The joy of 5X: the aged beer from Greene King

Why is Greene King’s 5X one of the most remarkable beers in the world?

Blending in British beer
Beer that is fermented for longer can often develop more unique and interesting flavours. Many British breweries of the Victorian era produced an aged “stock beer” that would be blended with a fresh “running beer” to produce a finished product which combined the drinkability of fresh beer with a greater depth of flavour.

A view of the Greene King brewery by Elliott Brown in 2019.

Some of the most successful beers owe a debt to the blending tradition. Newcastle Brown Ale, introduced in 1927, was originally a blend of a dark aged beer with a lighter pale ale. Guinness Foreign Extra Stout was blended with two percent aged beer from 1950, although it is unclear whether this process still occurs.

Truman’s Brewery of London continued to produce their No 1 barley wine by blending two thirds fresh beer with one third aged beer up until the early 1970s.

The ageing and blending tradition, inspired by English brewing techniques of the 1870s, remains alive at the Rodenbach brewery in Belgium. A stock beer is aged for between eighteen months and two years and then blended with two thirds fresh beer.

5X, the great survivor
Greene King of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk is one of the largest of the traditional ale brewers in Britain. By the 1990s it was the last major brewery in Britain to retain the stock beer tradition.

Greene King brew 5X to around twelve percent ABV using pale, crystal and chocolate malts. It is aged for between two and five years in four untreated 100-barrel English oak vats. John Bexon, a former head brewer at Greene King, explained, “the microflora in there slowly matures the flavor and it almost sours it like a Belgian Lambic”.

According to Greene King, “5X on its own can taste very tart and sour”, although it is occasionally made available at beer festivals. It has been blended into various Greene King beers over the years.

5X at a rate of between 15 and 25 percent is blended with Burton Pale Ale, a dark and sweet five percent ABV beer made with pale, crystal and chocolate malts, to produce Greene King Strong Suffolk at six percent ABV.

My tasting notes for Strong Suffolk highlight the aromas of vinous fruit and port wine, liquorice, kola nut, oak, malt vinegar, banana and toffee. The beer is full bodied with a very dry finish. Strong Suffolk was produced from at least the 1920s until 2018. It returned as a one-off brew in 2023.

Greene King introduced Morland’s Old Crafty Hen in 2008, a 6.5 percent ABV beer created by blending a stronger version of Old Speckled Hen with between ten and 15 percent 5X.

It is almost axiomatic that the larger the brewer, the more cost-conscious and risk-averse they become. The bean-counters take over and tradition falls by the wayside. Greene King has bucked that trend by continuing to produce 5X, and for this, they should be justly celebrated.

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