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Food and Drink

Drink the beer, swallow the tonic: White Shield, one of the few real ales in a bottle, is now in supermarkets, says Michael Jackson

IT IS a British classic which has refused to fade, a Victorian ghost that haunts pubs. Now it is stalking the aisles of supermarkets, too. The name 'Worthington's White Shield' has long struck terror into bar persons, especially those who like a few drinks themselves and are a trifle susceptible to hangovers.

Behind the white shield and dagger on the label, which are almost heraldic trademarks, is a beer that dates from the days before filtration. It contains a yeast sediment that fastidious drinkers do not wish to see in their beer. This presents problems to any pourer with a shaky hand.

Bar persons with a knowledge of pub etiquette - the handful that remain - have a standard response to the request for a White Shield: 'Would you prefer to pour it yourself, sir?' Nor do they flinch if, when the glass is all but drained, the drinker dumps in the yeast to swallow as a tonic.

Not satisfied to take a chance on residual yeast, the brewery now adds what champagne-makers would call a dosage at bottling. Its function is to create a secondary fermentation in the bottle, with all the complexity of fruity and spicy flavours that produces. This secondary fermentation makes it one of the few 'real ales' in a bottle. When the secondary yeast strain had one of its periodic clean-ups, an observant White Shield loyalist wrote to the brewery complaining that the yeast-flakes in the sediment were a different shape.

White Shield (which today has 5.6 per cent alcohol) has its origins in a strongish, hoppy, dry pale ale shipped to India to quench thirst of the colonial rulers. In style, it is Britain's best example of an India Pale Ale, although I feel it has lost a dash of spiciness.

Its most famous single customer was the Yorkshireman Percy Shaw, who became a millionaire as a result of having invented Cat's-eyes. He kept a cellar full of White Shield for his frequent parties, but declined to have carpets or curtains in his house. Because it contains living yeast, White Shield will develop in complexity if it is cellared for between six and 18 months.

The beer found new popularity in the Seventies, the early days of the real ale movement, but then lost that role as cask-conditioned draught became easier to find. Its supermarket debut is an attempt to secure its future.

A disadvantage of its entering the supermarkets is that it must now be in a non-returnable bottle, and the price has been increased to almost pounds 1 in a further attempt to make this fiddly product viable. It is a steep increase on the previous price, although pounds 1 a bottle is hardly extortionate. One Independent reader has already written to me to complain, but I feel these impositions are worthwhile if they give the ghost a new life.

White Shield was first brewed in Burton, is now produced in Sheffield and will shortly move to Birmingham. Whoever would have thought it would find its way to the local Tesco, too? If I behave myself tonight, I may have a steady enough hand to serve White Shield with Sunday lunch.

(Photograph omitted)