Bad beer or an acquired taste?

Shepherd Neame India Pale Ale

We’ve had an interesting and rather educational experience with Shepherd Neame in the last few weeks which all started with this review of their Christmas Ale. We thought there was something wrong with it — something beyond a matter of house style or ‘characterful’ yeast. SN’s ever-patient in-house marketing man, John Humphreys, was disappointed we hadn’t liked it and asked if he could send us a few more beers to try, which is how we ended up with samples of the new India Pale Ale (6.1%), newly brown-bottled 1698 (6.5%) and Double Stout (5.2%).

Unfortunately, whatever it was that we found ‘wrong’ in the Christmas Ale was also present in both the IPA and 1698: neither of us could stand to drink them and they ended up down the sink after about half a bottle of each. At this point, we contacted John to break the bad news and let him know that we thought there was a production issue.

This troubled him and he decided to investigate. In a very civilised exchange, we shared the batch numbers of the bottles in question, along with more detailed notes on the ‘off’ flavours (‘bad breath’); he initiated the quality assurance (QA) process at their end; and kept us informed of progress. The conclusion, after bottles from those very batches had been retrieved from the QA ‘archive’ and tasted by brewers and QA managers, was that there were no detectable faults, and that the beers in question were excellent.

It’s possible that something went wrong on the long journey down to Penzance, though it seems unlikely. Far more likely, as John has suggested, is that Shepherd Neame beers have an intrinsic character we not only dislike but read as ‘off’.

Beers we do like, such as those from Harvey’s, have flavours that might be considered off — we’ve occasionally referred jokingly to Sussex Best as ‘the English Orval’ — and other bloggers and writers have certainly enjoyed these particular SN beers.

We can’t change our minds — we still found them undrinkable — but maybe we need to think a bit harder before calling ‘wrong’ in future, and perhaps also get our hands on something that can help us understand off-flavours in a more scientific manner.

22 thoughts on “Bad beer or an acquired taste?”

  1. I don’t find Shepherd Neame beers undrinkable but I have yet to find one that I actually like enough to want to drink again. This could be a matter of taste but I’ve noticed similar comments for many of their beers on Untappd which would suggest something going on. Then again, I would say the same about other stalwarts from a similar area, such as London Pride.

  2. Their “Late Red” (available in Asda) varies between being quite moreish and wet cardboard. Thats what you get when you use clear bottles.

    One of the worst pints I’ve ever had was a Shepherd Neame seasonal beer in Wetherspoons. I can’t remember what it was called but the level of oxidation was eyewatering. It was a struggle to finish it.

  3. I’ll bet its their house yeast strain you don’t like.

    There was one brewery in the US who’s lager was pretty awful. When they contracted some production out, the contracting brewer used their yeast and it was a much better beer.

  4. I have the exact same experience with beer from the Burlington, Vermont brewery Magic Hat. There’s something “off” about them that I can’t put my finger on—but I notice it in all of their beer.

  5. I found the SN Christmas ale a bit boring and know what Craig means about Magic Hat. I put these things down to the water decisions they are making, Rather than wet cardboard the taste that I would think I find in both these breweries beers is a clay-like masking of flavours that dulls the beer. Did you get into that with SN’s apparently deeply patient Mr Humphreys?

  6. Alan — patient is the very word. If we ever run a large regional brewery, we want someone like John handling our PR. The conversation was mostly around yeast and bottling processes rather than water.

  7. I’m a little surprised that you actually thought they were “off” rather than just being atypical of SN. Particlarly given the reputation that SN beers have for being “an acquired taste”. I don’t doubt their production standards, but just feel their beers are stuck in a time warp that I don’t want dragging into.

    1. From drinking it in pubs, we’d concluded their beer was a bit watery, but not weird/challenging/off tasting. Beginning to wonder if what we’d put down to skunking was actually the house flavour all along.

