Welcome to this article about Shepherd Neame; the third in this occasional series looking back at some of Britain’s family brewers. As the article is quite lengthy, I have divided it into two parts. The first part is the original article, which I wrote around 15 years ago. The second brings things up to date and looks at where Shepherd Neame are today, and what they represent to today’s generation of drinkers
Shepherd Neame are Britain's oldest brewers, having brewed continuously on the same site since the year 1698. They are also Kent's sole survivor amongst the established independent brewery companies and, since the sad demise of Fremlins, are now regarded as the county's premier brewers. The company is known affectionately amongst Kentish drinkers as "Shep's", and that is how I shall refer to the brewery and their beers throughout this article.
Over the years I have had something of a love-hate relationship with Shepherd Neame. During the 1970’s and 1980’s it was very much a love relationship, and although I would not quite describe my relationship with the company today as one of hate, their beers certainly do not count amongst my favourites- for reasons I will explain later.
I first became aware of Shep's during my time in the lower sixth form at Ashford Grammar School. Rock music was my first love, followed closely by chasing after the opposite sex; but thanks to the influence of two close friends, I learnt to appreciate a pint of beer and started to enjoy visiting different pubs. The majority of the pubs in Ashford at the time belonged to either Courage or Whitbread, and these were the pubs which my friends and I tended to frequent. There were, however, a small number belonging to Shepherd Neame, but we tended to avoid Shep's pubs because the company's beers were widely regarded as "tasting like vinegar".
Just exactly how this reputation had come about I am uncertain. I am also unsure whether or not it was ever justified. What I do believe is that this reputation, amongst some of my sixth form colleagues, had been acquired directly from their fathers, and that they were merely reflecting the prejudices of an older generation. Sadly though, myself and most of my friends went along with these misconceptions, even to the point of turning our noses up on those occasions when were offered a perfectly acceptable pint of Shep's.
Looking back I am convinced that it was our immature taste buds that were at fault, as they were unable to cope with Shep's extremely well-hopped and distinctive beers. It was this that we were confusing this with vinegar. I am supported in this view by a comment in Michael Dunn's excellent book "Local Brew" in which he describes the company's Master Brew Bitter as "an exceedingly well-hopped, dry and clean-tasting bitter with a very distinctive flavour - so much so that there are many Kentish drinkers who will not drink it, presumably because its magnificent bitter, hoppy tang contrasts with the blander bitters in other local pubs".
I stated earlier that most of my friends avoided Shep's pubs, but I did have one very good friend who not only liked the company's beers, but who was also prepared to stick his neck out and publicly proclaim his liking for Shepherd Neame. That he did this, despite the ridicule and condemnation of his peers, says a lot for his character, but in the end he was vindicated, as we shall shortly see.
In the months between leaving school and going off to university, my friend and I spent many a summer evening visiting country pubs by motorcycle.We also spent many a happy hour in the my friend's local, the Royal Oak, Mersham. However, I am sorry to say that on most of my visits there I drank Newcastle Brown Ale in preference to Shep's. By virtue of a trading agreement, this legendary Geordie beer was sold in Shepherd Neame pubs, but in half-pint bottles only. At a time when a pint of Shep's bitter cost all of 12p, a half pint bottle of Newcastle Brown cost 12.5p, making it twice as expensive.
This did not deter me though, and indeed I went gaily off to university believing that "Newcy Brown" was THE beer of the north! However during my first few weeks at Salford University I was told by a number of older and undoubtedly wiser, students that Newcastle Brown Ale was "chemical beer" which sent people round the bend. I was even told that there was a ward in the Newcastle Royal Infirmary populated solely by Newcastle Brown Ale addicts! Leaving aside the fanciful nature of these stories, I started to become seriously interested in Real Ale, developing a liking for the likes of Boddingtons, Robinsons and Marstons, to name but a few.
When I returned to Kent, at the end of my first year away, I decided that Shepherd Neame was the sort of company I ought to be supporting, rather than deriding. One of my other friends, who incidentally was instrumental in my joining CAMRA, had also come to the same conclusion, after having been one of the company's sternest critics. Consequently the Rose at Kennington, and the Golden Ball, just outside the same suburb of Ashford became favourite watering holes, as did the Castle and Victoria pubs in the town itself. When I renewed my acquaintance with my other friend, the Royal Oak at Mersham found itself back in favour, as did the Walnut Tree at Aldington. I acquired a liking for Shep's which until the early 1990’s never failed. Back then, when it is on top form, Shepherd Neame Master Brew Bitter was one of the country's finest and most distinctive beers.
