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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