John Bexon, Head Brewer at Greene King

Last Call by | Jan 2012 | Issue #60

For a guy who’s responsible for brewing the best-selling premium beer in the UK, John Bexon is pretty relaxed. On the last day of his visit to America, where he was promoting Old Crafty Hen—a recent addition to Greene King’s Old Speckled Hen family, affectionately dubbed “the Hen House”—Bexon chats happily about hop varietals and the new American beers he’s tried (Maine Beer Co.’s Zoe got a special call-out). Greene King has existed since 1799; they produce over 500,000 barrels per year, and own about 2,500 pubs in the UK. So, how will the American experience affect one of the world’s most dominant breweries? Perhaps more profoundly than you might guess.

What have you learned during this trip to the US?
When we get back, we need to think American, not British. We’ve probably had the mindset that that’s what we make, that’s what we’ll have. We know what we like and what we make what we know. We don’t need any of the upstarts telling us what we should be making. But actually, going back and thinking, we need to think more American, more on our toes, a bit more innovative.

What’s different about the US beer scene than what you’re used to?
The range is phenomenal. The strengths. Generally, they’re stronger than a lot of British beers—the flavors are [too], particularly in terms of the American IPAs, massively hopped. I like them, but not in any volume because it tends to shut down other bits of the palate for me. But maybe if there’s so many American IPAs out there, should I be making one? … I think about how we might do that.

Do you see more brand loyalty in the UK?
Oh, massively. People arm wrestle about it. Or debate it with a passion. There’s also a lot of “I’m not going to try that, it’s not what I want.”

What are the disadvantages of working with such a large brewery as Greene King? Do you ever get to experiment on a smaller system?
The downside of a large brewery makes small brews very tricky or sometimes impossible, but the positive is consistent high quality and flavor control. … The micro I use is run by Muntons Maltsters, and is excellent for testing new hops and malts rather than commercial brews.

As a junior brewer at Bass, you helped commission the Commonwealth Brewery in Boston in 1986. What was that experience like?
It gave me a lot of hands on training. It allowed me to visit some microbreweries that were emerging in the area, and I got some technical expertise from a big brewery, so it was a win-win really. … And actually the Americans made me feel so welcome, I can’t tell you how great it was, to the point where the last 10 years, I’ve been an honorary commander of RAF Lakenheath [a Royal Air Force base in England that hosts US Air Force units] … repaying the kindness shown to me when I worked in the US. … I’ve taken probably a thousand airmen around the brewery. Because it was sort of post 9.11, really, and I remember people made us feel safe in Boston. [Taking airmen on tours of Greene King] was an opportunity to get people off base, because they’re all staying on base. … And we sell Speckled Hen on base. [laughs