For only the second time in its history, The Session comes to Ireland. This one's in the care of my good friend and drinking buddy Reuben, and the topic is Thanks To The Big Boys. It's something we know a bit about here, with two foreign breweries controlling 90-something per cent of the beer market. But I'm not going to talk about them.
Instead, a different foreign multinational which operates in Ireland, though three beers it doesn't actually sell here. These came courtesy of Reuben himself, via Kristy and the MolsonCoors people in the UK. All three are brewed at the William Worthington Brewery which is sited in the National Brewery Museum at MolsonCoors's base in Burton-on-Trent, recently developed and expanded under the supervision of master brewer Steve Wellington, one of the most respected names in English beer. So how does the Canadio-American giant do when it comes to quaint English ale?
The only truly modern one in the bunch is Red Shield, a brand extension from the well-known White Shield IPA. This suffers a bit from the problem Pete Brown identified with Stella Black a while ago: breweries should not include a beery colour in a beer name if the beer isn't actually that colour. Brown's Law. So Red Shield isn't red, it's a golden blonde affair throwing off bittersweet scents of posh cloudy lemonade from the the get-go. After it you get lovely summery fresh peachy flavours, deepening to boiled sweets with the bitterness asserting itself as it warms. I'm not seeing much in common with the stoic orangey warmth of White Shield, but as a lightly-sparkled zingy sunny day refresher, served chilled, Red Shield is impossible to dislike.
Next up is Worthington E. An odd choice for resurrection, this, as it was previously best known from its time as a dodgy bitter back in the 1970s, before England learned how to brew nice keg beer. Prior to that it had been a well-respected Burton pale ale, and the recipe used here is one from 1965. It is, for rheumey-eyed hankerers after the classic beers from England's Big Six, the closest thing to Bass ale as it was in its heyday. (For those not familiar with the history, Bass acquired the Worthington brewery in 1927, and in 2002 MolsonCoors took possession of the Bass brewery, the recipes and everything else except the Bass name).
I can't imagine this bottle-conditioned version is much like the cask classic. It's fizzy as all hell with an irritating thick mattress of foam blocking access to the slightly hazy dark amber body beneath. The nose is subtly hoppy, reminding me of the not unpleasant stale beer aroma of a mostly-empty pub on a Saturday afternoon. The first pull delivers sticky, hard caramel followed by a mildly bitter orange oiliness. It keeps its balance and finishes on a classic Burton spark of gunpowder sulphur. In that typical English way it's understated without being at all bland; but the whole is let down by the overactive prickly fizz. This beer deserves more quiet dignity than the bottle affords it.
Last of the line-up is P2, a name which for me conjures images of Roberto Calvi hanging from Blackfriars Bridge with bricks in his pockets. No, I wasn't part of the focus group when this was launched. It's a full-on big-flavoured imperial stout, making waves at 8% ABV normally associated with beers in the 10-12% bracket. Like all the best imperial stouts the hops have been laid on heavy and bitter, giving an invigorating vegetal tang to the foretaste. The middle is all smooth and woody sherry followed by luxuriously silky dark chocolate. 8% ABV: I check the label again like a drunk in a cartoon. When the dark booziness leaves the stage the hops stir themselves for a slightly metallic encore. P2 is one of those complex but very drinkable beers that expert British brewers excel at.
Of course, any sane beer drinker knows that brewery size is no measure of beer quality, and that delicious beer can come from a Fortune 500 company just as easily as a tiny family-run one, so long as attention is paid to the ingredients and the methods. MolsonCoors may not be quite Fortune 500, but they seem to know what they're doing at the William Worthington plant.
Thanks to Reuben and the MolsonCoors UK folk for the bottles.
Next month The Session crosses the Irish Sea to be looked after by Mr. Brown himself, but we're taking it back in December when Steve in Cookstown will be at the reins.