Shepherd Neame, like most British institutions, is quite happy thank you very much doing things the way they’ve always been done. It’s the reason why, when you open a bottle of their beer, a puff of Kent countryside fills your senses and sipping one of their traditional ales is like drinking in an early morning walk through muddy green woodlands or watching a Sunday afternoon cricket match.
Shepherd Neame is, quite rightfully, fiercely proud of its brewing heritage and had never once in its illustrious history set foot over the fence of the Garden of England to brew a beer. Until 2013 that was, when long-serving Shepherd Neame brewer Stewart Main popped up suddenly at Sigtuna Brygghus near Stockholm to brew their first ever off-site collaborative beer.
It was hardly surprising the two breweries would pick a traditional English style – a barley wine laced with generous helpings of English hops and then aged in Blanton’s bourbon casks .
It’s a beer that was over 300 years in the making, but has it been worth the wait?
I was lucky enough to be there on brew day back in 2013 and was one of the first to try it from the bottle around 6 months later. Let me take you back to what I said about it then:
“To look at this beer it oozes class. However lifting it to my nose and taking a deep sniff I knew instantly that, for me at least, the wait for this beer is not quite over.
“Barley Wine, one of the booziest styles of British beer there is, is often accompanied by fusel alcohol notes, boosting the raisin and fig characters of this malty beer style, turning them hot.
“By ageing it in bourbon casks Shepherd Neame and Sigtuna have turned the gas up even higher, with distinct whiskey notes and vanilla from the wood combining in a alcoholic hit so powerful that should you be wearing contact lenses when sniffing it you may be in danger of melting them.
“Push past the alcohol and there’s a refined beer below, with soft chocolate, nuts and candy flavours courtesy of the East Kent Goldings and Fuggles hops. There’s a syrupy malt sweetness there too which with time will hopefully embrace the alcohol and in a very polite and English way ask it kindly to calm down.
“As always tradition can’t be rushed and neither should this beer be. My recommendation is to buy this as a keeper and age it for as long as your willpower will allow”.
So I waited. Until last night – 5 years after my first sip. But had anything changed?
Gone is the nasty laboratory alcohol, replaced by smooth tones of prunes soaked in eau de vie and those chocolate liqueurs bought out at Christmas that only your nan likes. Yes it’s still spiritous, but in a good, warming way, with woody vanilla and wet leather tempering the burn.
We often think of time in a negative way – as something that steals things from us. But the opposite can be true when it comes to a beer like this one, where time gives us more than it takes and makes the wait worthwhile.