The Brewhouse

The brewery has three boreholes into the chalk beds on which Bury stands, and water intended for brewing liquor is de-mineralised, and then Burtonised to varying degrees, before it enters the mash-tun. In this way, the chemical profiles for the various 'adopted' beer liquors can be faithfully re-created. The major malt supplier is Greencore, and the principal pale ale malt is the winter variety, Pearl, although some spring Optic is incorporated as well. Specialist malts used in some of the various beers, for colouring and flavour purposes, include amber, crystal, and black.

As is often the case with an ever-expanding brewery, the brewery equipment is a functional blend of modern and not quite so modern, with quite a lot of fairly new items, such as centrifuges, coming over from Abingdon at the turn of the new millennium. Around £4.5m. has been spent in the brewery, over the last four years, to increase efficiency and capacity, and improve beer quality, and, to meet demand, brewing now occurs 'round the clock'. In essence, the brewhouse, which is based on the 'tower' principle, houses a two-brew stream, because two mills provide grist for three mash- tuns, which, in turn, provide wort for four coppers. The main fermentation capacity consists of a mix of 800 and 200 barrel conical fermenters, known as 'Luton vessels', because they came from the now-defunct Whitbread brewery in that town. A further fermentation area houses twenty more conicals of 400 and 800 barrel (remember, a brewers' barrel represents 36 imperial gallons) capacity, and there is also a small FV room, which houses twelve fermenters, varying in size from 40 to 120 barrels. It is in this room, that the wooden vessels used for fermenting and storing the notorious '5X' old ale are now located, their previous home having become too inaccessible.

With the existing plant, it is possible to brew 1500 barrel batches of IPA, but for smooth running, the brewers at Bury generally like to think in terms of '400' or '800' barrel batches for their other regular beers.

To initiate a brew, malt is blown across from silos to a screen (where any gross material is removed), and ground in two 4-roller Boby mills. The resultant grist passes to two grist cases, which, in turn, feed the mash-tuns. Mashing times for the different beers vary from 20 to 40 minutes, and mash temperatures range from 63-67 degC., whilst the average run-off time to the coppers is 3.5 hours. The coppers have external wort boiling systems, and worts are boiled until 8-10% total evaporation has been achieved, which is normally around an hour. All hops used are pelletised, and, after boiling, hopped-worts (also called bitter worts) are cast into two whirlpools, where they have a residence time of 30-40 minutes, and all hop debris is removed. Worts then pass through two, water- cooled heat-exchangers before being introduced into fermentation vessels at 18 degC. Cooling water comes back at around 80 degC., and this hot water is re-used in the brewery, mainly for subsequent brewings.

The brewing staff now have an updated tasting facility, where they meet every morning at 09.00 to taste beers (and where they are joined by independent tasters from other parts of the company), and discuss the last 24 hours (and the next 24 hours) in the brewery. A production meeting takes place immediately afterwards.

The Beers

The name 'Greene King' has long been associated with the flagship Abbot Ale, which at 5% alcohol by volume (ABV) has achieved almost iconic status amongst beer aficionados. It is brewed with pale, crystal and amber malts, and is hopped with Wye Challenger (with a late Fuggles addition in the copper, to give aroma). The 'bread-and- butter' beer is Greene King IPA (3.6%), which has Wye Target as its main hop, whilst other major draught beers in their year-round portfolio are: Old Speckled Hen (4.5% on draught; 5.2% in bottle); Ruddles County (4.3%), and Olde Trip (4.3%). A number of other draught products are also brewed, including the 3% ABV mild ale, which contains a pleasant blend of pale, crystal, and black malts. Morland Original (4.0%), and Old Bob (ex-Ridley's) at 5.1% are still available, as are the excellent seasonal offerings, Ale Fresco (4.3%) in summer, and Fireside (4.5%) in winter. All beers have their own recipe, with different mash temperatures and hop grists, although, in respect of the latter, head brewer, John Bexon, admits to a partiality for Challenger and First Gold, and is experimenting with the recently-introduced variety, Boadicea .

Of the bottled beers, Strong Suffolk,at 6.0%, is a unique blend of two beers; Old 5X (which is brewed to the highest strength possible (ca. 12%), and left to mature in oak vats for at least two years, and BPA, a dark, full-bodied, freshly-brewed beer which is added just prior to bottling. Another unique beer is Hop, which, with an ABV of 5%, and its highly distinctive bottle, is a re-branding of their successful, innovative, Beer To Dine For. Hop, which uses American Tettnang hops, is described as: "Being aimed at the discerning, thirty-something male", and "..for consumers who are stepping up from premium lagers". When I visited the brewery in April, a 'chilled' version of their IPA had just been launched.

