Bury St. Edmunds is a robust market town between Cambridge and Ipswich in Suffolk, England. Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of it, we hadn’t either until we secured a house sit in the small city of just over 100000 people. Bury St. Edmunds is home to ruins of a medieval abbey, Suffolk’s only cathedral, the only remaining Regency Theatre in England, and the Greene King Brewery. The first time we were here, we were only in this fine city for a week, looking after a terrific dog named Woody and we were cold!
We had arrived in England after a 6-months in Panama and were accustomed to +30-degree weather. February’s sub-zero temperatures and a light dusting of snow took its toll, so I decided to skip Trip Advisors #1 attraction in Bury St. Edmunds, the Greene King Brewery tour.
This time around, I was determined not to miss the brewery tour and the tasting afterward. We had spent 6 weeks in Turkey and then 2 months in the glorious sun of southern Spain. In case you didn’t know Turkey and Spain are not known for incredible beers. Turkey, being a Muslim country, does not have a big selection of alcoholic beverages and a very limited selection of beers. Spain has wonderful wines, especially from the famed Rioja region, but they do not have many outstanding beers, drinkable lagers and pilsners yes, but not many local beers with much flavor.
After 3 1/2 months of not having much choice, I was really looking forward to drinking some tasty English beer, more specifically good English ale.
Greene King Brewery
Brewing ale in Bury St. Edmunds is a long established tradition, at least as far back as 1086. The Greene King Brewery was founded in 1799 when Benjamin Greene bought an existing brewery and became a master brewer at age 19.
The original brewery building is still standing across the street from the main brewing facility. Although today, it houses the brewery’s laboratory. The current brewhouse is a stunning building that was originally constructed back in 1938. This art deco style building houses the gravity fed brewing operation. The brewing process actually starts on the roof, where the water from the underground spring is pumped and stored before it works its way down to mash tuns.
The tour was outstanding. Maureen our tour guide, was an excellent host, who clearly enjoys her job and loves working at the Greene King Brewery. She was funny and had a ton of information on not only the brewery but also on this area of Suffolk.
Tidbits From The Tour
I had no idea what a fascinating place Bury St. Edmunds was. In addition to learning all about the history of the Greene King Brewery, Maureen gave us tons of interesting trivia about Bury St. Edmunds and the surrounding area.
- Magna Carta – In 1214, the year before King John sealed under oath the Magna Carta, the feudal barons of England met secretly under cover of darkness in St. Edmunds abbey. It was here that the barons swore an oath to induce King John to accept a document, The Charter of Liberties, which would bind him to certain laws regarding human rights. The Charter of Liberties was the foundation for the Magna Carta and this became the basis for English constitutional law.
- The infamous King Henry VIII –King Henry’s favorite sister Mary Tudor, who would become the Queen of France, was interred at Bury St Edmunds Abbey in 1544. Several years later, her body was moved to the nearby St. Mary’s Church. King Henry named his first surviving child after Mary and she would become the future Queen of England (Queen Mary I). As well, the television drama The Tudors, portrays the relationship between Mary and her second husband Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk. The character is named Princess Margaret and is a composite of Mary and her sister Margaret Tudor.
- Nutshell – My favorite tidbit. The Nutshell is a quaint little pub in Bury St. Edmunds city center and is Britain’s smallest pub (confirmed by Guinness Book of World Records). Tracey and I stopped by this pub for a pint of Abbott Ale on our way home from the brewery. Measuring 15ft by 7ft this pub is tiny, elbow-to-elbow with only 20 customers the bartender told us they once stuffed in 102 patrons. The walls and ceiling are covered in memorabilia and banknotes from all over the world, complete with a mummified cat hanging over the bar.
After the tour we headed back to the Brewery Tap, located on the second floor of the museum, in the visitors center. This is where we relaxed and got to sample many of the ales and beers that we learned about during the tour. Greene King brews many, many beers far too many to list here and Maureen had plenty of them for us to try. The interesting thing is that all of the traditional ales are made with only 4 ingredients.
- Water – Sourced from 200-foot wells below the brewery, the wells are fed from the same spring that the monks used 900 years ago.
- Malted Barley – The climate in and around Suffolk is perfect for producing some of the best malting barley in the world and is sourced just 2 miles from the brewery.
- Yeast – The yeast strains that are used are descendant from those used by Benjamin Greene in 1799.
- Hops – Come from Kent and Worcestershire areas of England.
The only beer I was familiar with was Old Speckled Hen, named after an old MG car, painted gold, flecked with black and used as a factory runaround fondly refered to as ‘the owld speckled un’. First brewed commemorate the 50th anniversary of the MG car factory in Abingdon, Oxfordshire. The octagon label, designed to pay tribute to the MG logo. We sampled several of the Hen ales, including Old Crafty Hen and Old Golden Hen.
Maureen had us sample many of the traditional ales that are produced by the Greene King Brewery as well as a few from the new, innovation brewery, St Edmunds Brewhouse. We sampled too many to list, each one separately, but I do have to mention that we started with Maureen’s favorite and Greene King Brewery’s flagship beer Abbot Ale. This is a wonderful ale rich in malt, great balance of hops and very smooth, it is also the ale that we drank while we were sitting at the Nutshell. Do ask to see the tasting notes, it is a detailed list of the flavor characteristics of each of the beers that Greene King produces.
In late 2013 The St Edmunds Brewhouse, an innovation brewery or a small batch brewery figuratively opened its doors, as the brewhouse is located inside the main brewery building. The 3 separate tuns can produce a maximum run of 30 barrels and a minimum run of 15 barrels. Each barrel is equivalent to 288 pints. This craft brewery gives Greene King more flexibility to meet the growing demand for the craft beer market.
The Greene King Brewery tour was a fantastic way to spend a couple of hours. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, as did the other people on the tour. I overheard one couple say that is was better than the Guinness Brewery tour. You get a complete behind the scenes look at the brewery operation.
If you are in or about Bury St. Edmunds do check out the brewery, they offer more than the brewery tour. You can book the Brewery Tap for group events; they also run quiz nights and murder mysteries for groups of 22 to 42.
The visitor centre has a museum describing the history of brewing in Bury St, Edmunds along with brewing memorabilia and a shop where you can purchase many of their wonderful brews and branded merchandise.
For tour times and prices please check out the Greene King website.