Apart from visits home during the university vacations, it was to be several years before I had the opportunity to sample Shep's again. After spending four years in Manchester, I moved to Norbury in South London. This was a poor area for pubs, with the notable exception of the Pied Bull on Streatham High Road. This splendid Youngs pub was worth the twenty minutes walk, but there were times when I fancied a change. A browse through “Real Beer in London” showed that there was a Shepherd Neame pub close to Selhurst Park station - a short train ride away. The pub in question was called the Two Brewers, and whilst it was nothing to write home about architecturally, it offered a friendly welcome, and also served a good pint of Shep's.
I often travelled there, by train, usually on a Saturday evening, including one memorable December 30th, when the entire pub nearly got snowed in! After 18 months of living in London I moved to Maidstone, where I had purchased my first house. Thus after an absence of nearly six years, I had returned to live in Kent. There was a Shep's pub within spitting distance of my new home, plus a further 8 pubs belonging to the brewery in Maidstone itself. The Dog & Gun, being the nearest, quickly became my local, as well as being one of my favourites, but I also remember some good sessions spent in the Dragoon, the Greyhound, the Railway Bell, the Rifle Volunteer and the Wheelers Arms. I had become actively involved with the local branch of CAMRA, and it was in the company of various branch members, as well as at branch meetings, that I became acquainted with the aforementioned pubs.
It was around this time that I developed a liking for Shep's Mild, a beer which, at the time, was still widely available in cask-conditioned form. During the early 1980's, Shep's introduced a new, premium strength bitter called Invicta. The beer was intended as a replacement for their Best Bitter, a beer which was not a lot stronger than Master Brew, and which was also not all that widely available. Unfortunately, Invicta suffered from the same limited distribution as Best Bitter, and was withdrawn after only a couple of years. This was a great shame, as not only was it a fine beer in its own right, but it also fitted in well with the brewery’s range of products. Not long afterwards, the mild was also withdrawn in cask-conditioned form. To be fair to Shep's, sales of mild had been declining for some years, although it must be said that the beer was still very popular in East Kent.
So far as the bitter was concerned, the all time, absolute best pint of Shep's available locally (or indeed anywhere) was to be had at the Dog & Bear, Lenham. This picturesque village is roughly halfway between Maidstone and Ashford, and the Dog & Bear is a splendid old, former coaching inn overlooking the village square. At the time I am referring to, the pub was presided over by a very dour, yet characterful landlord known universally as "Squirrel". I never did discover his real name, but no matter, Squirrel's Master Brew Bitter was unsurpassed. Squirrel’s domain was the saloon bar of the Dog & Bear, whilst his wife, Joyce, presided over the public bar. The bars were even signed accordingly as "Squirrels Bar" and “Joyce’s Bar”.
Although not revealing his name, "Squirrel" did divulge his secret of keeping and serving such an excellent pint of Shep's. However, this knowledge was not disseminated to me, but rather to a fellow CAMRA member, who not only lived locally but who had been using the Dog & Bear for many years. What Squirrel did was quite simply to order sufficient beer in advance to enable casks to be kept in his cellar for a minimum of two weeks, before tapping them. The result was an absolute explosion of hoppiness, combined with an extremely well conditioned and matured pint. It certainly ranks as being amongst the finest beer I have ever tasted.
Squirrel unfortunately, was something of a dying breed, but a generation or so ago, the fact that beer needs to condition properly, in the cask, for the requisite length of time was well understood. A remark made in "Kent Pubs", (written by one D.B. Tubbs and published in 1966), attributed to Mr Bob Harvey, landlord of the now sadly closed, Woodman’s Arms, at Hassel Street, near Wye, sums this up nicely. "The secret of keeping beer and ale, my lad, is to order it in advance so it can lay for two weeks before you tap it". If only modern landlords would adopt this practice, the beer drinker’s lot would be a much happier (and hoppier) one!
Between the years 1980 and 1984, I visited upwards of a hundred Shepherd Neame pubs as a result of the brewery's popular "Passport Scheme". However, what started as an enjoyable jaunt round some of the company's more attractive pubs, developed into something of an obsession. The trouble was that each year’s scheme was more complex than the year before’s and this, coupled with the increase in size of the company's tied estate, led to the passport scheme becoming more and more arduous.
For the uninitiated, the idea behind the scheme was to first obtain a "passport" from a Shep's pub, and then to visit as many other Shep's pubs as possible in order to get one's passport "stamped". Prizes, ranging from ties and T-shirts, through to sweat shirts and tankards were awarded, depending on the number of stamps obtained.