  8. Does SN use a Peter Austin brewing system? Magic Hat and Shipyard (another brewery that seems a bit off) do, and I think what I’m not crazy about is the “suggested” use of Ringwood yeast for those systems.

    1. But then you are questioning a minority aspect of NE US brewing tradition, no? Middle Ages in Syracuse was also a spawn of the open square Yorkshire method that creates some buttery goodness. Shipyard’s Chamberlain is one of my favorite beers. Magic Hat, for me, is different than Shipyard or Middle Ages in that they seem to fight or maybe ignore the nature of their technology and methodology. And why don’t folk put in both systems.

      1. I don’t think it’s the system itself, but I’m not a fan of the Ringwood yeast, in general. To be honest, all of Magic Hat’s beers taste the same to me—and Shipyard for that matter, too. Not to the point of being undrinkable, but almost synthetic. I’ve never gotten that from Middle Ages.

    2. No, they use their own very ancient set up, and a house yeast which is a kind of ‘father’ to the yeasts used be various other breweries around the country.

  9. I guess I must has acquired that taste. Whenever, infrequently to be sure, I get to Kent to see my eldest brother I always want a pint or two of Bishop’s Finger.

    1. (Well, yes, that’s what complicates this: we haven’t *hated* SN beers in the past, though only a few have every really hit the spot.)

  10. Yes, I think you know that the answer must be simply down to SN’s house style. People’s palate is constantly evolving-or should be-and once where you could take the borderline nature of their beers; now your palate says “no thanks”.

    At one time, I was able to drink the odd pint of their brews without flinching. However, it slowly became harder and harder to enjoy them until, finally, I complately avoided them. I was quick to blame it on this and that problem at the brewery, but came to the conclusion that I had moved on, even if they haven’t.

  11. I’ve had a problem with Shep’s beers for the past 20 years or more. Back in my twenties and early thirties I really used to enjoy their ordinary (Master Brew) bitter, then something changed and I don’t think it was me! I now find Shep’s beers harsh, astringent and unpleasantly bitter, and I am not alone in this amongst my friends and acquaintances.

    I would be interested to know what percentage of Shep’s production is now cask beer. I don’t often frequent the company’s pubs – hardly surprising when I don’t like their beer, but a shame in other respects as they do have some excellent boozers. However, when I do the majority of customers seem to be drinking lager, something Shepherd Neame brew a lot of, and I suspect this now accounts for the majoriy of their sales. This is further backed up by the fact that I know very few people who actually like their cask ales.

  12. I forgot about Bishop’s Finger but I don’t think I’ve had that for 20 years. I haven’t really noticed skunking in SN beers, just a wateryness and a lack of character.

  13. Like Paul, I live in Kent, but unlike him I don’t seem to have an adverse reaction to Sheps:they just aren’t that exciting anymore! Masterbrew tends to be harsh-I much prefer the seasonals such as Late Red. When I first took notice of beer, I was a Fremlins man, but always enjoyed Sheps-not as ubiquitous then. “Something” happened back in the 80′s. Am I showing my ignorance by suggesting that the change to hop pellets may be to blame?
    Say what you will about the beer, some of Shep’s older country pubs are absolute crackers!

    1. Wittenden, i can just about tolerate Late Red and also some of the offerings Shep’s put out from their on-site micro-brewery. I like their Porter, but it is a rare beast and seldom seen on draught.
      I have to agree that the company do own some very fine pubs, especially those out in the sticks, but they really need to do something about their beer. Like I said above, most of the punters in their pubs drink lager.

  14. I unexpectedly got the chance to taste this beer when it turned up in Morrisons, which was a surprise. I didn’t get anything that I would call an off-flavour. My experience was: digestive biscuits, toffee, petrol, hard mineral water and long bitterness. I didn’t get much yeast character as I assumed I might, in fact it was surprisingly clean.

    It is very, very dry and astringent, which I can understand some people might find objectionable.

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