14 minute read

Greene King Plc Business Information, Profile, and History

Westgate Brewery
Bury St Edmunds
United Kingdom

Company Perspectives:

Our objective for our bicentenary year and into the millennium is to become the leading pub retailer-brewer, in terms of profitability and market share, in the south of England.

History of Greene King Plc

Located in eastern England, Greene King plc maintains a tradition of brewing beer in Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, which began sometime before 1086. The dark, heavy Strong Suffolk Vintage Beer is aged in oak barrels for two years and mixed with fresh ale before it is sold. Greene King brews a variety of ales that reflect changing tastes in beers, as well as a variety of seasonal and special occasion ales. In addition to its brewery, Greene King is also involved in the lease and management of more than 1,600 pubs under the name Greene King Pub Partners. This licensing arrangement, called 'tied estate,' results in pubs with a variety of atmospheres depending on their location, customer base, facilities, and proprietor. Greene King Pub Company oversees company-owned and -operated pubs. These businesses included Hungry Horse branded pubs, which offer food, Greene King cask ale and other drinks, darts, skittles, and big screen television. Community Pubs are traditional pubs with an emphasis on beer. Town Locals tend to attract local residents, while Circuit Bars, located in commercial districts, attract a lunch crowd from area businesses and young singles in the evenings. Greene King Inns included traditional pubs, hotels, and golf courses.

The Greene Brewery in its Early Days

Nineteen-year-old Benjamin Greene arrived in Bury St. Edmund in 1799 ready to found his own brewery, having completed his brewer training at the Whitbread Brewery in London. He moved into the former house of Abbot Reve, the town's last Abbot, and began to establish himself in East Anglia, an area known for its malting barley. In 1805 Benjamin Greene and William Buck, a 60-year-old yarn maker, formed a partnership to purchase Wright's Brewery, which had already been in operation in Westgate since around 1700.

The brewery completed its first batches of ale, porter, and 'old beer' in June 1806. The Beer Act of 1830 prompted the brewery's first surge of growth. Since 1550, licensing of inns, taverns, and alehouses had been controlled by local magistrates. The Beer Act opened up the beer trade by allowing anyone who applied for a license and paid the two-guinea fee to brew and sell beer.

When Parliament approved the Act, 51,000 establishments were involved in the sale of beer; by 1838 an additional 46,000 beer houses had opened for business. The impact of the Beer Act on Greene Brewery was immediate, as beer sales rose 50 percent in the first year after the Act was passed; however, competition among breweries increased as well. The company was unusual for an East Anglian brewer in that in 1833 the company had only one 'tied' public house, a pub the company leased to a tenant who sold Greene beer exclusively.

By the mid-1830s, the brewery still produced less than 2,000 barrels of its strong Suffolk beer annually. It wasn't until Edward Greene, son of Benjamin Greene, took over that the company began to reap the advantages of the 'free trade' in beer.

In 1836, at the age of 21, Edward acquired the brewery from his father. Edward effectively capitalized on the construction of railroads in the 1840s, using the railroads to expand the company's distribution network throughout East Anglia. Edward began brewing a lighter, less intoxicating version of the popular Burton India bitter ale. When he passed away in 1891, his obituary enthused, 'He was one of the first country brewers to discover that beer need not be vile, black, turgid stuff.' Greene sold Burton ale, which was originally an expensive brew, at the low price of a shilling per gallon, and, as the obituary said, 'made a fortune.'

The company's growth necessitated expansion of its brewing facilities. In 1845 Greene built a new malt house, where the first step in making beer took place. Wet barley was spread on the floor and allowed to sprout. Roasting the barley stopped germination and produced malt. In 1854 the company razed Abbot Reve's house to expand the brewery again. In 1851 Greene had employed 18 men and three boys. The number of employees doubled with the 1854 expansion, while annual production increased to 20,000 barrels, with each barrel holding 288 pints. As beer consumption increased and the British brewing industry boomed, Greene beers continued to grow in popularity. By 1870 the company's barrelage increased to 40,000.

Greene expanded its sales network by employing sales agents in Bury, Haverhill, Stowmarket, and Sutton, and by establishing two company-owned stores in London and Wolverhampton. Its tied estate of public houses grew by 90 pubs between 1868 and 1887.

Change and Adaption at the Turn of the 20th Century

In 1887 the company merged with another Bury St. Edmunds brewer, Frederick King, to form Greene, King and Sons, Ltd. (GKS). Founded in 1765 as Maulkin's Maltings, the brewery was purchased by Frederick King in 1852. King found keen competition in Greene, however, which was more firmly established by mid-century. The merger, which was prompted by the Greene Brewery, meant that the two companies no longer competed with each other. The new company remained under private ownership, with shares divided among the two owners and three family members involved in the business, as various challenges affected brewers throughout the United Kingdom.