Significantly, since 2000, the company has doubled its sales of cask ales, while the overall cask beer market has declined by around one-third. Nowadays, one in every six pints of standard cask ale served in the UK is a pint of Greene King IPA, and it is the number one cask ale in these islands. Over 65% of trade now involves cask beer. Apart from Greene King's obsession with product quality, this success is partly attributable to the fact that the nationals have focussed on their major lager brands, leaving a 'cask ale void', which the regional brewers have willingly filled with their traditional offerings. According to 2006 figures, Greene King IPA volume was up 3%; Abbot Ale up 5%, and Old Speckled Hen sales have increased by a very respectable 10%. As Justin Adams, says quite categorically: "No other UK brewer is as committed to cask ale. We are absolutely sure that we've got a great portfolio of brands, and we have the confidence to invest in them".

Lager is not brewed at Bury, but a certain amount of contract kegging is carried out for other brewer's products, such as Carling, Stella, and Budweiser. For their own estate, the company purchases lager in bulk, and then packages it in-house. Kegging and casking is carried out next to the integrated warehouse/distribution depot, on a brown- field site the other side of Westgate Street. The connecting pipeline, which runs underneath the road, has a void of some seventeen barrels - greater than the weekly output of many of our micro-breweries!

Packaging...

A new bottling facility was recently commissioned on the Moreton Hall trading estate, just over the A14, and about one mile from the brewery. Called 'Old Speckled Hen Hall', it is located in a former Britvic warehouse, and cost some £8m. to install. The plant was deemed essential in view of the ever-increasing popularity of Greene King bottled beers. Greene King's original bottling line in Bury closed in 1997, when it was then decided that the cost of replacing outdated equipment was not justified by the relatively small proportion of output then sold in bottle. How times have changed! With some innovative re-packaging and advertising, their bottled beers are ever increasing in popularity, and now represent some 14% of sales. Bottled products are now sold in 42 countries, world-wide, and, with such a sizeable export market it is important that the brewers are able to control the brewing process from raw materials right up to the packaged product. The only bottling still contracted out is the 6.5% ABV, bottle-conditioned 'Hen's Tooth', which is packaged by Hepworth & Co., in Horsham.

The new plant has been constructed around the ultra-modern SIG Eurotronica PN70/80/15 rinser, filler, and crowner, and was jointly installed by ABM Process Automation Engineers, of Widnes. The project took some three years to plan and prepare, and, has been described by management as: "Probably the single biggest investment the business has made since 1938". The reference here is to the money spent on building the 'new brewhouse', which was authorised by the then board in 1936, cost around £80,000, and was finally opened in January 1939. The imposing, pristine, brick facade is still an important landmark in Westgate Street, and the view from the top of the brewery (where the water tanks are located) is quite stunning.

The site has a quality control laboratory, and an adjacent 3,700 sq.metre warehouse which is enough space to hold 2,600 pallets (equating to around 4 million bottles). It is estimated that the proximity of bottling to the brewery will save some 200,000 HGV miles per annum, and give the brewing staff much needed increased flexibility. In addition, the in-house facility will allow the company to reduce the amount of stock that it has to hold.

Beer is tankered in from the brewery, and held in four large tanks. Bottles are first subjected to a Sinonazzi bulk glass depalletiser, whence they enter the filler in single file. They are then rinsed, evacuated of air under vacuum, and purged with carbon dioxide. This process is repeated before bottles are filled and crowned. Bottles then go to a Heuff inspection machine, where the fill height is checked, before passing to one of two labelling systems (according to bottle size). The plant is capable of filling 25,000 bottles per hour, has been designed to respond to any changes in market trends in small-pack beer. If the plastic bottle (PET) market expands, for example, pre-moulded PET bottles can be used on the line instead of glass. At present, Greene King has 14.5%, by volume, share of the UK bottled beer market, which is second only to Scottish & Newcastle.

The line uses sterile filtration rather than pasteurisation, and beer is subjected to three filter surfaces: a pre-filter (0.6 microns); a first sterile filter (0.45 microns), and a second (back-up) sterile filter of the same pore size. Such a system prevents any flavour shift in the finished product, particularly in respect of the hop flavour. There is no canning line at Bury, all canned beers being packaged at Cain's in Liverpool.

Greene King plc, which is the second-largest employer in the area after the NHS, is listed on the London Stock Exchange, where it is a component of the FTSE250 share index. Latterly, company growth has been 10% year-on-year.....and all this in, what Defoe called: "A town famed for its pleasant situation and wholesome air, the Montpelier of Suffolk and perhaps England".