Each pub was issued with its own unique rubber stamp and landlords were only supposed to stamp those passports presented to them, and technically only those belonging to people who were actually drinking the company's beer. Many a busy publican though was tempted to hand over his stamp, to a visiting party of passport participants, with the cry of "You'll have to stamp them yourselves." This invariably led to a certain amount of cheating, as people ended up getting passports belonging to friends who weren't even present, stamped. One landlord famously declined to have anything to do with the scheme, and refused point blank to stamp anyone's passport at all!
Another year saw the brewery issuing stickers, but here again landlords often handed out whole strips of them at a time, which led to people going around with "swaps" in their pockets. I can remember almost cleaning up one night, when my friend and I bumped into a group of fellow passport participants from London. The amount of stickers we exchanged that evening saved us a trip into the capital, and saved the participants from London several trips into Kent.
Towards the end of my involvement with the scheme, my friends and I had adopted an approach which involved us targeting a town, or indeed a whole group of towns with military precision, with the aid of local A-Z maps. We took it in turns to drive as, for obvious reasons, the driver was not allowed to drink. However, economic as well as the time factor, necessitated us just having a half in each pub visited, before rushing on to the next.
This was when I started to become increasingly disillusioned with the scheme, as it became more and more of a chore and less and less a pleasure. It must be said though that despite taking me to some pretty horrendous pubs, the passport scheme did introduce me to some superb ones as well. These were pubs which I would probably not have visited under different circumstances, and for this I am indeed grateful.
In 1984 I moved to the pleasant West Kent town of Tonbridge. Unfortunately Shepherd Neame pubs were rather thin on the ground, or at least they were a decade or so ago. However, the Foresters Arms, in Quarry Hill served a very good pint of Master Brew, and for a while it became my local.
Four years later, Shep's significantly increased their tied estate in West Kent, following the sell off of a number of pubs by first Courage, and later Whitbread. This has meant that the opportunities for me to enjoy the company’s beers have dramatically improved. One such outlet, acquired from Whitbread, offers Shepherd Neame ales direct from the cask; the Bush, Blackbird & Thrush at East Peckham thereby carrying on the same tradition of offering gravity dispensed beers as it did when it sold Fremlins Bitter some three or four years ago.
Another encouraging development has been the increase in the range of cask beers produced by Shepherd Neame. Alongside Master Brew Bitter and Best Bitter, many pubs now offer Spitfire Ale. This beer was originally produced in 1990 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Britain, with a donation to the RAF Benevolent Fund being made, for every barrel sold. This premium strength 4.7% ABV best bitter proved so popular with local drinkers that Shep's decided to make it a permanent addition to their range, where it joined the 5.2% Bishops Finger, introduced the previous year.
Bishop's Finger, known colloquially, and somewhat crudely, as a "nun's delight" had been available for many years as a bottled beer. It takes its name from the old-fashioned signposts which were once common throughout Kent, and is a strong, well-hopped, pale ale. Unfortunately not that many pubs seem to stock it, which is a great shame as it is a fine drink indeed.
Of the pubs that do sell Bishops Finger, many seem to replace it during the winter months with Original Porter, which is another fairly recent addition to the Shepherd Neame portfolio. The Porter is a strong, dark, full-bodied ale, again with an ABV of 5.2%. As its name suggests, the beer is brewed to an original recipe dating from the last century. Included in the make-up is a small amount of liquorice root. This gives the beer a very satisfying, almost medicinal taste, which is just the ticket on a cold winter's night. Drinking in Shepherd Neame pubs has thus acquired a far greater degree of interest than in times past.
It was during the early 1990’s though that Shep's seemed to be going through a bit of a rough patch, and certainly the bitter seemed less distinctive than the Shep's I had been used to drinking in my twenties and thirties. I later found out that the problems were related to the twin strain of yeast used at the brewery. Apparently, one of the two strains tended to become dominant over the other after a while, leading to frequent re-culturing on behalf of the laboratory staff. The problem was solved by selecting just one strain of yeast, resulting in a much more consistent product.
Unfortunately the consistent product seems to have become blander over time and although the company’s beers are still well-hopped, the former pleasant “flowery” hoppiness has been replaced by a much harsher and somewhat astringent bitterness that I do not find particularly pleasant – and I am someone who really likes hoppy beers! I am therefore convinced that the recipe has been “tweaked” over the years and “dumbed-down” in order to make the beers appeal to a wider audience. For this reason I tend to avoid Sheps’ pubs these days, preferring instead to drink my favourite local beer – Harveys Sussex Best.