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  The hunt for Sheps "Stone IIPA

Last Updated : 21/04/08

... an everyday story of my obsessive hunt for the Sheps-brewed Stone IIPA at the recent McSpoon's beer festival and my increasingly desperate attempts to find it...

 

t's time for yet another boring McSpoons festival I sighed, picking up the garish festival programme; it had been a good few years since the last decent list of beers in Wetherspoons and, as you'd expect, I wasn't expecting very much this time either...

So imagine, if you will, my surprise at seeing some absolute whoppers on the list!  Foremost in my thoughts were some very interesting-sounding Foreign beers including Stone IIPA and Yo-Ho Tokyo Black, although a bit more reading soon brought me to the small-print where I learnt that these beers weren't the real deal but brewed in the UK by the original brewers... ah well, even allowing for this slight let-down there were still a dozen beers I wanted to try on the list and so it was with mild surprise that I found myself actually waiting for a Wetherspoon festival to come around... and it's been a few years since that's happened!

Saturday 29th March 2008.

Let us now fast-forward a few weeks where you find Sue and I walking into Worcester Lloyds No.1 to see what we'd find therein with me secretly hoping that the Shepherd Neame would be on - and let me tell you it's been a damn long time since I've said anything remotely like that!  By Sheps I mean, of course, the Stone beer brewed on their plant, the most interesting-sounding beer of the 50 on the list, and the one I was determined to try as I was pretty sure it would be as hoppy as decency allowed and, interestingly, be the best Sheps beer I'd had for a good many years.

Predictably I was disappointed as the Stone wasn't available, but my second choice was - Marston's Tokyo Black.  Now the fact that I was really whipped up to try beers from breweries (Sheps and Marstons) which, under any other circumstances, I'd have shown a clean set of heels hadn't escaped me yet I consoled a growing sense of selling out my principles with the rather flimsy excuse that the beers would be "nothing like their ordinary swill" and "might show them the error of their ways" - arguments which completely failed to dispel disturbing images of my principles being sent packing for the weekend...

The Tokyo Black was, and I must admit to a huge wave of relief on tasting it, a rather nice brew and - as I'd expected - absolutely nothing like any beer I've ever tasted from Marstons.  Jet black, it had caramel , liquorice, roast and charcoal in the taste and went down a treat, yet I still secretly wished the Stone had been on instead... with that option not available, and a quick mental hug of the fact there were almost 3 weeks of the festival still to run, I indulged in a few more of the less interesting beers from the bar before we headed off to Wetherspoons where I hoped we'd have a much better chance of finding the Stone IIPA.

The Postal Order in Worcester has ten handpumps and so I figured we had a 25% chance of the Stone being available there although my spirits sank the further I walked along the banks of pumps until I had to admit that it wasn't on here either... ah well, it was only the first day of the festival, and so it was another "three for 1.59" tray which included Thwaites Wainwright (including some rose-petally Magnums), Hydes Trojan Horse (just bland) and Caledonian Chocolate Drop (very strange and not really chocolatey...) before heading off to the Saracen's head to drown our sorrows in pints of lovely Elgoods and Windsor Castle mild.

Monday 31st March 2008.

Two days later I was in Worcester again and hoping that this time I'd find the Stone - I had two pubs to try with a total of 16 handpumps so, surely, it must have come on somewhere by now...?  No was the resounding answer in both pubs although I did manage to acquire gen from the landlord of the Postal Order that it should be on in the next couple of days after the Tokyo Black had finished... grinning with anticipated hop-overload I abandoned the final dregs of a repulsive Marston's Pedigree Six (and it really was repulsive...) before heading for home, convinced that I had my Sheps beer in the bag...

Wednesday 2nd April 2008.

Sue and I traipsed down on the Wednesday to sample what I was by now fervently hoping would be one of the beers of the year; most people on Ratebeer seemed to have had it and several were launching into lengthy paroxysms of praise over the brew which made me feel even more desperate to find it - which I would that night, obviously, just so I could pen a knowledgeable reply to John Bratley's slavering devotion to this beer on scoopgen.

We bagged a table and I strolled, calmly, over to the bar to order our pints of Stone with two cut-price "food" vouchers clutched in my palm.  Pride comes before a fall they say, and it turns out that those bastards are right - it was with some disbelief that I realised the beer wasn't on any of the pumps, even after walking along them twice and rubbing my eyes until worrying dancing lights appeared in the periphery of my vision... disaster!  The landlord informed me with what I felt was an unnecessary amount of cheeriness that it had "gone in a day, bloody lovely it was, fastest seller so far" - bollocks, how could I have missed it? I pondered before we sullenly returned home empty-handed via Lloyds No.1 which didn't have it on either - but I could have guessed that and it was becoming worryingly clear that I was going to have to pull the veritable bunny out of the hat to get this beer which I'd foolishly assumed would be a no-brainer to find.

