Stories For The Layman: Shepherd Neame Brilliant Ale
It’s easy to look backward as well as forward for a brewery of a certain size. If you’re lucky enough to be part of one with a substantial body of work behind it – such as Shepherd Neame or Fuller’s for example, then you’ve got at your hands a treasure trove of ideas and recipes gathering dust in some vault somewhere, waiting for the likes of John Keeling or Richard Frost to pull them, blinking, into the modern sunlight and give us all a taste of the past.
You can dismiss beers such as Shepherd Neame’s new Brilliant Ale (4% abv) – the latest in a short rerun of older Sheps recipes – as raiding the storecupboard when you’ve got nothing fresh in for dinner. Fuller’s managed to avoid this trap with the excellent Past Masters range by simply putting their money where their mouth is, creating beers that not only stand up in their respective categories, but in most cases exceed them. Shep’s don’t seem to enjoy the same kudos as Fuller’s do, but deserve applause at least for thinking of other things to keep us interested.
Yes, they’ve installed the Pilot Plant, following the likes of Brains, Bath Ales and – my personal favourite – Thwaites – to flex a few unused muscles in terms of brewing ‘off-menu’, but realistically people will always, no matter how hard they try, see these ventures as only satellites orbiting the big-brand planet. Like I said, it’s not a bad thing at all, but doesn’t feel quite authentic to me. Playing on heritage is the one ace in the pack that these guys do have, no matter how far removed those beers can sometimes end up from those halcyon days.
I like these beers. They feel cosy in many respects – even after reading up on Brilliant Ale and understanding that actually it’s a complete update, using Cascades rather than EKG’s, but hey – at least it’s their recipes to mess about with. IPA was pleasantly robust and sweet, with a decent bitterness and yes, a ‘British’ feel about. Double Stout was an oaky, roasty mouthful that – again – felt like a big hug. Brilliant Ale is simple, sure; light – almost flintily lager-esque in the nose, slightly sweet with a decent, dry finish – but it’s good. I’d buy it over Master Brew and Spitfire any day.
Plus, it may be anathema to some to even mention it, but the labels are excellent; even up close the attention to detail is gorgeous. Brown bottles only seal the deal. You see pump clips like these on the bar, and you’re likely to buy it.
…And I’m glad that Shep’s are giving me that chance. These beers don’t feel ersatz or bandwagon-jumping. I want my big brewers to give me something different – something that the newer guys can’t. A story, perhaps – not just endless interpretations of newer styles which will always feel exactly like that. Novelty. They are widely available and offer a glimpse of heritage to the layman; which I think is really important. The average drinker is probably not going to get too hung up on authenticity but buy into the idea of beers like this – reconnecting in a whole new way with the brewery in the process.
I’ll be watching to see what crops up next. There; you have my attention.
Disclosure: I was sent the bottle of Brilliant Ale by Shepherd Neame, but bought the rest.