Worthington's White Shield, Molson Coors
Added: Monday, July 1st 2013
Worthington’s White Shield is a powerful link to the revolution in brewing that took place in Burton-on-Trent in the 19th century. While the first “India Ale” was brewed in London by Hodgson at Bow Bridge, it was the big Burton brewers, including Allsopp, Bass, Salt and Worthington, who developed the style. They turned it into a major export brand and transformed brewing in Britain.
Burton became an important brewing centre as a result of fine water available from springs in the Trent Valley. The water is rich is such sulphates as gypsum and magnesium. Salts are a flavour enhancer and draw out both malt and hop character in beer. It was in Burton that brewers were able to use the pale malts made available by new malting techniques at the turn of the 19th century to fashion a style of beer that was radically different to the brown ales, porters and stouts that had dominated the 18th century.
India Pale Ale, as the name implies, was first brewed for the British colonies, but a weaker version called pale ale was developed for the domestic market. Pale ales became the first national brands with the aid of the fast-growing railway system. The official historians of British brewing, Gourvish and Wilson, call pale ale “the beer of the railway age”.
William Worthington was one of the leading Burton brewers. He carved out a different path to his competitors by concentrating on bottled beer, though the company’s draught pale ales should not be ignored. They were labelled simply A, B, C etc and it was Worthington E in keg form that became a major Bass brand in the 1970s.
Bass and Worthington merged in the 1920s but White Shield retained its clear identity as a bottled product and one that was “live” at a time when most brewers were moving to filtered and pasteurised packaged beers. In the 1960s and 70s, when many brewers were phasing out cask-conditioned ales in favour of keg beer, White Shield became a cult drink for aficionados.
In the 1990s, when Bass began to lose interest in sedimented beers in cask and bottle, White Shield was sidelined and moved to smaller breweries within the Bass group before ending up at King & Barnes in Horsham, Sussex. When Bass sold its breweries to Coors in 2000 there were fears the beer would disappear completely but it was taken back to Burton and brewed in the small Museum Brewery alongside the National Brewery Museum. The plant was renamed the White Shield Brewery. At first production was a negligible 300 barrels a week but it grew to 1,000 and the brand was given new labels that stress the heritage of Burton and India Pale Ale.
Production grew to such an extent that the beer has been moved to the main Bass brewery and a draught cask version is on sale in the bar of the renamed National Brewery Centre.
White Shield is brewed with pale malt with a touch of crystal for colour and flavour. Its colour rating is 26, making it quite dark for the style. The hops are Challenger, Fuggles and Northdown, which create 40 units of bitterness. Challenger and Fuggles are copper hops used for bitterness, while Northdown are added at the end of the boil for aroma. Following primary fermentation, the beer is conditioned in bulk for three weeks and is then bottled with a “sticky” yeast – a different strain to the one used for the first fermentation. The sticky yeast sinks to the bottom of the bottle where it continues to turn the remaining malt sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The beer will improve with age. A Bass brewer once explained to me that after nine months the beer goes through a “sickness period” when it goes out of condition and then returns to drinkable form. I once laid down a bottle for 10 years and when opened it was darker and fruitier with a more muted hop bitterness than a young version.
This wonderfully enticing and complex beer has spices, peppery hops, apple fruit and sulphur on the nose – apple and sulphur are characteristics of Burton beers – with juicy malt, tart and tangy hops and spices in the mouth. The long finish has a profound bitter hop note balanced by rich biscuit malt and apple fruit.
It has been named CAMRA Champion Bottled Beer of Britain three times, in 1991, 2000 and 2006. A 500ml bottle costs £2.15 in Morrisons, Tesco and other major stockists.