Monday 8 March 2010

The White Shield Brewery

Carling, and therefore by association Molson Coors, are something of dirty words within the beer enthusiasts world. I've been guilty of encouraging the general dissing of the brands of this "Multinational family" brewer. Of course, the reason for my unacceptable representation of the UK's number one lout brand was for the purpose of winding up one of their Communications Partners so that I would be invited to take part in a brewing experience on the legendary White Shield brewery. You know the brewery, the one on which Pete Brown brewed Calcutta IPA before he then took it half way around the world, just to gain a bit of attention. Not being quite as successful an attention seeker as Pete, my quest simply consisted of struggling down the notorious car-park known as the M6 one Sunday night, so I could be available to help Steve Wellington brew on his magnificent traditional tower brewery-in-a-shed. This was all made possible thanks to aforementioned Communication Partner and the success of my general baiting of said person. I love it when a plan comes together.

Turning up in beer town there is no doubt about its main function, the key industry of Burton; Hanging in the air was the unmistakable aroma of wort on the boil. That delicious combination of malt and hops is unmistakable and somewhat alluring. If it wasn't for the fact that I have been told that if I can't say anything nice I should say nothing, I would report that my thoughts at this point were; "goodness, they really do put hops in Carling?". As I was to find out in due course, we should perhaps be a little more careful about giving these people so much disregard, after finding out the quality of the hospitality we were to be awarded, I even started to feel guilty when sniggering at the "Made from 100% British Barley" hoarding that faced me at the road junction.

If the truth be known I have been somewhat excited and extremely honoured to be permitted the pleasure of helping the ever enthusiastic Steve Wellington to brew on his pride and joy. Possibly one of the oldest running microbrewery plants in the country, which is responsible for brewing White Shield, Red Shield, P2 Stout and Worthington E as well as various beers for the pubs in the locale. Possibly the only working copper that is actually made from copper, as the use of such a material has long since been frowned upon by many brewing scholars. Indeed, much of the plant is lined with copper including until recently, the fermenters, which now lie idle in favour of easier to clean stainless cylindrical vessels.

And so with trepidation I entered the brewery on the Monday morning and met with Steve and his assistants. I've met Steve before when he had explained all about No1 barley wine to me last year. At the time I also had a great conversation with him about Ratcliff's Ale; I'd been more jealous of Pete Brown over his tasting of the legendary ale than his previous brewing experience with Steve. Despite previously discovering that this brewing legend was actually a great down to earth and friendly guy, I still felt a pang of humbleness at getting to brew with him.

The brewery is housed in a building that is smaller than I imagined. It's nominally a 5 barrel plant which theoretically means it can produce about 1440 pints of beer from every mash. It is a tower brewery and so it is stacked on 3 levels. I'm sure it would have been possible to get it into a smaller building, if one had tried really hard. I somehow thought that a national centre for brewing would have been able to afford a few more bricks.

It soon became clear that Steve has nurtured this little gem despite reluctance from the owners to invest significantly in the plant. It seems that somewhat unorthodox methods for hoisting the malt up two floors were originally used by Steve. Putting a rope around the pulley in the ceiling and tying it to a Land rover which was then driven across the yard didn't pass muster with the safety officer who was passing one day. Resourcefulness seems to be a key quality of the small staff team here. An antique clutch winch has been sourced, installed and operates brilliantly hoisting the bags of grain effortlessly into the hopper.

On this occasion we brewed Brewery Tap. A beer only to be sold through the Brewery Tap, as it so happens; the bar that will serve cask beer in the museum when it gets running again later this spring.

A key difference between my brewery and this slightly-past-its-best piece of early 20th century engineering is that despite its simplicity it still has labour saving devices where it matters. From the hopper the grain is lifted by screw lift to the grist mill and then drops into a grist case. The crushed grain is then controlled through a hand-adjusted screwed shutter into the grist wetter. I've seen various forms of these in microbreweries but they mainly consist of a simple water spray in a larger grain shoot. On this occasion there are paddles in a horizontal tube that mix the grain before ejecting it into the mash tun. No mash paddle necessary and there is even a thermometer in the mash wetter so the brewer has no excuse for not getting a nice even 65.5oC mash with superb homogeneity.

Having mashed in we retire for the obligatory mash rest coffee time. I prefer breakfast at this point, bacon sandwich will do, but as the museum cafe has yet to open, and still a little too early to drink beer, we settled for a mug of hot liquid. As it was my appetite for knowledge about the brewery and how it fits with Molson Coors was more important. Steve very happily filled me in on the detail of how the owners see the justification of continuing to support the plant.

Steve describes White Shield as the "Halo above the ale brands". I think that means the same as "brand enhancement" that I've mentioned before. Perhaps this is a difficult concept to really understand. It shows how fickle and unpredictable the premium beer market is.

A case in point is the rather unfortunately failed brand Worthington 1744. I might be slightly upsetting my hosts by reminding readers of this unfortunate attempt to develop a national cask brand. I think there is an important lesson to be learnt from this experiment and there is a need for the beer world to understand the detail. I put it down to a combination of provenance and market saturation coupled with the fact that by trying to make a product with mass appeal there has to be some compromise made with regard to flavour. The section of the market that is not interested in provenance, prefers less challenging flavours and is perhaps a little unadventurous in choice of products already have their choice; be it cream flow, something black, Irish and ubiquitous or cold and fizzy, the choice is made. For the rest of the beer consumers something that has no real history as a brand, lacks any decent flavours and doesn't tug at the heart strings as a local "family brewers" product fails on all counts. Just to top it off, any ale brand that attempts to grow too big will fail.

