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Love it or loathe it, Masterbrew offers an authentic taste of Kent.

I like to think that I am as broad-minded as the next person when it comes to trying different styles of beer, but man cannot live by Citra and Centennial hops alone and sometimes after a surfeit of Saison or an abundance of American Pale Ale I find myself yearning for a classic pint of British bitter, something chestnut in hue perhaps and session of strength that puts the emphasis on hop balance rather than hop bombast. And, as I live and spend quite a lot of my time these days in east Kent, often it’s a pint of Masterbrew to which I turn.

Masterbrew is a traditional English session bitter brewed by Shepherd Neame of Faversham, Britain’s oldest brewer. At just 3.7% in the cask (4% in the bottle) it is the weakest beer in their portfolio, but in its own way it is also one of the more complexed. Referred to by some drinkers – affectionately I think – as ‘cooking’,  Shepherd Neame brand it as ‘the original Kentish ale.’ In the county of Kent it is their most popular cask ale, even outselling the nationally known Spitfire.

The company have been brewing Masterbrew for some time now, although exactly how long is hard to establish. If Frank Baillie’s 1974 Beer Drinker’s Companion is anything to go by ‘Sheps’ adopted the generic Masterbrew title around 1973 and it was a brand name that was also applied to several other styles of beer. A pint of Masterbrew Mild anyone?

It seems likely that the recipe for today’s Masterbrew  owes at least a passing nod to that of Abbey Ale, which for many years was one of Shepherd Neame’s best known beers.

Like several Shepherd Neame cask ales, Masterbrew sits on a bed of pale and some crystal malt, but it is the Kentish hops that really give the beer its character. When it comes to their ales Sheps source some 95 per cent of their hops from within 25 miles of their Court Street brewery and Masterbrew’s distinctive taste comes, according to head brewer Richard Frost, courtesy of Admiral added for bitterness early on with Goldings, perhaps the quintessential Kent hop, added late to the copper and also to the cask.

It has 37 units of bitterness, compared to 30 for Fuller’s London Pride, 33 for Adnam’s bitter and between 32 and 34 for Young’s ‘Ordinary.’

Rodger Protz is clearly a fan of Masterbrew and it features in his 2005 book 300 Beers To Try Before You Die! Of Masterbrew he writes that  it ‘draws the drinker in with a stunning aroma of hop resins, biscuity malt and tangy fruit’, although I suspect just how ‘stunning’ you’ll find that aroma will depend on where you choose to drink your Masterbrew. From personal experience this particular beer, as indeed is the case with most cask offerings, can vary tremendously from hostelry to hostelry.

Old Masterbrew

Masterbrew has been with us since the 1970s.

For my money you will struggle to find a more consistently drinkable pint of Masterbrew than that available at the Railway Hotel, which rather fittingly is located opposite Faversham railway station just a few minutes walk from Shepherd Neame itself.

Protz concludes by praising the beer’s ‘peppery and bitter hoppiness.’

Masterbrew is a regional beer, in so far as it enjoys immense popularity in its Kentish homeland but remains relatively unknown beyond. In a sense this is a shame, because as I’ve already said it is an extremely quaffable session pint when on form, but it is also strangely reassuring, illustrating as it does that certain types of beer can still define the place where they come from.

It is not, however, universally loved and in the general scheme of things it would be a strange world if it were. I am, however, of the opinion that some of the criticism levelled at is a little unfair. One micropub in east Kent, for instance, has an old style Masterbrew pump clip attached to a pipe in its toilet and as a beer it certainly doesn’t sit comfortably in the current clamour for all things craft.

Masterbrew is not the colour of sunset in Hawaii, or even Shoreditch for that matter. It doesn’t taste of grapefruit or lemons or passion fruit or lychee or pulled pork with jalapeno peppers! It is not, according to modern media mores,  even remotely sexy and hence does not perhaps enjoy a terribly high profile among people with tattoos and beards and Hoxton postcodes. But it does represent the type of traditional ale that people, working people in particular, have drunk in Kent for many, many years and that popularity endures to this day.

There are many, many beers that I would take with me to a desert island before Masterbrew –  several of which are widely regarded as craft – but as an authentic representation of traditional Kent brewing it has few equals.

Brewing in Kent cover

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In the run up to the September 15 publication of my book Brewing in Kent, this is the first in a series of blogs designed to highlight the county’s vibrant brewing scene and the rich variety of beer that it produces. More to follow very soon. 

 

 

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