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Classic Beer of the Month December 2016: Greene King Morland Hen's Tooth

Greene King Morland Hen’s Tooth, 6.5%

I do miss the Morland brewery. The Abingdon company was my closest major producer but I’m sorry to say that I only visited the site once.

Greene King Morland Hen's ToothThat was in the weeks just before its closure in 2000. Greene King had come calling and persuaded enough shareholders to sell their stock. The axe was not long in falling.

My valedictory visit came only a couple of years after Morland had begun to produce a bottle-conditioned beer.

It arrived just as I was putting together the first edition of the Good Bottled Beer Guide and such beers were rarer to find at that time than a hen’s tooth – which was appropriate because that was what Morland called its new creation.

Hen’s Tooth, as its name suggests, was originally inspired by Old Speckled Hen, the beer that Morland turned into a national brand in the years leading up to the Greene King takeover.

It was stronger – 6.5% ABV, as opposed to 5.2% – but there was enough of a connection in the recipe to provide a spin-off opportunity.

Alive and Clucking

Greene King still produces Morland Original Bitter (at Bury St Edmunds) and, of course, Old Speckled Hen – although now reduced in strength – continues to be a major player.

But all had gone very quiet recently about Hen’s Tooth. It wasn’t obviously listed on the Greene King website and I hadn’t seen it for a few years.

Considering the extra work a bottle-conditioned beer involves at the brewery, I feared it had been quietly dropped.

Not so. Apparently, even though there is only one major stockist – Morrisons – Hen’s Tooth is alive and clucking. The Greene King press office even sent me some samples which – from the assorted languages used on the label – reveal that much of the production now goes overseas (it can also be bought online).

So I am sort of pleased and disappointed at the same time. I think it’s great that Greene King keeps faith with the beer but find it a shame that it’s not given more prominence by the company, as it’s without doubt one of its finest beers.

Deep Auburn

Built on a base of pale and crystal malts, the deep auburn-coloured ale pours with a good, frothy head of fine bubbles.

The aroma shows plenty of malt character, with a touch of caramel, although it is tropical fruit that shines through most, indicating that esters really help to define this beer.

The hops – simply Challenger and Golding in the old days but now a complex mix of Challenger, Golding, First Gold, Admiral, Pilgrim and Boadicea – provide a firm but not domineering bitterness in the taste, as well as fruit and floral notes to buttress those esters, as melon, apple and a touch of pineapple push through.

I also detect a hint of aniseed that continues into the almost liquorice-like notes of the bitter finish as the tangy hops take over.

Throughout, the alcohol is well handled, offering just a gentle, tell-tale warmth. The natural carbonation is lively and mouth-filling, adding contrast to the silkiness of the malt. Overall, it’s a dry, very pleasant, well-attenuated strong ale with slender body for the strength.

Looking for downsides, it was not quite as complex as I remember, and perhaps the fruitiness was more restrained that it used to be. It’s also packaged in clear glass, which is never a clever move.

But I’m still happy to drink it – partly out of relief that it’s still available, but mostly because it’s a solid, fresh-tasting, robust beer that deserves to be found more easily.

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