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Classic Beer of the Month October 2014: Shepherd Neame Bishops Finger

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Shepherd Neame Bishops Finger, 5%

Back in the 1950s, Britain was just beginning to emerge from the austerities of war and its aftermath. Rationing was gradually phased out and consumer spending power was steadily on the up.

Shepherd Neame Bishops FingerOne of the responses of the British brewing industry was to make a modest return to the brewing luxuries of the pre-war years, taking advantage of the lifting of restrictions on strength and the extra pound or two in peoples' pockets to develop new beers that would not have looked too out of place a half-century before.

So it was that, at this time, we saw the arrival of beers such as Greene King Abbot Ale, Gales HSB and Bishops Finger, from Shepherd Neame.

Introduced in 1958, the last of these was created just as a bottled beer, the odd name – cheekily perverted to Nun's Delight by some locals – derived from Kent's traditional road signs, which historically pointed the way for pilgrims to the shrine of Thomas à Becket at Canterbury.

The beer remained a bottled beer only for its first three decades, finally arriving in cask form – at 5% ABV, a touch weaker than the bottle's 5.4% – in November 1989.

However, with the thousands of cask beers now in production in the UK, Bishops Finger has somehow got lost among the masses and the brewery concedes that, even in its own tied estate, its appearances are becoming rarer. Shep's publicans, it seems, prefer beers that do not breach the 4.5% ABV threshold.

The Beer Today

That is why I swooped on a chance to taste the beer again when I visited the Faversham brewery at the end of the summer. Given the choice of all the beers racked and tapped in the sample room, I made a beeline for Bishops Finger just to bring back some memories and see how the old stalwart was doing these days.

Questioning head brewer Richard Frost, I learned that the beer today is constructed from pale malt with about 8% crystal malt. The hops are Challenger and Target for bitterness, with East Kent Golding and First Gold used late in the copper and for dry hopping in the cask.

Against the white walls of the sample room, the beer glowed a rich amber in colour, presenting an aroma that was typically Shep's in its resin-like, earthy hop character.

There's a clear resemblance to the brewery's standard bitter, Master Brew, but, as expected, it's fuller and a touch sweeter. Peppery hops run across the tastebuds, pushing delicate caramel from the malt into the background.

Otherwise, the taste comprises a number of subtle nods and winks in one direction or another – a squeeze of lemon, a hint of banana, a suggestion of almond – before a notably dry, nicely bitter, slightly woody finish that has more than a trace of liquorice about it.

Shepherd Neame Bishops FingerBack home, I dug out a bottle of the same beer that had been tucked away in my store for a few months. I'd been looking for an occasion to open it and now, with memories of the cask experience still fresh in my mind, was clearly the time.

The stronger bottled beer shares many of the same attributes, although the resin-like hop notes are less prominent as there is no dry hopping.

The banana flavour seems more evident and there's just a hint of blackcurrant in the fruitiness, too, but it's surprisingly crisp for the strength and by no means sweet. Dryness – indeed almost astringency – is a key feature, a result of well attenuating the beer.

Bishops Finger, to be frank, is not the sort of beer to get the new generation of beer fans instantly excited. It's very much an old-fashioned beer, with restrained hop flavours and good balance – a word that seems to be reviled in some circles.

It's not a beer that leaps out and smacks you around the face: it's a beer that needs time to grow on you, for you to appreciate the unravelling of subtle malt, hops and fermentation flavours.

If you do that, you can begin to see how much cheer it must have brought to recently rationed drinkers back in the 1950s.

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