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Classic Beer of the Month September 2012: Greene King 5X

Greene King 5X, 12%

A rare chance to try one of Britain's most enigmatic beers prompts this month's Classic Beer feature.

Greene King vatVisitors to the Great British Beer Festival in August were treated to something a little special by Greene King.

Alongside the company's selection of familiar brands, one-third of a pint glasses of a beer simply known as 5X were being dispensed.

That basic name, however, is very deceptive, although perhaps the small measures offer a clue to the fact that this is a beer of great complexity, one to savour.

The 12% ABV certainly turned heads, but strength is by no means the most interesting of the beer's attributes.

This is a beer that rarely sees the light of day in its fundamental form. I've tried it from a tiny sample bottle before but never from a handpump and, judging from the crowd of connoisseurs thronging around the Greene King bar, neither had many others.

But most of us have, in fact, tasted the beer before, as it is the aged beer that is blended with younger ales to create Greene King's Strong Suffolk (sold as Olde Suffolk in the USA) and Old Crafty Hen bottled beers.

Strong Suffolk is a blend of 5X and a 5% Burton-style beer called BPA, that equally is never sold singularly, while Old Crafty Hen, as its name infers, blends 5X with Old Speckled Hen.

Time Plays Its Hand

5X (sometimes called Old 5X) dates from at least the 1930s, and possibly back to the early 19th century, when a strong ale of uncertain identity was being produced.

It is brewed using pale malt, some roasted malt and cane sugar chosen for its molasses character. A range of hops are used, including Challenger, First Gold and Target. There's nothing very unusual so far but then time plays its hand.

The beer is placed into one of three, 100-barrel oak maturation vessels (illustrated above), stored in the depths of the brewery. Some of the sandy soil known locally as marl is scattered on top of the closed vessels to help deter bacteria and wild yeasts, and here the beer sits at ambient temperature for up to two years, growing old gracefully.

Tasted neat, the beer has a sugary sweetness you'd expect from a beer of this strength but that is quickly countered by a gentle tartness from the oak ageing.

Although the principle is similar to that adopted by Belgian sour red specialists such as Rodenbach (and there is evidence that Rodenbach was itself inspired by English oak-ageing techniques), 5X is nowhere near as acidic or sharp.

Greene King Strong SuffolkOn this occasion, it slipped down far too easily for a beer of this potency, like a smooth, slender sherry, leaving a pleasant, warming glow. It wouldn't have been out of the question to down a whole pint, which is kind of worrying.

Where the beer just failed to nail it, I felt, was in the carbonation. Cask-conditioning is probably too soft a process for this type of beer; certainly the handpump added little to the enjoyment.

More of an effervescent bite would have enhanced the acidity and cut through the sweeter elements to turn what is already a remarkable beer into something truly special.

Of course, the derivative beers Strong Suffolk and Old Crafty Hen are indeed carbonated, but wouldn't it be great to have the real thing in bottle?

Sadly, with only three maturation tuns in use at the brewery, there seems little chance of enough 5X being produced to make this viable.

So we'll all just have to wait until Greene King treats us again some time.

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