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?