Go for a Burton with White Shield pale ale
PUBLISHED: 10:09 11 July 2013 | UPDATED: 10:09 11 July 2013
I was strolling through the beer aisle in Morrison’s last week when I spotted an old friend on the shelves – Worthington’s White Shield, a strong, 5.6 per cent, classic pale ale, a sedimented beer that will continue to improve in bottle like good wine.
White Shield is a powerful link to the revolution in brewing that took place in Burton-on-Trent in the 19th Century. The first “India Ale” was brewed in East London for export to “the Raj” running the sub-continent at the time of the British Empire. But it was Burton brewers, including Allsopp, Bass and Worthington, who developed the style. They turned it into a major export brand and transformed brewing in Britain.
Burton became an important brewing centre as a result of fine water available from springs in the Trent Valley. The water is rich is such sulphates as gypsum and magnesium. Salts are a flavour enhancer and draw out both malt and hop character in beer. It was in Burton that brewers were able to use the pale malts made available by new malting techniques at the turn of the 19th Century to fashion a style of beer that was radically different to the brown ales, porters and stouts that had dominated the 18th Century.
India Pale Ale, as the name implies, was first brewed for the British colonies, but a weaker version called pale ale was developed for the domestic market. Pale ales became the first national brands with the aid of the fast-growing railway system.
William Worthington was one of the leading Burton brewers. He carved out a different path to his competitors by concentrating on bottled beer. His products were in such demand that he rented a warehouse near St Pancras Station in London and brought beer down by train from Burton via Derby.
Bass and Worthington merged in the 1920s but White Shield retained its clear identity as a bottled product and one that was “live” at a time when most brewers were moving to filtered and pasteurised packaged beers. In the 1990s, when Bass began to lose interest in sedimented beers in cask and bottle, White Shield was sidelined and moved to smaller breweries within the Bass group. When Bass sold its breweries to Coors in 2000 there were fears the beer would disappear completely but it was taken back to Burton and brewed in a small pilot brewery alongside the National Brewery Museum. At first production was a negligible 300 barrels a week but it grew to 1,000 and the brand was given new labels that stress the heritage of Burton and India Pale Ale.
Production grew to such an extent that the beer has been moved to the main Bass brewery and a draught cask version is on sale in the bar of the National Brewery Centre.
White Shield is brewed with pale malt with a touch of crystal malt for colour and flavour. The hops are all English varieties: Challenger, Fuggles and Northdown, which create 40 units of bitterness. Following primary fermentation, the beer is conditioned in bulk for three weeks and is then bottled with a “sticky” yeast – a different strain to the one used for the first fermentation. The yeast sinks to the bottom of the bottle where it continues to turn the remaining malt sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The beer will improve with age.
A Bass brewer once explained to me that after nine months the beer goes through a “sickness period” when it goes out of condition and then returns to drinkable form. I once laid down a bottle for 10 years and when opened it was darker and fruitier with more muted hop bitterness than a young version.
This wonderfully enticing and complex beer has spices, peppery hops, apple fruit and sulphur on the nose – apple and sulphur are characteristics of Burton beers – with juicy malt, tart and tangy hops and spices in the mouth. The long finish has a profound bitter hop note balanced by rich biscuit malt and apple fruit.
It has been named CAMRA Champion Bottled Beer of Britain three times, in 1991, 2000 and 2006. A 500ml bottle costs £2.15 in Morrisons, Tesco and other major stockists.
If you’d like to see where the beer is brewed, I would recommend a visit to the National Brewery Centre in Burton. It has fascinating exhibits that trace the history of brewing in the town and in the rest of the country, with many working models. Interactive displays will interest younger people and there are also brewery dray horses to see in stables on the site.
There’s excellent food available in a restaurant alongside the centre, which has a small William Worthington’s Brewery where you can follow the brewing process and then sample the end results in the bar.
You can get to Derby quickly and easily by train from St Albans and then there’s a short eight-minute second train journey to the home of British brewing. Go for a Burton!
*Follow Roger on Twitter @RogerProtzBeer. He edits the CAMRA Good Beer Guide.