Shepherd Neame is a brewery that loves history, so it’s perhaps not surprising that they are celebrating the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta with a special beer.
In preparation for the approaching anniversary, the Magna Carta has been talked about ad nauseam lately, although more in abstract that in any great detail – for all the discussion of how the Magna Carta is the foundation of our laws and liberties, the actual text is more like a shopping list of local grievances.
The world of beer writing, of course, has focused on clause 35 – “There shall be standard measures of wine, ale, and corn; the London Quarter”. Proof, if any were needed, that even 800 years ago, beer was so essential that it got a mention in the most important document of the day.
Our glorious Pubs Minister tells us that this is two pints. Wikipedia tells us that he’s talking nonsense, and has confused the London Quarter with a quart. Of the two, Wikipedia’s definition feels more likely – the Barons of the 13th century were clearly more concerned with trade than how big a pint pot was in the local tavern. So, a London Quarter is probably 8 bushels, or 64 ale gallons, which is about as close to the modern imperial gallon as you’re going to get in medieval terms – roughly 2 barrels, although the definition of a barrel itself changes a lot in 800 years of “standardisation” too!
Shepherd Neame’s 1215 Ale sadly doesn’t come in a London Quarter, but rather in a (magnificent and embossed) 750ml bottle. It’s limited to 1215 bottles which, if my maths is correct, is almost exactly 3 London Quarters – a fact which I find oddly pleasing.
It’s a dark brown 8% ABV ale, with a fleeting large-bubble head that is quickly gone leaving a beer that looks a little like a glass of coke.
The aroma is similarly reminiscent of a soft drink – although more Dandelion & Burdock than cola. It’s honey sweet with dark berries and something akin to marzipan – Kavey suggests ‘bitter almonds’, but that sounds a bit too close to cyanide for my taste! Although there is a slight hint of alcohol at the back of the throat, it hides its 8% strength well.
In the mouth, however, that alcohol is definitely present – big bodied and warming from the start, with sticky black treacle and little touches of liquorice. The alcohol heat is enough to balance out the sweetness, but until the end there’s no real bitterness to it. The finish is tannic and drying with a hint of blackcurrant and it leaves you reaching for another sip right away.
1215 Ale almost unbeerlike – perhaps unsurprising, given Shepherd Neame’s stated aim to replicate “what ale would have tasted like” in the time of Magna Carta. It is how you might imagine a properly adult alcopop Dandelion & Burdock would taste – not overloaded with sugar, full of intriguing and unusual herby flavours and a restrained but warming alcohol.
I love this beer; it’s genuinely different and delicious – maybe if we ask really nicely, Shepherd Neame might make us a few more London Quarters of it?
Many thanks to Shepherd Neame for sending me a bottle of this to try!