After two decades of steady growth, beer consumption began to decline. In addition, the British government imposed restrictions on brewer ownership of tied houses in the 1880s and 1890s, which resulted in an increase in the cost of purchasing a pub. In the early 1890s GKS paid £550 to £4,000 for pub properties, which was approximately two-thirds more than the same properties would have cost ten years earlier. The brewery maintained financial stability by accounting for profit on a per-barrel basis and by working to reduce costs each year at every phase of production. Dividends ranged between eight and ten percent.

Government policy continued to affect the company as temperance gained favor in the late 1800s. The brewing industry supported the Licensing Act of 1904, because it provided compensation for pubs that closed when magistrates revoked their licenses. GKS mitigated losses by closing pubs with lower sales or profits when its number of licenses was reduced. GKS became one of the largest brewers in East Anglia by 1903, with sales peaking at 75,378 barrels.

New technology, such as pasteurization and refrigeration, helped GKS adapt to changes in drinking habits. Customers visited public houses less often due to temperance propaganda, which stigmatized pubs, but frequently purchased beer to take home, so the availability of pasteurized bottled beer became more important. GKS bottled 5,045 barrels of beer annually by 1913.

Brewing through World Wars

During World War I, government controls on raw materials and the military service of company employees led to a nationwide decrease in beer production. At GKS production declined 23 percent, from 74,142 barrels in 1914 to 58,568 barrels in 1918. Retail prices on beer doubled, however, and brewer profits exceeded the wartime rate of inflation. This allowed GKS to acquire three breweries in 1917: Clarke's in Bury St. Edmund, Oliver's in Sudbury, and Christmas in Haverhill. The acquisitions added 128 pubs to the company's tied estate, for a total of 460 by the end of the war.

The years between the two world wars were a period of financial growth despite the poor economic conditions. GKS became publicly owned in 1926, but its stock remained largely under family control. GKS acquired the Baily & Tubbut Penton Brewery in Cambridge, along with 48 pubs, in 1925, and the Rayments Brewery in Furneux Pelham, with 35 pubs, in 1928. Beer duties in 1930 and 1931, combined with the effects of the Great Depression, sent per capita beer consumption down to less than half of pre-World War I levels. Prompted by the temperance movement, which sought to upgrade the atmosphere of public houses, GKS actively improved its pubs at this time.

World War II brought both prosperity and difficulty to GKS. Beer consumption increased during the war, resulting in a 60 percent increase in sales for GKS. The British government did not restrict beer production in terms of quantity produced, but it did regulate the 'gravity' or density of the wort in water during fermentation, which determined the alcohol level of the beer produced. GKS experienced difficulty in maintaining the required low gravities. The war also created shortages in labor, containers, and grain. After the war, conditions were difficult for brewers. High duties persisted, while the worldwide food shortage of 1946 resulted in reductions in the amount of grain that was allocated for brewing beer. Great Britain imposed restrictions on production and reduced the average gravity of beer by ten percent. Beer duties went down in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but the British economy remained unstable until the mid-1950s.

Growth and Identity in the Postwar Era

As a small regional brewer, GKS found itself a target for aggressive merger overtures by larger brewers in the late 1950s. GKS sought to make the company less desirable for acquisition by making acquisitions of its own. The company purchased J.C. Mauldon & Sons in 1958; Simpson's Brewery in Baldock, with 130 pubs, in 1959; and the Wells and Winch Brewery in Biggleswade, with 287 pubs, in 1961. E.P. Taylor and Bass Charrington acquired an 11.2 percent interest in GKS with the potential for proposing a takeover bid. GKS sought protection under Guinness, which offered to preserve the independence of smaller brewers by purchasing sufficient stock. Guinness did not interfere with management of the company, but a trade agreement allowed the sale of Harp lager and Draught Guinness in GKS tenant pubs. Although the British brewing industry experienced a steady increase in sales during the 1960s and 1970s, revenues at public houses declined due to competition from other types of establishments, such as clubs, as well as increased concern about drinking and driving, which frequently led consumers to imbibe at home. In the early 1960s GKS counted more than 900 pubs in its tied estate, which shrank to 730 pubs in 1981. Though GKS rebounded to 776 pubs in 1985, by the end of that decade approximately 50 percent of the company's sales existed in the 'free trade,' or wholesale business not associated with its tenants. The public's interest in a wider variety of beverages prompted investments in soft drink and liquor companies and in a chain of Thomas Peatling retail wine stores.

As a purveyor of traditional cask ale, GKS benefitted from renewed interest in the English tradition of cask-conditioned beer. New technology in brewing and beer storage led larger brewing companies to condition beer before bottling, and prompted the formation of a new consumer group in the 1970s--Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA)--that encouraged support for traditional brewing methods. Cask-conditioned beer utilized 'finings,' which settled the remnants of yeast to the bottom of the cask to yield a clear beer at the tap. Brewery-conditioned beer was chilled and filtered, had carbon dioxide added, and was pasteurized before being packaged in kegs or bottles to prevent the beer from spoiling. Cask ale involved special handling. A tapped cask needed to 'breathe' for 24 hours to allow the residual yeast to settle. Once opened, the cask ale had to be consumed within three days. With consolidation of breweries and the growth of national brands, only a few regional brewers maintained this tradition.

