cru is served straight and has a greater sour and lactic intensity than Strong Suffolk. But Rodenbach also make Klassiek (5%) in which Grand Cru is blended with a fresh, young beer. It has a rich vinous character but is less sour than Grand Cru.
To blend or not to blend?
At the Great British Beer Festival in London in August enormous interest was created when Greene King made a batch of Old 5X available for tasting. The beer is also occasionally delivered to other CAMRA beer festivals. The result is a small but growing demand for Old 5X to be put on sale as a regular beer.
The problem is that, unlike Rodenbach Grand Cru (6%), Old 5X is 12%. As well as being hit by the new rate of duty for beers above 7.5%, it would have a limited market at that strength.
And the important, historic point about Old 5X is that it was specifically brewed as stale or stock ale for blending with fresh beer. It may be best to honour that history – but if you do get the opportunity to taste it you will surely agree with John Bexon that it’s “the elixir of life”.
*Greene King, Westgate Brewery, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk IP33 1QT. Visitor Centre open Mon-Fri 10.30am-4pm; Sat 10.30am-5.30pm. Brewery tours every day and Thursday evenings in summer. 01284 763222; www.greeneking.co.uk