That's quite sufficient pummelling of the, to be fair, extremely resilient punch bag of Molson Coors, bless them. The point I'm trying to get to is that there is some evidence of realisation that there has to be a more subtle approach to this sector of the market. It's about a craft, a craft that is in certain evidence in the White Shield brewery. You cannot operate a plant such as this with nothing more than a brewing science degree and a mash filter operating manual. It takes real passion and commitment and a great deal of gritty determination to make a plant such as this work. Every product nurtured on this brewery shows through in its beer's characteristics, and even when moved onto the bigger lauter tuns of the main brewery, as White Shield has done, the product matching overseen by Steve ensures that passion is not lost.

And while some sectors of the beer world sneer at the brewed-in-a-shed pongy ale products and point to big brewers as champions of consistency, I can look at the White Shield brewery and see that craft brewing is still alive and strong in the centre of one of the biggest beer factories in the UK.

We returned to the brewhouse to start the sparge. Jo, Steve's assistant, is starting to make me feel quite dizzy with her running up and down the stairs. The labour saving advantages of the mash wetter and grain hoist seem to now be lost; In order to inspect the top of the mash tun, when you are located only a a few feet below at the underback, you first have to descend to the ground floor and then ascend back up to the top level via a separate set of spiral stairs. Despite my assertion that in fact the sparge arm was still rotating nicely, being as helpful as I could, still Jo felt a quick look was in order before she went back to do a bit more on cleaning the fermenter that was to take this lovely wort.

It dawned on me that this is true old fashioned craft brewing.

While the wort boiled we sat outside. We were blessed with a sunny day, if a little cold. We sat out in the sun for lunch drinking various bottles of Red Shield, Worthington E and P2. This, of course, all completely essential to check out the relative qualities of the products. I got to further discover various plans regarding the brewery. Not surprisingly the existing brewery is to be finally retired. Although magnificent it is impossible to see how an ageing piece of brew kit could continue to work without significant uneconomically viable refurbishment. A new brewery is essential. Steve has been badgering his bosses for a replacement for some time. Only last week he has finally been given the go-ahead for a 22½ barrel plant. He can now get well over 7 barrels out of his existing 5 barrel plant so Steve reckons on getting at least 30 per brew on the new one.

Boil finished it was time to cool the wort. These days even the most money scrimping brewer buys a paraflow heat exchanger. I'd heard about coolers that permitted the hot wort to flow down a rippled radiator style open cooler. I'd always believed that they were prone to terrible infection problems. Here I was looking at one of the very devices I'd been told should never be used in modern brewing. Steve swears by it. Cleaned properly and with the flow adjusted just right they provide perfect cooling and the aeration is brilliant. Perhaps not as energy efficient as it could be - the dumped water was barely tepid so much flow was required, but it's nice to see a traditional method used to such great effect.

Finally a few visitors from Stone brewery passed by. Apparently researching IPA styles, and here was me thinking the Yanks had gotten IPA stitched up by now. More beer was sampled, well it would be rude not to extend hospitality to our colonial cousins, and it would be rude not to join them.

I left the brewery promising to return when the new plant gets going, hopefully later this year. Jo had got the beer all cooled, the yeast pitched and the whole brewery cleaned up while we were hob nobbing it with the Stone guys. For an old and traditional brewery it's still quite efficient and the whole brewday around 6 hours. Pretty good going.

I passed by the old square fermenters, empty and dormant. Looked up at the square slate beer collection vessel. Passed by the modern stainless fermenters all full of various fermenting liquids and marvelled at the significance of the brands that Steve is nuturing forward for inclusion into the portfolio of this big producer. From a distance the little brewhouse might well be dwarfed by the main brewery stood behind, but somehow that old girl seems to stand tall and proud and unshaken by encroaching brewplant capable of many millions more barrels per year.

There is one thought that struck me from my visit, and yes you can say I am swayed by the hospitality of my hosts, but without the great financial support of Molson Coors, this grand old brewery would have ceased production long ago. Allowing this brewery to continue has brought White Shield back and promises to launch Red Shield later in the year. Beers like Worthington E may also come back, although the use of that particular letter in the name, and it's association with a particular drug, is causing some problems. P2 Stout I'd like to think will hit the markets at some time. At 8% it might not have mass appeal but I can promise the 2½ year matured bottle I tried was fantastic.

With accountants always worried about return on investment perhaps I'm too hard on Carling. I'm never going to pretend to understand why it is so popular, but because it is popular there is money available to nurture great brewers like Steve who in turn fight for the survival of all that is encapsulated in White Shield. I can feel a little bit of gratitude for not only the opportunity to see this legend at work but also for some great beers we can look forward to.

And so still, we can expect great things of this brewery, of it's products and of the image they can project; and project still a feeling of craft still strong in a sea of brand awareness and shareholder dividends.


Brewers Union Local 180 said...

For Christmas I want a paraflow heat exchanger.

Cooking Lager said...

Did you get any free Carling after the tour?

Jim Johanssen said...

I found a cool set of clips on the White Shield Brewery site were some guys get a day to watch them brew. Very cool and one sees the little brewery in action. A five barrel Tower brewery with a Steel's Masher and a paraflow heat exchanger is just wild.
Video of the Brewery

Thanks for the blog and Best of Luck on your new exploits.


Alistair Reece said...

And all done with a grace and style which seems so alien to the younger generation of craft brewers. Great piece, nicely balanced and yes it is good to know that these beers survive, and hopefully will thrive.

Anonymous said...

Nice piece, Dave. Whenever I had 1744 at Coors presentations it was always excellent. Whenever I bought any in a store it was always disappointing. Let down by a rubbish logistics network rather than poor brewing, I fear.