Entering the 1990s as Greene King plc

With its new status as a public limited company, Greene King engaged in new strategies for growth in the 1990s. These strategies included expansion of company-owned and -managed pubs, expansion into the south of England and elsewhere, brand development, and improvements in tied pubs.

Greene King became the second-largest regional brewery in May 1990 with the purchase of 87 retail pubs from Allied Lyons. The acquisition expanded its trade network in England's southern counties, and also expanded its network of company-owned and -managed pubs. The acquisition of 44 retail pubs from Bass in September 1992 increased the number of company-managed pubs to 194. A recession in the early 1990s effected East Anglia more than other areas of England. With about two-thirds of its distribution in East Anglia, Greene King endured in part on the strength of its expansion in southern England. A new sales outlet opened in Camberly in 1994, and a new warehouse opened in Hampshire in 1995. While the East Anglian beer market declined seven percent, sales at GKS declined only one percent.

Retail brands King's Fayre and Ale Cafe also boosted profits in 1995 and 1996. Brand development and advertising became more important in the highly competitive environment, and Greene King implemented several creative promotions. In one promotion at participating tenant pubs a customer rolled dice that carried the logos of Greene King IPA, Abbot Ale, and Rayment the Brewer for a glass of one of the brands. Following consumer demand for premium bottle beers, Greene King began to bottle Abbot Ale for test marketing in early 1993. The company planned to develop Abbot Ale as a national brand. In 1995 Greene King introduced four seasonal ales under character-based brands, beginning with the winter brew Black Baron, a full-bodied, dark red beer, and followed in 1996 with The Sorcerer, an amber ale for spring. The King's Champion, a light ale for summer, was personified by a blond knight, while The Mad Judge for autumn featured a cranberry flavor.

Expansion in all areas of its business led the company to restructure into three major divisions: Greene King Pub Partners encompassed the pubs that the company leased to individual tenants; Greene King Pub Company covered company-owned and -operated pubs; and Brewing and Brands was responsible for oversight of the brewery, sales and distribution, and brand development.

The company divested its investments in other beverages, including the sale of 21 Thomas Peatling wine stores in 1996. The company also sold its 29 percent interest in Moorland Brewery. In 1996 Greene King acquired The Magic Pub, a 277-unit chain with locations in London and southern England. The chain included 47 Hungry Horse pub-restaurants and 21 Country Inns. With the acquisition the company's revenues increased, as did the chain's profit margins.

The acquisition of The Magic Pub fit the company's strategy to balance tenanted pubs with free trade establishments. Greene King began to divest tenanted pubs that functioned poorly, and changed tenants to free trade establishments when appropriate. In 1998 Greene King converted 35 managed pubs to the Hungry Horse brand. Greene King also offered specialized management assistance to tenants to improve their profitability. Acquisition of Beards of Sussex added nine managed pubs and 24 tied pubs, while the purchase of 165 pubs from Wolverhampton & Dudley added 63 managed pubs and 102 tenanted pubs in southern England and southeast Midlands.

In 1997 the shrinking market for cask-conditioned ale prompted Greene King and three other traditional brewers to develop the Cask Marque, 'For pubs which serve the perfect pint.' Pubs that had proved their ability to properly handle cask ale, through unannounced checks on temperature and presentation, were acknowledged with plaques, certificates, and advertising materials. Greene King continued to develop new brands, such as Greene King XS Smooth, which attempted to satisfy the public demand for smooth ale, and Green King Triumph, a blonde beer with four different types of hops. The acquisition of Morland Brewery in August 1999 added two popular brands, Ruddles and Old Speckled Hen, as well as 400 pubs to the company's holdings. Greene King celebrated its 200th anniversary with 1799 Special Bicentennial Ale, brewed with English-grown hops and barley.

Principal Operating Units:Greene King Pub Company; Greene King Brewing and Brands; Greene King Pub Partners.

Principal Competitors:Bass; Scottish & Newcastle; Whitbread.


  • Key Dates:

  • 1806: Benjamin Greene and William Buck purchase a brewery at Westgate.
  • 1836: Edward Greene acquires company from father.
  • 1887: Company merges with F.W. King Brewery.
  • 1903: Sales peak at 75,378 barrels of beer.
  • 1928: Company oversees more than 540 licensed pubs.
  • 1951: Abbot Ale is introduced.
  • 1962: Takeover protection achieved through trade agreement with Guinness.
  • 1996: The Magic Pub is acquired.

Additional topics

Company HistoryMiscellaneous Wholesale Goods

This web site and associated pages are not associated with, endorsed by, or sponsored by Greene King Plc and has no official or unofficial affiliation with Greene King Plc.