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Friday, December 02, 2011

The Surprising Worthington Revival

I toted home a number of beers from Europe, but all but one from Britain were given to me. The last was so interesting I had to buy a bottle myself: Worthington's famous White Shield. Worthington is an ancient brand, and it has been brewed by different breweries over the decades; now it's back in Burton in a little test brewery inside the National Brewery Centre (though the flagship White Shield is brewed at the massive Coors plant that looms over the city). Pete Brown calls the beer "one of the best beers in the world" and he's not wrong. Beyond best, it's one of the most interesting and a wholly unique Burton product. We'll get to that in a moment, but first, a bit of history from Pete:
It traces an unbroken lineage back to the 1830s as one of the genuine IPAs brewed in Burton on Trent and sold in Calcutta. When I was researching Hops and Glory I found records of it being imported to the Calcutta docks. It was dwarfed in size by Bass and Allsopps. but did steady business. Allsopp's is no more, and Bass is in trouble. White Shield has certainly had its ups and downs, almost disappeared after brewing was contracted out from Burton, but was rescued and revived by [brewer] Steve [Wellington] about a decade ago. Since then, it's won Champion Bottled Beer of Britain and Steve has been named Brewer of the Year.
What's especially unlikely about the beer's revival is that it was guided and funded by Coors--now the dominant brewery in the famous old city. (Marston's, with its old Burton union system, is another big brewer, but Coors is the latest king of industrial brewing in the city that invented it.) Coors spent a million pounds and three years on the brewery, and for their trouble they got one of the strangest, most characterful beers in the market. A great bargain from my side, but not one you'd expect Coors to strike.


The Beer
Burton water is famous not only for its hardness, but a distinct diabolical, brimstone quality. A true Burton beer, one that has been pulled up through the gypsum-rich wells, should exhibit the "Burton snatch"--a whiff of unmuted sulfur. For the most part, Burton beers have the snatch engineered out of them; Burton Bridge, a local micro makes lovely, but sulfur-free cask ales, and Marston's, in spite of the union system, is another bland tipple. Worthington's, though, are the real deal. Each beer in the line has the sulfur, from the Bass revival called "E," to Red Shield, a pale, but especially in White Shield, the closest thing you'll find on the planet to a historic IPA.*

Sulfur comes in two varieties, one that smells like a burned match (strange but broadly unobjectionable) and one that smells like rotten eggs (objectionable). I was shocked to find the Worthington line has the latter--a whiff of which will send the unprepared sniffer into involuntary recoil. Amazingly, the nose attunes itself to this assault. The hard water gives a strong mineral structure to the beer that works well with a fairly malty body. It's hoppy, but the hops work in tandem with the salts. I've long heard how Burton water draws out hoppiness, and it's true; the minerality is stiff and crisp, and it frames the hop bitterness. Together, the flavors make one of the most complex beers I've ever sampled. In fact, there's something almost Belgian about the way the aromas, texture, and flavors harmonize. By the end of my pint (and I'm afraid a pint fresh at the brewery is going to be far better than any other mode of delivery--probably far, far better, if the reviews on BeerAdvocate are any measure) I found I was actively enjoying the whiff of sulfur.

A hundred and fifty years ago, Burton was the center of British brewing, and the character of the beers was considered paradigmatic. Other regions despaired of brewing decent pale ales (or despaired of selling their decent pale ales to a public confident they could only be brewed in Burton). I have always understood this intellectually, but sitting down to try Worthington in situ, I finally experienced it. I get it. The flavors are strong and unusual but beguiling. I brought a bottle home with me, but from this side of the ocean, that looks to be a woefully inadequate supply. A truly original beer, and one you must seek out if ever you find yourself in the middle of England.

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*Relatedly, Alan's got an interesting post up about revival styles and how and when they can or should be considered "authentic." The post and comments are worth a read.

8 comments:

Bill Schneller said...

Fascinating info about the water (and the beer). Thanks for sharing it.

Steve Lamond said...

The Burton snatch has always put me off Marstons pedigree, so its strange that you suggest its no longer there. For a real experience of "rotten eggs" sulphur you need to visit Iceland.

Brewers Union Local 180 said...

White Shield is brilliant. It's a shame they stuck me on a plane back to Oregon, as I'll miss it.

Anonymous said...

You "toted home" beer? The last time I came through LAX with beer the customs people pulled me aside for further questions.

Jeff Alworth said...

Anon, I actually had a fantastic moment coming back into the country. We flew Delta's Amsterdam to Portland direct flight and so my port of entry was the Rose City. When I came through customs, the official looked at my passport and smiled. "I read your last post two hours ago," he told me. Amazing. He asked if I was going to the Holiday Ale Fest this weekend and said he'd see me there.

Bob said...

Quite possibly the second best beer in the world, after Orval. An absolute gem of a beer.

Patrick Emerson said...

I love English real ale, but the snatch is just unpleasant. The E tasted good, but you needed to hold your breath while sipping. Luckily the White Shield did not have such an offensive scent. And I wonder if the whole Burton water thing has become just a reflex. Most ale breweries do some kind of Burtonization, but I am not sure it is really necessary. In this day and age, do you really need the salts to achieve the flavors you want? I think not. As a brewer that uses Portland water and who has tried (admittedly clumsily) to Burtonize my water I have to say, the recipe that I replicated with and without salts, tasted just as good without.

Maybe it is time to move on.

olllllo said...

the snatch engineered out of them

This is a spectacular euphemism or it should be.

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