Vignette 29: John Bexon (Greene King)
I visited Head Brewer John Bexon at Greene King in Bury St. Edmunds in 2011. He has since left the brewery, but it remains one of the most entertaining brewery visits I've made. John is a quote machine, as you'll see in the excerpts below, which run on longer than the usual Vignette. Go here to see other vignettes.
Old Victorian breweries were built to last, but at a certain point, even they give out. British breweries then have a decision to make: move to modern equipment (as Fuller's and Adnams did) or restore the old brewery? Here's Bexon on Green King's decision to restore rather than replace.
“So we spent a total of about three million pounds on this building alone, out of that fourteen million. We could have gone mash-filter, we could have gone lauter, but no, we said, 'We’re staying with what we know. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.' Okay, we could have gotten a bit more efficiency by doing it, but I think you lose the authenticity. We’re still brewing in the same way—slightly bigger—but we’re still brewing in the same way.”
“Do you modernize and to what level do you modernize? Obviously as you get bigger you have to mechanize, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to [change]—I mean, there’s still no substitute for chewing malts and rubbing hops. There’s no substitute for tasting beer at every stage of the process.”
From the roof of Greene King are visible barley and hop fields and a malthouse--and sugar beet fields. I asked whether that was the same sugar used by the brewery, and this exchange followed.
Jeff Alworth: Do you ever use beet sugar?
John Bexon: “No, because that’s mainly sucrose.”
JA: “Yeah, but it’s just right there.”
JB: “I know, but it’s beet. It’s the wrong sugar profile.”
JA: “They use beet sugar in Belgium, so—“
JB: “Yeah, well, hmm...” [at that point he made a comic face of disgust] “Well, they can keep it.”
JA: “Fair enough.”
JB: “If you think about it, the sugars you’re tasting, they were originally starch in the grain. If you look at a starch molecule, it’s glucose, glucose, glucose, glucose, glucose—you know, and it goes in different directions. When you hydrate the enzymes and they get cracking, you chop off one glucose, it’s glucose. If it’s two links, it’s maltose. Three links, maltotriose. You’ve got small fermentable sugars but you don’t have that huge sucrose molecule which is sweet. Yes, you can ferment it, but it’s not pleasant. Where you get these branch chains that the yeast can’t use, then they’re complex sugars that leave body in the beer.”
English malts are variable enough that with each new season, Greene King has to brew with it first to see how to make adjustments to achieve the proper profile and flavors for the beer. Bexon describes.
“Yes, tasting is the ultimate. Some of that will be chewing the malt. Also what we’ll do is we’ll get a whole batch in and we’ll do a brew with it. Ultimately you’ve got to be using it, so we’ll do a brew with it and see what it looks like. I think next week we’ve got a lorry load of grain coming in which is new season’s malt; we won’t probably use it until January but we need to know what it is going to perform like, and that will include tasting it. We won’t change anything for the first trial. We’ll make some beer with it, see what that beer tastes like, and then we’ll benchmark—we’ll do a blind tasting, as well.”