Caught by the River

Pint by the River – Shepherd Neame: Whitstable Bay Ale

31st March 2010

Last year, Jeff, Andrew and myself sat out on the back stoop of the Dove doing our usual thing – drinking a few pints of foaming nut brown ale while concocting plans of what we could or should attempt next. We’ve always liked talking about beer. Liked drinking it a bit more than that if truth be told. So we thought we’d start a CBTR beer section. An ongoing conversation about ale, if you will. Hopefully it’ll be sporadic yet seasonal, informative yet slightly sozzled. It’ll be a bit like that conversation we had that day in fact.

Shepherd Neame: Whitstable Bay Ale by Roger Clapham

Shepherd Neame proudly claim to be Britain’s oldest brewery, having set up shop in 1698 over an artesian well in Faversham, Kent. They’re now a fairly major concern and operate numerous pubs right across the South-East, including a handful in London such as the well used (and abused) Betsey Trotwood in Farringdon, and the fabulously named Old Doctor Butler’s Head in the City. The titular doctor was well regarded for his medicinal ales in fact, as well as such sixteenth century curative marvels as scaring epilepsy from its sufferers with unexpected pistol fire, and plunging those with nervous disorders into the Thames. With that kind of form, the least anyone could do was name a pub after him.

Shepherd Neame is still operating in Faversham today, using the same well, and knocking out a variety of beers mainly brewed using ingredients from the region – it is Kent after all, home to many a hop field. Some of their output is very well known, in particular their Spitfire ale, and the dreaded Bishop’s Finger. However, they also do a range of other ales that includes some impressive seasonal offerings, such as the autumnal Late Red and the particularly good Early Bird spring ale, the latter being well worth looking out for at this time of year.

The brewery produces up to 60 million pints in a year but despite their size the company still has some decent values, winning a Queens’s Award for sustainable development in 2006 for the efforts made towards reducing their environmental impact. A similar philosophy (with added commercial nous no doubt) will have likely informed the idea behind Whitstable Bay – an organic ale that they’ve been brewing since 2001. They have a full Soil Association organic accreditation for the brew, and although that should be applauded you could question the eco-credentials of a beer brewed in Kent with hops imported from New Zealand. Regardless, it’s a fine and refreshing ale, with a smooth bitterness and a fresh, nearly sweet aroma to it – not to mention the fact there’s none of those unwelcome chemicals in there either. It’s a superb bright amber colour, and at 4.5% you can sup a few of these of an evening without falling off your barstool – unless a heated debate breaks out over the jukebox selection that is.

In the summertime they also do a draught version of this (without the organic status) that’s equally drinkable. It has the same light, almost fruity characteristics as the organic bottled version, and it comes in at 4.1%. For my mind, that makes it pretty well suited for a lazy afternoon in the beer garden or by the waterside – be that the Kent coast or the bank of the Thames, fresh from an appointment with Doctor Butler. Cheers…