Worthington White Shield
Worthington White Shield
I don’t remember when I first encountered Worthington White Shield, because it’s been around for ever – almost literally. But I do remember when I first met the man who saved it.
Steve Wellington started brewing at Bass in Burton-on-Trent in 1964. By my reckoning, he’s retired from the brewing business three or four times now. One of these times, he read that Worthington White Shield – a bottle-conditioned beer from one of Burton’s ancient and now long-defunct great houses of brewing – was facing the axe. It had been contracted out and passed around various brewing businesses, gradually losing its sense of purpose along the way. By 2000, the King & Barnes brewery in Sussex was turning out just 1000 barrels a year. When it was announced that King & Barnes was due to close, many assumed this would be the end of the road for a once-great beer.
Steve – who was missing Bass ale since it had been sold to what was then Interbrew, now AB-InBev – convinced Molson Coors, the new bosses in Burton, to bring it back home. He began brewing it in the old Museum Brewery in the middle of the Burton Museum of Brewing’s visitor complex, and steadily restored it to a cult position.
I don’t care how excellent you think your palate is; part of your affection for any beer is driven by circumstance and context. I first got to know Steve – and really become intimate with the beer he rescued – after I decided that it would be a good idea to recreate the original journey of India Pale Ale from Burton to Calcutta by sea for the first time in 140 years. Steve agreed to brew me an old-school Burton IPA, and as we brewed, and I explored the archives in the then closed and deserted museum, we forged our working relationship over White Shield.
It was never overly reverential – Burton wears its history lightly, and Steve embodies that with a deep knowledge and respect that’s always tempered by the remembrance that the most important thing to do with beer is kick back, relax, and enjoy the experience of drinking it.
Worthington was never the biggest or most successful of the Burton IPAs. As is often the case with these things, that’s what saved it. Allsopp’s was the first, Bass the most famous. Worthington first went to India in the 1830s. Originally called Worthington IPA, the white shield was the family crest, still visible above the door of what used to be William Worthington’s town house and is now a firm of lawyers. It first became the name of the beer colloquially, then eventually, officially.
If you’ve grown up on American-style IPAs, you probably wouldn’t use that descriptor for White Shield, which lacks the fresh, fruity profile we now expect. But how do you think your favourite IPA would taste after six months at sea in local ambient temperatures? The beer style we now insist must be drunk within weeks only exists because it was initially designed to withstand months of abuse, and White Shield is the most faithful survivor of that first wave.
It’s not flashy, loud or sensational, but it has depth. Like a favourite album, book or film, it rewards repeated attention. Just when you think you know it, it reveals something you hadn’t noticed before. When you’re lured away by novelty, you find your way back to it and it grounds you, like coming home after a long journey.
I recently found a bottle Steve gave me ten years ago. It was ancient back then, with a ‘best before’ date of October 1988. Apparently, a case of the stuff had been found under a desk in a disused part of the brewing complex.
Thirty years after its lifespan supposedly ended, it poured bright and foamy, thanks to its bottle conditioning. The vibrant orange marmalade notes had gone, replaced by dried fruit and marzipan. It still nagged and urged you to take one more sip, to discover one more layer, even after it was finished.
I recent contributed White Shield to a ‘beer writers’ selection case’ put together by an online retailer. One unhappy recipient took to Twitter to say, ‘Pete Brown doesn’t know what he’s talking about. This beer isn’t even a proper IPA.’
I could have tried to argue or explain. Instead, I imagined what Steve Wellington might do. I laughed out loud, turned off my laptop, and had another beer.
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