19 March 2010

Going mainstream

It looks like the puritans at Shepherd Neame have taken their hatred of beer to a new level. Time was, their crazy clear-glass bottles were shipped in a box, so there was an outside chance you could dig into a fresh one and get a beer that hadn't been lightstruck. Lidl occasionally get Shepherd Neame beers in on special and I've noticed with the last few that they've been stacked on cardboard trays, wrapped in clear plastic, letting the light have its evil way with the hop flavours through two layers of packaging. That's devotion to the cause of ruining beer, Shepherd Neame. I salute you.

Latest in the pile-'em-high, skunk-'em-fast series is Early Bird, a very pale and watery-looking ale of 4.5% ABV. The label makes great claims of hoppiness, and while hops are definitely present, they're not the dominant feature. Above all, to me, this beer is carbonic. The nose is a blend of noxious CO2 and pungent lightstruck hops. It's a bit calmer on the palate, tasting primarily of fizzy mineral water infused with a stinging acid bitterness, plus just a smidge of toffee malt somewhere in the middle. This is no way to put a beer together: little more than fizz and skunk. My guess is that Shepherd Neame are not, in fact, sending teams of tasters around to supermarkets to assess the quality of their finished product. If it involved drinking beers like this it probably counts as an unsafe working environment.

Sticking with supermarkets, I gave another one of the new Marks & Spencer range a whirl recently. After a yucky experience with the Cropton's Yorkshire Bitter I had passed over the Lincolnshire Best Bitter, until I noticed that it's brewed by Bateman's. I don't think I've ever had a Bateman's beer I didn't enjoy. This one is lighter than 4.9% ABV would suggest and, despite the lovely caskalike loose-bubbled head, is actually quite gassy. I had to walk around the earthy flavour a couple of times before I got what it was: this beer is very similar to the excellent Bateman's XXXB, only lighter of body. There's some sweet caramel at the front, but the funky depth is what really stood out for me. The problem, then, was I wanted it to be fuller and stronger; to be, in short, XXXB. However pleasant a beer may be, it's never a good thing when it reminds you how much you'd prefer to be drinking a different one.

Still, it's good to see that M&S are heeding my continued wheedling and putting the English ales from their new range out on the shelves of Irish shops. I mean, it's only a matter of time now until we get the Cornish IPA, right?

9 comments:

  1. I got the Early bird in my local lidl unskunked. And it was lovely. Slightly sulphorous but in a good way. Which makes it worse that the packaging is so bad. To make a very nice beer and then ruin it for the vast majority of people who get it with unwise bottling is a shame.

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  2. So, let's get this straight. You're a fan of Shepherd Neame? Got it!

    It is an odd position for them to take though isn't it? Still it won't affect me as I'd never dream of buying any.

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  3. ‘After a yucky experience with the Cropton's Yorkshire Bitter’ — I had a similar experience with the same beer the other night, reinforcing my belief that a lot of micros shouldn’t do bottle-conditioned, on the other hand M&S’s London Porter is wionderful.

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  4. Jonathan6:45 a.m.

    Every Shep Neame I have ever had, whether draught or bottled has been bland and watery, except their porter which I picked up in Asda some years ago which was, amazingly for them, full of flavour.

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  5. Shepherd Neame porter is their best beer by a long way -- really very good in bottles and (although sometimes maybe a bit watery) a very good session beer on cask.

    And Boak told me, in something of a state of shock, that she had a really nice pint of Shepherd Neame Spitfire last night. (I had one a couple of years back, so knew it was possible, but she really didn't think it was.)

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  6. Another good blog BN - just wondering about M&S though; are you getting these beers in Dublin? If so, which branch are you going to? I occasionally go into the M&S on Grafton St. but all I ever see alcohol-wise are endless shelves of wine.

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  7. Dublin unless stated otherwise. Jervis branch, generally. The selection expands and contracts a lot.

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  8. I have a similar bias against both Shepherd Neame beers and beer in clear glass bottles. However, my wife picked me up a couple of Early Bird beers (wonders will never cease!) and I was pleasently surprised to find them refreshing, a little hoppy and quite drinkable!

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  9. I've got a soft spot for Shep, but a lot of their beers do tend to be very similar. Got to say though, I've had a lot of them from a bottle and I've never really had problems with light strike. Must've been lucky.

    Chunk.

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