Thursday 3rd April 2008.

I returned the following evening in the vain hope that our Lloyds would deliver me my "most wanted" brew albeit I had little hope it would - so wasn't terribly shocked when it wasn't on, although I did have a stroke of luck in identifying what may have been the one and only barperson on duty that evening who knew what was going on in the cellar; he told me that they did indeed have a cask of the Stone and it was on the stillage, but probably wouldn't be on before the start of the following week as they only wanted to have one "foreign" beer on at a time and the Tokyo was due next...

Wetherspoons offered up one scoop, Marston's Sunbright (as per usual for Marstons I hated it), although gen was forthcoming from Bully the manager who let on that he had another cask of Stone in the cellar and he was keeping it for the end of the festival, so at least there was a cask in both my local pubs - it was just a simple matter of being in the right one at the right time in order to scoop what was, by now, becoming my "most wanted" beer...

Saturday 5th April 2008.

We'd been planning to visit Manchester for quite a while and it seemed the perfect plan to bring this visit forwards to the current weekend - we'd visit a city which I love wandering around, scoop a load of beers, and then find the Stone in one of the many McSpoons scattered around the place... easy, what could possibly go wrong?  All the early signs of things going my way were good as I'd managed to find a ticket which saved us 25% off our rail fare into the city (Northern Duo tickets, if you really want to know) and I surveyed the list of five Wetherspoons with barely hidden glee; five pubs, well over 50 beers between them, surely the chance of the Stone being on were - statistically - almost a dead cert?

We took the incredibly useful and very free Metroshuttle bus from Piccadilly station to Oxford Road where we entered our first pub of the day at 09:55 with grim determination etched across my face - I wanted the Stone, and I wanted it now - although, predictably, it wasn't one of the many beers on sale that day in the Paramount that day.  "Fine", I assured myself, "that's just the first pub, there's four to go yet..." and so through a particularly heavy and portentous rainshower we hurried along in front of the town hall to the next McSpoons, just a stone's throw away, the Waterhouse...

We'd earmarked this pub (well, originally we'd chosen our previous visit but the lack of you-know-what precluded our staying) for a cheapo McSpoons brekkie and so bagged a table before I scuttled off to the bar with tongue lolling in a labrador-like frenzy of excitement; it simply had to be on here... "oh, for fuck's sake..." I wailed as I realised that the-beer-whose-name-shall-not-be-spoken wasn't on here either, although I made do with a half of delicious Bryson's Patrick's Porter which was more of a roasty, frazzled stout, yet I couldn't help wish it was the Stone instead no matter how good the flavours concealed in it's inky depths...

Our cheap and semi-cheerful grease-stop done we plodded up to a pub which I've only ever been in once before and that was a particularly short visit after seeing the clientele it attracted; the Manchester and County is on Piccadilly Gardens and I'd hoped against hope that I'd have sampled my nemesis by this point but, not having achieved this goal, I found it necessary to peek into what I think is one of the pubs with the most slobby, cod-eyed Ing-er-lish customers I've ever had the misfortune to clap eyes on outside an episode of Shameless, although this had been a good three years back and surely it had changed by now...?

Sadly not, it turned out, and I'd guess the collective IQ of the reprobates which passed as customers was less than the total number of people present although studying social depravation and interbreeding wasn't on my agenda, oh no - there was something beginning with "S" on the agenda and it wasn't feckin' on... but that may have been a blessing in disguise as I'm not sure I'd want to be drinking with people who think the Sun has too many "big words" in it and so it was off, via a spot of shopping, to our third Wetherspoon.

The Moon under Water on Deansgate was a scoop for me and I was by this point desperately hoping (praying is too strong a word but it came close) that I'd get my sweaty hands on a glass of Stone IIPA - just one half was all I wanted, surely that wasn't too much to ask, was it?  Well, maybe it was, as neither bar of this deceptively large pub was selling the only beer which I cared about at that particular moment and, suddenly, I just knew that I wasn't going to scoop it that day... as I went for a slash I looked at myself in the mirror and slowly realised that this beer was getting the better of me and turning me into the slavering, desperate maniac I saw staring back at me... a vein throbbed on my forehead as if to jolt me into action and off to the last Wetherspoon on my list and one I had the least hope for...

Our final call was the Seven Stars outside the garish Printworks "destination venue" (I've no idea what this means either, surely anywhere you go to is technically your destination?) and it doesn't take a lot of guesswork to imagine what wasn't on there... so, that was that, the five city centre pubs visited and not a sniff of the elusive Sheps Stone IIPA.  I must admit that I was a touch gutted as I'd really believed it would be around somewhere amongst the veritable forest of handpumps in Manchester but that was that, it wasn't, and so I tried to dispel all thoughts of Simcoe hops from my head as we completed a circuit of the city's scooping pubs... 18 winners was a decent haul, but it was the one that got away that I still thought about on the train back to Northwich and we resolved to try both Worcester pubs the next afternoon in a fit of desperation lest we miss it yet again!

