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All Hail The King – 30 mins with Alan Thomson the man behind Good King Henry Special Reserve.
The beer world has become a pretty noisy place over the last decade.
Whether that be the machinations of big beer re-inventing the wheel for the umpteenth time (naked Stella anyone?) or craft breweries pushing the boundaries of flavour and design, it can be an overwhelming market that is full of cues and signposts designed for us to part with our hard-earned moolah.
But how do we know what’s good and what’s not in this veritable snowstorm of breweries and beer styles? As craft drinks wholesalers we are here to help guide you through the blizzard and to earmark what we consider to be some of the best beer in the market right now.
One such brewery is Old Chimneys. You’re probably familiar with our favourite release from them – Good King Henrys Special Reserve Imperial Stout. If you’re not, well, prepare to have your tastebuds tantalized, your mind blown and barometer of Impy Stout quality re-set. We sat down with Alan Thomson – the brains behind the brew to find out what he has done to make this such a revered drink.
Alan, for the uninitiated, tell us a little about yourself and your background…
Well, I studied Biochemistry at University before taking on a trainee brewer position in 1977 at Vaux in Sunderland, before spending the next ten years at Greene King. That was followed by another four years at Broughton Brewery in the Scottish borders before coming back to East Anglia to set up Old Chimneys in 1995. I closed the brewery in 2019 to go semi-retired and collab with other people, so you could say my career has had three phases, big brewery production, Old Chimneys and now collabs.
And what got you into brewing aside from your interest in Biochemistry?
My Grandfather worked as a depot manager for a brewery and I remember visiting him in Newcastle as a small child. My memories of barrels rolling around the place and funny smells I guess lodged in the brain!
With a career that has spanned 45 years to date, it’s no surprise that Alan’s skills have been finely tuned and have resulted in Good King Henry being a multi-award winning stout in its original form. The Special Reserve version has surpassed that with unprecedented respect and appreciation from the beer rating cognoscenti worldwide and has consistently put it as one of the UK’s leading beers.
I mean we’re talking beer nirvana here. An absolute stone-cold classic built without a hype machine behind it, crazy adjuncts or fancy pants artwork.
So how did this legendary beer come about?
It started life in 1999 when I was asked by a local pub in Thelnetham (West Suffolk) to produce a millennium bottled beer for them. I assumed given it was a millennium special beer it was going to have to be something pretty strong, so I suggested an Imperial Stout and they went along with it. The first one was actually called ‘The White Horse Millenium Imperial Stout’ and I produced 200 bottles. That went well enough, so the following year I thought I’d continue but I had to think of a name for it.
So given its royal connotation in it’s title, what was the naming backstory to Good King Henry’s?
The name – I had a theme at Old Chimneys of naming beers after rare and endangered species of plant and animals found in the area. Good King Henry is actually a vegetable otherwise known as Lincolnshire Spinach.
There was a lot of umming and arring before I chose that name as I was very doubtful as to whether that would work, but given the regal connection to the gravity scale it seemed to work in its favour. But I really wasn’t sure about naming a beer after a vegetable!
This was the first bottled condition beer that I did. At that point it was all cask. Beers like Great Raft Bitter which was named after the Great Raft Spider which is Britains rarest spider, again found in Thelnetham. You can see where I was going with it.
How has the process changed for GKH, if at all since those early brews in 1999/2000?
Well, its been tweaked. Partly for flavour, partly for consistency and then physical characteristics like head retention which has been a constant battle. But I’m working on it, it’s a work in progress still after 20 years. Process parameters, raw materials the whole lot.
The first reserve version was in 2002. It was actually a c*ck up. It was an ordinary Henry to which I added too much malt extract and ended up way stronger than I intended. Although many beers have started as a mistake. Take Newcastle Brown Ale, some would say it still is!
As Alan shows a mix of comedic exasperation and determination at this point, I realise what keeps him awake at night. But thankfully for us, it’s that constant chase for perfection from a happy accident that keeps the beer coming up trumps.
How did you resolve the over-malting issue then?
This was before anyone was really getting into barrel ageing in the UK and I’d heard of winemakers adding chips to steel to impart a wood flavour. So at short notice, I got hold of some chips, added it to the casks and let them rest over the winter. I tasted it occasionally until I got that wood note and then bottled and stored it in early 2003 and promptly forgot about it. Given the brewery was 10 in 2005 I thought if it turns out OK I’ll use it as the anniversary special. I tried it again in Christmas 2004 expecting it to be all acetic but it was bloody gorgeous! I thought, Ah! I’m onto something here, so quickly put another brew together in 2004 and have been making it ever since.
What’s your take on how the Special Reserve version has been received over the years? Eight years as the UK’s leading beer on Untapped is no mean feat.
I’m completely astonished. No one is more surprised than me about the reserve version (although the ‘standard’ version now brewed at Grain is still pulling some hefty reviews). Although I think there has always been some confusion between the two, so now there is a clear demarcation of GKH on keg and cask and GKH Special reserve in bottle. If there’s anything that specifically in the Reserves favour it’s the fact that I keep it for two years before release every time. I’m not aware of too many other Imperial Stouts out there that bottle condition for that amount of time before release. But time definitely improves the flavour bringing more leathery notes to the beer.
And in your opinion the best vintages so far?
2011 & 2016 although don’t ask me why. It’s just the way it turned out! It’s just inexplicable sometimes and that makes it more interesting.
Within the Imperial Stout game, how do you view other more contemporary versions that add lactose or adjuncts and have a significantly different approach?
Well I’ve actually done three slight variations on Good King Henry. One I added port too which I thought worked really well together. I’ve also done a version for next year with Madeira. But these are just experiments really where I just like the taste.
We finish off talking about how he still uses chips to impart the wood flavour in steel cask and readily admits that it doesn’t pack the kudos of barrels per se. However, with brutal honesty Alan also admits to being somewhat (rather self-effacingly) a control freak and that by using chips it allows him to monitor and control that process, rather than a barrel overtaking the beer. And that’s what we love about Good King Henrys Special Reserve. It’s a consistent beer on production that finds its way with time, but what you get straight off the bat is one man’s loyalty and dedication to the craft exemplified in this beer.
Contact us here to order the 2020 version of Good King Henry’s Special Reserve.