THIS one has been in my sights for a while. Regularly stocked at Tesco, this is a modestly priced bottle from a fairly local brewer in Kent.
What with the large, wide base, and long thin neck, the bottles from this brewer stand out on the shelf. It’s the giraffe of beer bottles. It’s also completely transparent glass, revealing the dark liquid within.
The neck label looks very promising indeed. We all know that age and heritage are no guarantees of quality. But it’s still nice to know that it’s from a brewer that can trace its history back to a Mesolithic tribe. This one doesn’t go quite that far, back, but it does claim to be Britain’s oldest brewer. And that counts for something.
The date “1698” is proudly displayed. As is an “Over 300 Years” banner running across it. Underneath that, is the nearly as prominently named origin of Faversham, Kent.
The main front label keeps things simple and traditional. And purple. It’s an unusual colour scheme, but purple is the colour scheme of Biships Finger. Fortunately, it doesn’t detract too much. The text is stylised, yet readable. The 1698 date is proudly displayed again
But what is that text across the top of the label? The text “Shepherd Neame” is unusual. But with no other indication of the brewers identity, Shepherd Neame is, presumably, it. On the bottom part of the roundel, we’re told that this is “Kentish Strong Ale”. Strong ales are good ales in my book. How the Kentish origin changes that, is something I’m looking forward to discovering.
On the other side of the bottle is a long with label. And that label is split between the ‘story’ text and the small print details.
The ‘story’ opens by telling us that the original Bishops Finger was a Kentish signpost, pointing the way to Canterbury. And that this particular ale dates back to 1958. Apparently celebrating the end of malt rationing. An essential ingredient if you intend to brew your ale strongly.
Then the eccentricity of Shepherd Neame kicks in. Bizarrely, Bishops Finger is produced according to a “Charter”. This stipulates that it may only be brewed on Friday’s, by the Head Brewer with local, Kentish barley malt, hops and water from their well. Crikey. What the benefits of this are, I’m not entirely certain, but I hope it’s reflected in the taste and drinkability.
The last of the paragraphs of small, white text talks about the fact that this is the first beer in the UK to have been awarded Protective Geographical Indication status by the EU. And that’s important. It means nothing else can claim to be a Kentish strong ale. In the same way that only genuine Champaign can use that name, and not any old sparkling white wine. And that gives Bishops Finger points for being distinctive.
The paragraph on the back label continues with a description of the beer by someone called Andrew Jefford. Whoever he is, he describes Bishops Finger as having “fruit notes”, “roasted malts” and a “lingering” “orange finish”. How true all of that is, we’ll discover soon enough.
This side of the back label ends with the slogan “At 5.4% it’s near the knuckle”. Do you get it? Near the knuckle and it’s called Bishops Finger? Side splitting. There’s also a web address printed just under that in utterly minute writing. www.shepherdneame.co.uk takes you to a decent company website.
Over on the small print side are the basics. Above the barcode are proof that this is indeed a 500 ml bottle. That is has a 5.4% volume that provides 2.7 of your UK units of alcohol. Importantly, and unusually, there’s also the small logo proving that this beer has Protected Geographical Indication status. The Faversham, Kent, postal address of Shepherd Neame Ltd is on there. The ultra-brief ingredients is a little unusual though. Most give the chief ingredient as being “malted-barley”. Not Bishops Finger though. That would be much to normal. This goes with “Contains Barley Malt”. And with that out of the way, we can finally see what this beer is actually like.
Coming from a transparent glass bottle, the colour wasn’t much of a surprise. It’s as dark brown as it looked on the shop shelf. It also has a pleasingly thick head. And one that stays around after it’s been in the glass for a couple of seconds.
The smell is good too. In a word, it smells of quality ale. The rich smell of malt and hops is delightful.
A couple of gulps down, and the first tastes to hit me were of bitterness. And, sadly, rather more bitterness than I care for. Andrew Jefford described this as having fruity, malty, orangey tastes and flavours. Well the malt is definitely there. Working with the hoppiness, it gives it a rich, strong bitter character. I’m not so sure about the fruits however. I’m not picking them up, but that’s not to say that they aren’t in there. Your name just needs to be Andrew Jefford for you to notice them.
Nearly half-way through, and I’m delighted to report that this beer has not yet been decapitated. That is to say, it still has its head, which I’m pleased to see. The bitter and sour aftertaste really does stay with you, too.
Working through this strong ale, and it clearly has plenty of pluses. It has rich, strong flavours. These give it a full-body and escape from the weak, watery beers and lagers I’ve endured over the last few days. The proportions of everything that’s in it is unusual enough to score it marks for character and distinctiveness. And, importantly, it’s quite drinkable.
It’s not without its minuses however. It’s not quite as distinctive and different as the label leads me to hope it would be. It’s a little on the gassy side. It’s not terribly complex in the make-up of its flavours. And that rich, strong, lingering bitterness. Some of you out there. In fact, probably a lot of you reading will adore that about it. Me however, found it made Bishops Finger less palatable and accessible. And, ultimately, not as interesting or easily drinkable as it could be.
To sum up, Bishops Finger is a high-quality strong ale. It’s got a rich, deep, bitter taste, distinctiveness and a good history behind it. But, it’s not unusual, interesting or drinkable enough for it to score very highly. This is one for people who like their bitters. The quality was in abundance – just not to my tastes.
Have you tried Bishops Finger? Or any others of the Shepherd Neame brewery?
What did you think? And recommendations?
Comments, corrections, ideas and insults in the little comments box below please. And thank you for reading.