Tastings School - Worthy of praise

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Worthy of praise

Pete Brown visits the Worthington White Shield Brewery to explore the history of one of Burton's most legendary beers.

A few months after the closure of the Coors visitors’ centre and Museum of Brewing in Burton- Upon-Trent – after the protest march through town and the packed public meetings, after the petitions and outcry from all quarters of the beer community, after the shire horses and the archives had been re-homed – four tourists wandered into Burton’s tourist information office, which sits in the same building as the former museum.

It’s a strange atmosphere in this small concession in an otherwise locked and shuttered red brick complex – even the lights above the banks of leaflets seem to shine more weakly than they once did.

The tourists looked at these leaflets for a while, then approached the counter. “Hi, we’re here from South Africa and we’ve come to see the brewing museum.” “I’m afraid it’s closed down now, sir,” came the reply.

“Oh, OK. Well, what about the rest of the history of brewing in Burton? We’re keen beer lovers, you see, and Burton’s such a historic brewing town, and…” “Well… um… if you walk back into the town centre from here you’ll go past where the breweries used to be. And there are several pubs on the High Street.” The tourists waited until they realised there was no more to come, then shuffled out into the bright October sun, ready to contemplate what else they could do with their holiday having travelled 6,000 miles to the East Midlands.

I witnessed this and it nearly broke my heart. But I also felt a little guilty because I was there to visit a part of Burton’s brewing legacy those tourists would have loved, just around the corner form the tourist information office, in an empty yard, next to abandoned stables, sits a small, beery oasis in an empty tarmac desert.

Some people still call it the Museum Brewery. But the white shield and dagger logo that sits above the door, a modern interpretation of a very old design, gives notice of the extraordinary success story that sits inside.

The brewery was opened in 1977 as part of Bass’ 200th birthday party, but by then the kit itself was already 50 years old. It’s a basic tower brewery – a tall central scaffolding holds rickety coppers and mash tuns clad in wood that’s almost black with age. Here and there, girders and pipes protrude, threatening to snag a coat or give a knock to the head. The asthmatic electric winch that hoists the grain sacks to the mill at the top of the tower is the newest piece of kit in the whole place, and this was installed only grudgingly by the man who manages to keep the whole thing running via a combination of tender love and the occasional blow with a spanner.

The White Shield Brewery would remind sci-fi fans of the tardis, a rickety, organic machine that’s cantankerous but always works wonders in the end. And head brewer Steve Wellington may well be a Time Lord. Burton’s brewing water has legendary healing properties, and St Modwen, who founded the town, allegedly lived to be 130 years old. Steve has drunk an awful lot of it in his time, and has the looks and energy of a man with a good 10 years to go before reaching retirement age.

But Steve came out of retirement to run this place after a working lifetime as a brewer. “Bass sent me around the world,” he recalls. “I launched Bass Ale in America, and built breweries in Africa. But in time I came home and my wife told me that every time our kids saw a plane high in the sky they’d say, ‘Oh, look, it’s Daddy’, so I packed it in.” The lure of the museum brewery proved too tempting though. Steve came back into Burton to recreate its historic beers in limited runs. “I must have brewed two or three hundred beers since then,” muses Steve. “Got through most of ‘em too.” Then, in 2001, Steve heard that Worthington White Shield was without a home.

Worthington’s was never a frontrunner in Burton’s glory days.

Like most of his contemporaries, the first William Worthington came to Burton in the 18th century to brew sweet, strong, nut-brown ale for the Russian Imperial Court. Worthington’s was one of the handful of brewers that survived the collapse of the Baltic trade, and followed Allsopp’s and Bass into India Pale Ale in the 1820s. By the end of the 19th century, Worthington’s IPA was known as White Shield after the distinctive design that decorated the bottle from the 1870s.

