The Long Ship, where I misspent much of my youth, was everything you would expect of a pub run by Watney’s on the ground floor of a 1960s office block. Its attractions for the students who made up most of the customers, however, were that it was central, large, mostly dark inside and, crucially, the bar staff never asked any questions about your age.
The beer, of course, was generally awful (Red Barrel! Star Light!), but the Ship did stock Worthington White Shield, originally called Worthington IPA, and named for the “white shield” trademark on the label .
In 1976 my then girlfriend had bought me my first ever book on beer, Richard Boston’s Beer and Skittles. Boston wrote one of the pioneering columns on beer and pubs, in The Guardian, which started in 1973, and probably did as much as Camra to turn people on to a proper appreciation of the glories of British beer. Beer and Skittles devoted several pages to White Shield, then one of only five surviving naturally conditioned bottled beers in Britain, correctly describing it as one of the world’s greatest brews.
Because it contained a yeasty sediment in the bottle, Boston revealed to his wondering readership, White Shield altered as it aged. The beer came into prime condition about four weeks after bottling, Boston informed us, and would then stay in condition for up to another nine months. As this was the 1970s, “best before” dates were still in the future, and the only indication of when a bottle had been filled was through the numbers, one to 13, printed on the label, and the nicks, one, two, three or four, cut into the label’s edge. The nicks indicated which quarter of the year the bottle had been filled in, the numbers showed which week of the quarter.
After 10 months, Boston, said, White Shield went out of condition, and could develop a sulphury taste (not surprising, since it was made with the notoriously sulphury well-water of Burton). But if the drinker could hang on for “as long as fifteen months, one of two things may happen. If you are very unlucky, it will develop a really unpleasant flavour. Most bottles, however, should come back into condition with a flavour that is different from the original but which some connoisseurs consider to be even better.”
My one experience of “off” White Shield was in the Long Ship, when I ordered a bottle that fobbed furiously as it was opened, with foam pouring out onto the bar top. Not realizing, in my inexperience that this was a signal of bad beer ahead, I left the bottle to sit on the bar counter and calm down while I talked to the friends I was with. As we talked, we grew aware of a strong smell of apples. When I finally picked up the White Shield to pour it out, it became clear that the beer was the source of the appley aroma – at a guess (not that I had any clue at the time) I’d say the yeast in the bottle had gone overtime on producing ethyl caproate (alias ethyl hexanoate).
Since then I’ve noticed apples as one of the regular background flavours of White Shield, suggesting it’s a characteristic of the strain of yeast used to brew the beer, though it’s never been so overpowering again. That mid-1970s White Shield was brewed in the Burton Unions at Bass in Burton upon Trent, Subsequently sales of the beer dropped to a point where Bass decided it was not economic to brew it at a plant designed to make thousands of barrels at a time, and production of White Shield went on a journey around the country, being made at one point in Sussex.
It returned to Burton earlier this decade (where, until I pointed it out, the redesigned label said IPA went on the journey to India from Burton via Cape Horn – tee hee, wrong cape, wrong continent, wrong direction). Back at Burton, White Shield has been a remarkable, and cheering success, gathering considerable sales in supermarkets: at first it was brewed in the small museum brewery plant in a corner of the Bass (now Coors) campus, but as I write, production is being moved to the main brewery, where it will be lifted to 100,000 barrels a year.
Today, of course, you don’t need Richard Boston’s codebook to tell you how old your White Shield is, since it has a clear Best Before date on the label, which looks to be exactly two years after it was bottled. But does it still mature in the same way? Four years ago I put a bottle of WS aside to test this out, and yesterday I opened it alongside a bottle that was only five months old.
This year’s brew was creamy and dry, with hints of apple strudel, a tiny amount of sulphur on the nose, slightly grassy, with toffee maltiness in the background and hints, if you looked hard, of mint and Marmite. The bitterness was only apparent if you sought it, and certainly did not dominate, as it does with too many modern IPAs, but added to the structure of a beautifully complex, subtle, well-orchestrated beer.
The four-year-old version was clearly related, and very drinkable, but everything was now sharper, tarter. The Marmite notes were meatier, the apple more acidic, and a vague strain of chocolate had appeared from somewhere, though the toffee/maltiness still acted as a foundation. This was definitely a beer to enjoy with food, though I was disappointed that, as the glass emptied and the beer warmed, it became, in the last fifth of a pint or so, flabby and thin.
It’s an experiment worth repeating, but next time I’ll try to remember to drink the beer at three years old, that is, one year past its BB date, rather than four, since I suspect it will hold up better: this is a beer with only 5.6 per cent alcohol by volume, and not designed for lengthy ageing.
With the announcement by O’Hanlon’s this summer that they can no longer afford to brew Thomas Hardy’s Ale, this means that White Shield and Gale’s Prize Old Ale (now with Fuller’s in Chiswick) are the only two left of 1976’s five surviving bottle-conditioned British beers (Guinness having stopped bottle-conditioning its bottled stout, and Courage Imperial Russian Stout having vanished in the early 1990s). Long may it pour.