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Steven Spurrier Column: Beer Tasting

A remarkable beer tasting.

Never in my life did I think I would write a column about beer tasting. A few Tigers in Singapore, and Cooper’s cleansing ale after tastings in Australia is about as far as my beer consumption goes; certainly never to tasting notes. But there is a first time for everything and the beers below are worthy of Decanter due to their extraordinary resemblance to historic styles of wine.

The beer tasting was of a cache of bottled beers dating back more than 130 years. They were recently discovered in Worthington’s White Shield brewery vaults in Burton-on-Trent, the home of British beer, whose brewing history goes back more than a thousand years. The Trent river is famous for its copious supply of gypsum-rich water, which gives beers brewed in Burton their marked finesse, a process known as ‘Burtonisation’. With a ready supply of local malt and hops, the Burton brewers developed their own yeasts, thus further particularising the product.

All lagers and most other beers made here are single-fermented for immediate consumption. Worthington White Shield however, voted by the Campaign for Real Ale to be Britain’s best Bottle-Conditioned Beer, contains viable yeast cells and some fermentable sugar such that a secondary fermentation may occur. It was the ancestors of White Shield, previously known as Bass’s India Pale Ale, that were unearthed after all these years in the brewery vaults.

The oldest were pint bottles, with their original corks protected by wax seals, of 1869 Harry Ratcliff Ale. It was brewed at 11-13% ABV to mark the birth of a son into the Ratcliff family, brewers who eventually became part of the Bass, Ratcliff & Gretton empire in the late 19th century. My notes read, ‘deep brown mahogany with velvety depth, a pungent Malmsey/Bual nose, immensely powerful and concentrated attack, totally rich with beautifully dry flavours, complex and layered, as clear as a bell with a vivacity that could raise the dead’. It is among the most sensational drink of any type that I’ve ever tasted at a beer tasting. Only Bouchard Père et Fils’ 1843 Meursault has combined age with such freshness.

The second oldest was the 1902 King’s Ale, the first of Bass’s historic range of Royal Ales. Such was the wealth of the Burton brewers, and their contribution to the gaiety and probably the health of the nation, that many of them were ennobled, creating a Staffordshire group known as ‘the beerage’. Foremost among them was Michael Arthur Bass, Lord Burton, a friend of Edward VII, who was invited to pull the lever to start this particular brew on 22 February 1902. This was a strong ale at 10.5-11.5% ABV, said to be at its best after 40 years. The first three years of maturation were in 400 oak casks of 36 gallons, stacked out of doors, covered with straw in the winter and sprayed with cold water in the summer, then bottled unfiltered, corked, sealed and laid to rest. My notes from the beer tasting:  ‘Deep brown mahogany with red middle, rancio/Oloroso nose, rich, nutty and smooth, clearly aged (but seemingly not 105 years old) venerable Yquem, tar and dry Oloroso rolled into one.’

In 1929, Edward VII’s grandson, the future Edward VIII, continued the tradition by mashing the Prince’s Ale. This was also a strong ale, ‘dark red mahogany, concentrated Madeira nose, nutty, rancio, Sercial style with sweet middle and searingly dry finish, rich but very precise, totally clear flavours’.

Two more Royal Ales were produced back-to-back in the late 1970s. The 1977 Jubilee Strong Ale commemorated the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and 200 years of brewing Bass in Burton. ‘Red-brown mahogany, lively spicy nose, superbly nutty with molasses and mint elements, fine dry finish.’ In 1978, Princess Anne started the brew of Princess Ale at 9-10.5% ABV, whose 14,400 quart bottles were not commercialised, but used for gifts and charity. ‘Red-brown mahogany, very tarry, Barolo nose, sweet attack, full and rich, but dry finish, superb texture, like a dry Pedro Ximénez.’

In 1982, the late Earl Spencer pulled the brewing lever for Prince’s Ale 9-10% ABV, to celebrate the birth of his grandson, Prince William. ‘Bright varnishy amber, nose of high-quality leather, slightly rancio and nutty, sweet attack but dry finish, like a mature Sauternes from a light year.’


In 2001, Coors Breweries bought Bass and continued the tradition of Royal Ales, the latest being the Queen’s Ale 11% ABV and the Duke’s Ale 6.5% ABV to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee and one thousand years of Burton brewing. While the duke’s version had ‘light colour, nice lift and good middle palate’, the Queen’s dominated with ‘dark brown colour, rich and malty, very attractive, like a sparkling Malmsey or Bual’.

These remarkable beers were presented by Steve Wellington, head brewer for Worthington White Shield, and Rupert Ponsonby, founder of the Beer Academy, thanks to whom such restaurants as Le Gavroche now have beer lists. Soon there will be beer sommeliers.

What Steven’s Been Drinking This Month

Bordeaux 1993

The delicious Léoville-Barton 1993 drunk in Paris made me look out the few 1993s I have left, all from top châteaux, as is best in a minor year. Pavie, old-fashioned, dry but true; Figeac, more charming and elegant; Pichon Comtesse, lovely seductive fruit and still lively; Cos d’Estournel, spicy and a little earthy. Not a poor bottle.

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