Worthington White Shield might be the ultimate comeback kid. It's a beer that has had a peripatetic history, but has in recent years found itself back on home turf in Burton Upon Trent. I recently went to Burton for the opening of the new William Worthington brewery that Molson Coors has installed in the National Brewery Centre.
Worthington White Shield is an IPA, of that, there can be no doubt - hey, it even says so on the bottle. In the world of beer, there is perhaps no other term that has been bandied about and applied to so many different beers that it has become almost meaningless. Depending on who you talk to, and IPA might be a pale, low %abv beer, it could be a coppery, mid-strength beer with a mouth-puckering dryness and complex earthy flavour, or it may be a high alcohol riot of sweet citrus fruit. You could argue that historically, White Shield, and other IPAs of that style, are the most 'authentic' (*alarm bells*). But of course, times change, and we, the 21st century beer drinker can cope with a bit of ambiguity. We don't drink labels, we drink beer, right?
That Molson Coors has slowly been investing in the White Shield brand (currently part of the Different World Drinks portfolio) can only be seen as A Good Thing. It's easy to view big brewing companies as nothing but industrial beer producers, but with White Shield, it seems that Molson Coors has cottoned on to the fact that they have a gold ticket - a heritage brand that is never going to sell gazillions of units, but adds an interesting thread to their story. So when, just before dinner, Mark Hunter, CEO of Molson Coors (UK) addresses the guests and says "Our roots, history and tradition help to define who we are today. We want to delight the world's beer drinkers, and make sure that we have the right beer for every occasion", it would be easy to view this as a lot of cynical marketing guff. Except for one thing.
I asked how long this £1million project had taken to complete - I mean, how long does it take to install a brewery in a museum, next to a glass case of breweriania? The answer staggered me - three years. It took three years to get this project completed - and there was more than a little corporate opposition. That's three years of people saying 'hmm, maybe' and 'hmm, I don't know' and 'ermm, I'm not sure'. Someone, or some people, drove this project to completion. By contrast, the Molson Coors take-home draught beer system was 6 months, start to finish - and that was a totally new concept.
But the result of this dogged determination is a stable of historic brands that are coming back to life. White Shield is now brewed on "the big plant", as brewing legend Steve Wellington (right) calls Molson Coors Burton brewery. So the new 20 barrel plant is going to be used to brew beers that Molson Coors want to revive - Red Shield, Worthington E, P2 Stout, and No 1 Barley Wine. In fact, for the time being P2 and the very rare No 1 will be brewed in the original musuem brewery - Molson Coors are yet to be convinced of the demand for such beers. I asked Steve if they were ready to take the leap of faith and brew bigger quantities of these beers, he said "Oh, I'll take any leap offered to me". Looking at that photo of him, it's clear that he's not short on fight, passion or enthusiasm for his vocation. Add to this the fact that Steve really wants this to happen - he's a man who has been known to 'mishear' a no as a yes - and it's only a matter of times before these rarer beers follow White Shield's return to prosperity.