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Classic Beer of the Month October 2010: Worthington's White Shield

Worthington's White Shield, 5.6% (UK)

White Shield is the great survivor among British beers.

Worthington's White ShieldFirst brewed in the 1820s, it stems from the era of India pale ale, the strong, hoppy beer that was shipped to India during the days of the Raj.

It’s actually neither that strong nor that hoppy, in comparison with many of the IPAs of today, but, being brewed in the IPA capital, Burton-on-Trent, it has firmer credentials than most.

William Worthington was the brewer that created the beer, but his brewery then became part of the growing Bass empire in 1927. Bass continued to brew the beer through the 20th century, the company’s vast pub estate ensuring there was a ready market for the neat little bottles.

Being bottle conditioned, White Shield was always a more than acceptable substitute for cask ale, if the pub’s draught beer provision was lacking.

Slowly, however, interest in bottled beers faded and by the 1980s/early 1990s, White Shield’s importance in the Bass household had diminished. As sales fell, the company moved it out of Burton and brewed it in Sheffield and then Birmingham.

A brief burst of promotion, involving a new bottle and a new ‘stickier’ yeast to attract supermarket buyers, gave some hope to lovers of this historic beer but it proved shortlived. In 1997, Bass announced that production had fallen to a level that it could not sustain and the beer was to be discontinued.

Loyal drinkers unleashed a backlash and Bass relented, to a degree. They wouldn’t brew it themselves but would license it to King & Barnes in Sussex. K&B, in the process of building up a wide bottle-conditioned beer range, took the beer under its wing and with it promptly won CAMRA’s Champion Bottled Beer of Britain prize.

Somewhat unfortunately however, within days of the award being announced, the Sussex brewer had gone, taken over and closed by Hall & Woodhouse. White Shield was again without a home.

Perhaps encouraged by the publicity generated by the CAMRA award, Bass decided to give White Shield a second chance. They moved production to the tiny, and rather ancient, brewhouse at the Bass Museum (today’s National Brewery Centre), bringing in Steve Wellington (pictured below), who had brewed the beer back in the 1960s, as its new guardian.

Steve WellingtonIt is to Steve’s eternal credit – assisted in no small measure by Jo White – that White Shield stands where it is today.

The beer claimed the CAMRA bottled beer crown again in 2006 and production of the beer has increased steadily to the point where it is now brewed in the main Molson Coors brewery and is actively marketed as part of the company’s beer portfolio.

The beer is a typically complex strong British ale. The clever combination of pale and crystal malt, Fuggle, Challenger and Northdown hops and a yeast that produces fruity flavours during the warm fermentation ensure that each bottle holds plenty of interest.

There are hints of orange and pineapple in the aroma, as both hops and esters come to the fore, and there’s more fruit in the taste, sitting on top of lightly nutty malt.

Traces of almond from the fermentation and bitterness from the hops also wash over the tongue, before it all rounds off with malt, hops and bitterness harmonizing in the finish.

White Shield may not quite be the cult beer it once was, but, as it approaches its 200th birthday, it’s still a fullsome, satisfying beer that has many, many followers.

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