Food & Drink: The local pint that has travelled well: An old Kent brewery whose wares sell well in France is now advertising in Franglais. Michael Jackson reports
Saturday 16 October 1993
Among France's best-selling English beers are those of Shepherd Neame, which currently is offering daily tastings at the Mammouth Hypermarket, Calais, where its top beer sells at about 65p a half- litre, as against pounds 1.35 in high- street off-licences in Britain.
French beer-lovers arriving in Britain may be startled by the prices here, but they must be reassured that Shepherd Neame is the first brewery to show up on this side of the water, in the Kent town of Faversham. It also has the cachet of being Britain's oldest brewery.
The Channel-crossing has been in both directions. The Benedictine order (founded in Italy) and the monks of Cluny (in France) were responsible for the first recorded brewing in Faversham, in 1147.
In the same century, the Benedictine Abbess Hildegarde of Rupertsberg (near Mainz, Germany) noted a development in beer-making: the barley-malt brew was now being seasoned not only with longer-established material such as ash leaves but also with the flower of the hop vine. In the 1500s, Flemish immigrants to Kent introduced the hop habit to Britain.
The present Shepherd Neame brewery was established in 1698, above an artesian well. It is in the heart of Kent hop (and cherry) country, and from its early days imported barley by sailing barge from East Anglia.
The barley still comes from that region, though no longer by the barges that lie moored in Faversham Creek. The town once built these vessels to sail down the creek into the Swale and the Thames estuary, and likes to remember its history.
Brewing, cherries and boat- building were its traditional industries, but none was promoted with other than English reserve until recently. Now Faversham is facing up to Europe. This month, Shepherd Neame is beginning an advertising campaign - in Franglais. Throughout the South- east, posters will announce its Beer du Pays. The posters depict a handsome bottle, looking as though it might contain cognac but actually offering a 'strong' (5.2 per cent alcohol) brew called Bishop's Finger.
With its ecclesiastical history, Faversham no doubt feels at home with bishops, but the finger has more pedestrian origins. It is said to derive from a style of road-sign once popular in Kent. The beer is beautifully balanced, with a firm body, a clean, malty sweetness, a restrained, hoppy dryness and a yeasty fruitiness.
Much as I find Bishop's Finger a satisfying brew, my preference is for another Shepherd Neame beer, Spitfire. I wonder what our guests from the Continent will make of that name, and if anyone under 50 understands its significance. Spitfire has a yeast sediment, and a secondary fermentation in the bottle. This bottle-conditioning, the brewer's counterpart to Methode Champenoise, makes for greater complexity of flavours, especially in the fruitiness. Spitfire, at 4.7 per cent, is full of the earthy aromas and flavours of Goldings hops, the classic variety in East Kent.
While these beers can be found widely in Britain, in Safeway and Oddbins, for example, it is necessary to head for Kent to taste Shepherd Neame's aromatic Best Bitter, its chocolatey Dark Ale (under the name of Mason's, a brewery acquired in 1954) or its smoky Porter.
The Bishop's Finger Beer du Pays campaign also has a culinary flavour that might impress even the French. Shepherd Neame has commissioned 30 recipes, each using beer, from Sarah Woodward, who in 1990 was the Independent's first Cook of the Year.
Sarah learnt to cook on a gas-ring while studying at Trinity College, Cambridge. Macmillan recently published her first book, Fresh from the Market ( pounds 9.99). Her recipes with beer will be distributed where Bishop's Finger is retailed and may later be published in book form.
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