Sunday 6th April 2008.

After waking in Northwich wondering why outside looked particularly bright through the blinds and discovering a blanket of snow outside once said blinds were parted, we drove back to Worcester and, after a swift fortifying espresso, I headed off into town to see if you-know-what was around in either of our two McSpoons.  I'd mulled over my singular failure to find the one beer I really wanted to try on the Wetherspoon list and had come to the conclusion that I was both incredibly unlucky and also not trying hard enough - everyone on Ratebeer and Scoopgen seemed to have tried it, had opinions on it, and I was feeling decidedly left out!

I knew that both pubs had a cask in the cellar and, theoretically, both might be on at once so I headed for the most likely venue first, Wetherspoons, to find... no sign of it and not a lot else of interest on the bar.  Whilst immersed in my private grief bubble I at first failed to notice the presence of Richard Evans, a scooper from near Worcester, although once we began discussing which beers we'd had it was predictable that he'd scooped the Stone already yet amusingly had missed the Tokyo Black which I'd supped five times already!  The landlord assured him that a new cask of the Tokyo would be on the following evening and then speculated the Stone may be on midweek...

So, having been furnished with the gen, we popped along to the Dragon for a couple of scoops which included the latest version of Oakham Haka and as soon as I caught a whiff of the ludicrous amount of South Seas hops in this brew I knew it would register very highly on my list of beers of the year - but when I tasted it I knew just how good the Oakham brewers were!  It had a fruity, hoppy aroma followed by a massive bitter palate which amazed me with it's power yet lack of harshness, a rare thing!  The hops then turned fruity with grapefruit, mandarin and a strange flowery note (orchids?) with a massive lasting bitter, fruity (tropical fruits now!) yet full and malty finish; a beer perfectly poised yet with huge hop character, this was all I'd wanted the Stone to be and more... I decided right then that if I didn't manage to scoop the Sheps brew then I'd settle for this monster gladly.

Predictably, just as I'd had this hop-monster, the Stone was on in our Lloyds bar... had I not scooped the Oakham then I suppose I'd have been slavering about it but, having already seen what hops could do in the hands of experts that day, I was just mightily relieved that I'd finally caught up with this most elusive (to me, at least) brew and so secured myself a pint and sat down to see if all the furore about it was to be believed or not.

So, after more than a week of searching, the highs and lows, the thumping veins in my head and all, was it worth all the stress I'd invested in finding this brew?  Well, yes and no - let's start by saying it's the best Shepherd Neame beer I've ever had and probably ever will have, although in my opinion that's not a difficult thing to achieve.  No, I don't think all the lavish praise heaped upon the beer is entirely justified, as it was far too harsh in the finish owing, presumably, to the Target hops used - and before anyone says I don't like hoppy beers I'd like to point out that the Oakham Haka I'd had not an hour before was hoppier, more bitter yet nowhere near as harsh as the Stone was...

Positives, then.  A gorgeous aroma of pine, citrus, hopsacks and that truly delicious American hop character was probably the best aspect of the brew in my opinion.  This was followed by masses of hops, mostly grapefruit/citrus/pine, with the aforementioned unsubtle bitterness somewhat overshadowing the good work done by the Simcoe hops, yet it was still a very enjoyable brew albeit with a noticeable alcohol prickle in the finish making downing pints of it a rather risky and heavy-going option. 

So, overall, yes - I'm really glad I got to try this enigma and pleased that I liked it, but 3rd best UK cask ale ever (according to ratebeer)?  I don't think so - I had a better one that evening!

Epilogue...

I think it's only fair to point out that the following Friday we decamped to Wetherspoons as the second cask of Stone was due to make an appearance.  After a bit of coercion the landlord put it on for us and... well, let's say it didn't taste as hoppy and/or bitter as the first example we'd had; was this a second batch done by Sheps using less hops than the first, or had we simply become accustomed to it?  Whatever, we drank four pints each and declared it a very good beer which had far more sessionable potential than I'd realised, although I still maintain the first cask we tried was much bitterer (is that a word?  it should be...) and was therefore less suppable in such volumes. 

To sum up, it was a great success as it's got scoopers talking not about how many ticks they've had but what beer tastes like - something I've been banging on about for years now!  Anything that accomplishes that is okay in my book.  Yes, I thought it was hyped up on Ratebeer, but it was a brave experiment my Wetherspoons to bring brewers across to the UK and to foist such a beer upon their unsuspecting Greede Kerching-drinking customers and let's hope both Wetherspoons and Shepherd Neame learn from the whole experiment and that McSpoons get more similar beers on their list and Sheps start using some bloody hops in their beers!!!

 

Finally...

 

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