Pale ale made Burton the greatest brewing town the world has ever seen, and when its civic status was recognised, a Worthington was its first mayor. But Beer Town’s fortunes waned, and its 30-odd breweries began to disappear. In 1926 Bass and Worthington merged. Through the 20th century, the brewer tried to make sense of having too many beers in a declining market, and Worthington, despite being just as popular as Bass – and outselling it at times – was prioritised behind Bass.

By the millennium most people knew Worthington’s as a creamflow bitter, some distance down the pecking order from Tetley’s and John Smiths.

But to aficionados the name meant White Shield – one of the last surviving bottle-conditioned beers before the recent craft beer revival. It was hard to find, but eagerly sought – a secret, cultish delight.

But White Shield was surplus to requirements for Bass, and was shunted around from brewer to brewer, one of those beers that, rightly or wrongly, was seen as a pale shadow of its former glory.

In 2001, it was being brewed at the King & Barnes brewery in Horsham, Sussex. When it was announced that that brewery was about to close, amid the outcry and rush to save beers such as Brakspear, few people noticed the footnote to the story: Worthington White Shield was about to follow former competitors such as Allsopp and Thomas Salt into obscurity.

But one brewer did. “I just phoned up and asked if we could have it, and we brought it back home,” says Steve casually, neglecting to mention that the beer was ceremonially welcomed home by an honour guard from the Staffordshire Regiment, and celebrated with the construction of a new £80,000 bottling line.

By this time of course, Bass was owned by Interbrew and brewed in Luton. Coors, the new inheritor of Burton’s brewing heritage, had a premium bottled ale-shaped hole in its portfolio, and White Shield fitted perfectly.

Sales grew steadily, and in 2006 it was proclaimed best bottled beer at the Great British Beer Festival. A year later Steve was named Brewer of the Year by the All Party Parliamentary Beer Group.

White Shield is a stunning beer: bags of fruit, loads of spices, a hint of freshly baked bread, some treacle, caramel and toffee, all suspended in a fine balance, with no one flavour overpowering the other.

Steve and his fellow brewer Jo White create a welcoming atmosphere that means people just drop in for a chat. Once brewing is finished, long afternoons in the Brewery Tap, the bar in the visitors’ centre, would follow, soundtracked by Jo’s filthy laugh, which, according to one colleague, “could pickle cabbage.” It’s not quite the same now the visitors’ centre has closed, and Steve and Jo are visibly less happy now they’re alone in this vast complex. But initial rumours that the brewery might share the fate of the visitors’ centre have proved to be about as far off the mark as it’s possible to get.

In August 2008, Coors signed a distribution deal to put White Shield into UK supermarket Sainsbury’s.

“Before Sainsbury’s we were running at about 450 barrels a year,” says Steve.

“Now we’re running at about a thousand barrels, our maximum capacity, and there’s talk of another retailer wanting to take us too.” It’s great that Sainsbury’s stock the beer, but why have they seen it take off so dramatically?

“I think it’s two things,” says Steve.

“There are lots of people who love this beer but could never find it, and now they can. On top of that, it has this modern new look that’s bringing in younger people to try it.” But success is taking its toll on the creaking old brewery. Parts need to be replaced, and if growth continues, production may have to be moved elsewhere. But maybe that wouldn’t spell the end of this idiosyncratic little brewery. “People have been looking around the visitors’ centre and I think they were taken aback by just how much is here,” says Steve.

“Negotiations are happening and everyone seems a bit more bullish about the future.” Could it be too much to hope for that the visitors’ centre might reopen with the Museum Brewery in place, recreating old beers again with a resurgent White Shield moved to a bigger brewery within Coors’ sprawling Burton complex? When you’re here, with a glass of this wonderful beer in your hand, it’s easy to believe that its perfect blend of tradition and modernity could be the crucible from which Beer Town can rise again.

White Shield Brewery
Horninglow Street, Burton-Upon-Trent,
Staffordshire, DE14 1YQ England
Coors Brewers Ltd
137 High Street, Burton-Upon-Trent,
Staffordshire DE14 1JZ England
Tel: +44 (0)1283 511 000