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Des de Moor
Best beer and travel writing award 2015, 2011 -- British Guild of Beer Writers Awards
Accredited Beer Sommelier
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Des de Moor


Greene King Suffolk Springer, Morland Old Crafty Hen and Strong Suffolk

(Strong Suffolk)

ABV: 6%, 6.5% and 6%
Origin: Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, England

Suffolk Springer

These three beers offer currently the only options for public access to Greene King’s legendary Old 5X, Britain’s only surviving beer made on a commercial scale. GK have long followed a policy of selling the beer, a 12% strong ale made for maturing for between two and five years in two big oak tuns tucked away in the fermenting room, only as a component of blends. Of these, the best known is bottled Strong Suffolk which, following the withdrawal of St Edmund barley wine, was for a while the only available expression barring an occasional winter cask seasonal. But recently two other beers containing 5x have emerged — 2008 saw the launch of Old Crafty Hen, which marries it with strong bitter Old Speckled Hen, and 2009 brought Suffolk Springer, containing a young version of the beer. None of these beers is bottle conditioned — all are sterile filtered but not pasteurised.

Suffolk Springer is named to commemorate Suffolk’s horse racing heritage — a springer is a horse on whom the odds dramatically shorten just before a race — and made from Suffolk-grown Tipple pale malt, with some crystal, together with six hop varieties: Admiral, Boadicea, Challenger, First Gold, Pilgrim and Target. The resulting paler, weaker beer is blended with 5x, but fresh and not wood aged. It’s a deep ruby brown beer with a fine orange-fawn head and a very malty, lightly caramelly aroma with a hint of orange spice and smooth vanilla flavours. Among the complex herbal notes you could almost imagine some coriander.

A dry palate has a malty mineral note with some caramel, raisns and dried orange peel, and the definite almost metallic, irony, woody old book tang of the old ale, but no obvious sour lactic quality. Despite the rich fruit it’s quite close and stern, very dry and powdery, with the crackle of hops and possibly a roast note. A woody but smooth and rich charred cake finish is lasting and — perhaps surprisingly at only 6% ABV — lightly warming.

Greene King Morland Old Crafty Hen

The 5x that goes into Old Crafty Hen is indeed aged, and imaginatively used as a brand extension of the popular diacetyl-tinged strong bitter Old Speckled Hen, which GK inherited in its takeover and closure of Oxfordshire’s Morland brewery, where it had originated as a celebration beer to mark the 50th anniversary of the MG car plant.

The burgundy-toned Old Crafty is notably darker than Old Speckled, throwing like Suffolk Springer and orangey-beige head. There’s a definite irony and slightly sour note alongside sacky malt and hops on the aroma, with woody and cherry hints. A slightly stewed malt palate takes on fruit pastille notes although remains very dry and chewy, with more minerals and obvious hops and those slightly sour cherry flavours again. The almond and walnut notes and slightly buttery firm malt of Old Speckled certainly show through, matching well with the 5x character. A long and austere woody finish has charred flavours, some stewy malt and a nugget of nutty bitterness — it’s all perhaps just a little too big and overbearing.

Greene King Strong Suffolk Vintage Ale

Finally, trying these two new variants prompted me to remind myself of the old established Strong Suffolk Vintage Ale, which mixes Old 5x with another beer not available separately, BPA. This acronym is often mistakenly glossed as Best Pale Ale but actually denotes Burton Pale Ale, another near-vanished style that was once ubiquitous among English brewers. As beer historian Martyn Cornell points out, the style is often confused these days with the lighter pale ales of the IPA family, but BPA was much darker, only pale in comparison to the brown and dark ales that were the benchmark when it was first formulated. GK’s version adheres to tradition in supplementing pale and crystal malts with additional sugars including molasses-like Special Brewing Sugar. This beer in fact makes up the bulk of Strong Suffolk, which includes only 15% of Old 5x.

The result is certainly a dark sweet beer, but one with a delightful aged tang. Strong Suffolk pours a very dark ruby brown, yet again with that orange tinge to the foamy beige head. The aroma instantly announces something special, with tones of oaky vanilla, tangy salt, iron, plums, leather and caramel. A full creamy palate has sweetish chocoalte and caramel malt delightfully infused with wood, walnuts and a lightly sour saucy tang that gives a vinous quality. A smooth swallow heralds a long lasting bitterish nutty finish with leather and oak, a subtle lactic tang and a lightly charred malty note.

Tasting these beers together immediately reveals their family resemblance, difficult to characterise simply but it’s somewhere in the complex patterning of oak, nuts, iron, charred wood and vinous sourness. While all three beers are to be applauded, Strong Suffolk remains the classic, and the best we’ve got while GK still refuse to bottle the neat product.

It was interesting to note the reactions of my fellow visitors on the Greene King brewery tour, all relatively “lay” people where beers and brewing were concerned, when offered these beers — Suffolk Springer got good reactions all round, but the two that included the aged 5x divided opinion, with that distinctive sourness enough to put some drinkers off even in the relatively small quantities found in Old Crafty Hen. It’s heartening to note that Greene King, now one of Britain’s biggest brewers, is not yet frightened by the acquired taste status of this unique family of beers and is still committed to such rare and historic production methods, even planning to invest in a third oak vessel to replace one that collapsed a few years back.

Update March 2013. In 2012 Greene King made neat Old 5X available in cask at certain beer festivals — read a review here.

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