There are any number of reasons why you might have chosen to overlook Worthington’s White Shield during your last visit to the neighborhood bottle shop. It’s unfamiliar, certainly, in that it’s not a domestic offering, and while you might be put off to learn that it’s brewed by Molson Coors, that fact alone is likely the reason it found its way to local store shelves in the first place. Nevertheless, it is a beer of some significance, despite the obvious connotations attached to the current ownership.
For the historian, interest comes from learning that the Worthington name was established in the town of Burton-on-Trent, England, in 1744. White Shield, specifically, dates back to 1829, and in doing so holds the title of the longest surviving English-style IPA. From there, the words “Burton” and “IPA” should be enough to appeal to those the label refers to as “true IPA connoisseurs”.
“Burton” IPAs are among a number of early beer styles whose character was shaped by the chemical makeup of the local water supply. Areas high in bicarbonate gave rise to London Porters and Irish Dry Stouts, while pilsners owe a part of their clean character to the low overall ion count found in the waters around Plzen in the Czech Republic. For Burton-on-Trent, the key components turn out to be magnesium and sulfate, elements which accentuate hop bitterness and contribute to the impression of dryness on the palate. In fact, homebrewers use magnesium sulfate (more commonly known as Epsom salt) to “Burtonize” their water in an effort to capture the uniqueness of this famous brewing region.
Out of the bottle, White Shield is nothing if not a representative example of the Burton style. It begins with a wisp of sulfur that is noticeable only for a second, as the nose is dominated by the impression of mineral water. Further in, flavor components are typically English given the biscuity malt base, hints of toffee, and an earthy mix of grassy and floral hop tones. It’s very dry, with a salty aftertaste and lingering bitterness that is moderate at best in terms of strength. A light fruitiness rounds things out, but it’s the bitter complexity and ionic influences that really define this hop-forward brew.
In as much as we might revile a brewing conglomerate for assuming control of this historical brand, Molson Coors has maintained White Shield’s award-winning tradition. CAMRA, whose “real ale” seal of approval graces the packaging, has recognized this brew for over 20 years in the category of “Champion Bottle-conditioned Beer”. This approach to fermentation means that this beer is expected to mature over time, with the current batch displaying an “enjoy by” date of March 2014.
Moreover, Molson Coors deserves some amount of credit in returning this beer to its city of origin, since for a time it was brewed outside of Burton when owned by Bass and later King and Barnes. It spent some time in its namesake brewery, the William Worthington Brewery at the National Brewing Centre, but has since moved to the original Bass brewery in Burton to increase production for wider distribution. As to whether not this beer in its current form is true to the 1820’s original, retired brewer Sir Steve Wellington claims the recipe to be “pretty much unchanged” since it debuted almost 200 years ago.
Being an imported style, it will likely appeal to a particular subset of the craft beer drinking public. Even claiming allegiance to the English IPA, if your exposure has been limited to the typical American interpretation, it’s worth noting that many of those focus more on delivering a traditional English malt and hop presence than anything else. Recognizing this helps us to identify White Shield’s appeal. Most every beer we enjoy is a celebration of malt and hops, though recent trends have also brought more attention to yeast’s contribution to the flavor profile in beer. Few, if any, spend much time highlighting water’s role. White Shield is a beer that does just that.
Worthington’s White Shield is produced year-round in 16.9 oz bottles. Look for it at most any craft beer friendly retailer around the Metroplex.
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