Whatever Happened to the Beers of Burton?

ENG: West Midlands Region, Staffordshire, The Trent Valley, Burton-on-Trent, Marstons Brewery, Shobnall, Mark Newton, Marston's cooper; workshop, as he scrapes the inside of a barrel. [Ask for #270.231.]


Mark Newton, Marston's cooper, prepares a wood barrel at Marston's 19th Century plant in Burton-upon-Trent. Marston's, the largest brewery remaining in Burton, ages all its beers in wood. [Ask for #270.231.]

For more than two centuries, “Burton” meant “beer” in the United Kingdom the way “Hollywood” means “movies” in the United States. Burton accounted for a quarter of all beer production in the UK, including some of the country’s largest and best-known brands, and its innovations in the brewing industry, imitated world-wide, carried the names “Burtonization” and the “Burton Union System”. Then, suddenly, it stopped. The surprise was akin to the Hollywood studios being bought out by European television stations and moved to Iowa. It was unimaginable — yet it had happened.

ENG: West Midlands Region, Staffordshire, The Trent Valley, Burton-on-Trent, Burton Bridge Brewery, Town Center, Aluminum casks behind the brewery, waiting to be filled [Ask for #270.240.]


Only one major and a few small breweries survive in Burton-upon-Trent in the English Midlands. [Ask for #270.240.]

Properly named “Burton upon Trent”, Burton is a small industrial city in the West Midlands with an area population (including adjacent suburbs) of about 60,000. It was never much bigger than that even in its heyday. Like nearby Derby it’s fairly far removed from the motorway system, and its nearest exits are unmarked as you zip between Manchester and Birmingham. Its small size and out-of-the-way location might make one wonder how it ever become prominent in the first place.

ENG: West Midlands Region, Staffordshire, The Trent Valley, Burton-on-Trent, The Trent and Mersey Canal, The Bridge Inn, at Branston Bridge, on the south edge of town [Ask for #270.020.]


This small pub, the Bridge Inn, sits by the Trent and Mersey Canal on the southern edge of Burton. [Ask for #270.020.]

Emma Gilleland, Marston’s former Head Brewer and now Director of Supply Chain, has no doubts. “It’s the water.” Marston’s, the world’s largest producer of cask ale, is the only remaining major brewer of traditional English beer in Burton — in effect the winner of the Last Man Standing match that once included Bass, Worthington, and Ind Coope. Marston’s Burton plant, a sprawling Victorian compound of red brick and gray stone, has been their primary brewery since 1897. At its center is a fine little pub, the start and end of a factory tour, where their flagship Pedigree is always on tap. Sitting in the pub, Emma explains that Burton breweries get their water from artesian wells sunk deep into layers of gypsum-rich limestone, and minerals from the gypsum bring out the sharpness of the hops in ways that ordinary spring water cannot. “Unfortunately”, she adds, “by the late 19th century chemists had figured out how to add these chemicals to whatever local water they had,” a process now known as Burtonization and very common in the industry. “Still, it’s not the same. You still get the best beer from Burton water.”

ENG: West Midlands Region, Staffordshire, The Trent Valley, Burton-on-Trent, Marstons Brewery, Shobnall, Visitors Center, a Cask Marque rated pub [Ask for #270.225.]


Marstons' Victorian era brewery has a Cask Marque rated pub on its premises. [Ask for #270.225.]
ENG: West Midlands Region, Staffordshire, The Trent Valley, Burton-on-Trent, Marstons Brewery, Shobnall, Visitors Center, a Cask Marque rated pub [Ask for #270.235.]


Inside the Marstons Brewery pub. [Ask for #270.235.]

Marston’s has a second advantage: it ferments its entire output of cask Pedigree in long series of wood barrels known as Burton Union Sets. In this system the beer is gently and continuously racked through a line of 24 wood casks, each 150 gallons, with the yeast separating naturally as a result. (The term “cask ale” doesn’t refer to barrel-aging; rather, it refers to beer that has never been filtered or pasteurized, and so contains its original live yeast and natural head. The Burton Union method is a superior way of achieving this.) Master cooper Mark Newton keeps the barrels in top condition, cleaning and scraping, repairing and replacing the white oak staves. A few decades ago the Burton Union system was common among Burton brewers, and Bass (then the largest brewery in the country) had hundreds of sets. Now Marston’s is the only commercial brewer in the world to use them.

ENG: West Midlands Region, Staffordshire, The Trent Valley, Burton-on-Trent, Marstons Brewery, Shobnall, Emma Gilleland (rt), head brewer, explains to a visitor the Burton Union System of fermenting, in which the beer is racked through a series of 26 wood barrels. [Ask for #270.234.]


Marstons brewmaster Emma Gilleland talks with a visitor in front a Burton Union Set. [Ask for #270.234.]
ENG: West Midlands Region, Staffordshire, The Trent Valley, Burton-on-Trent, Marstons Brewery, Shobnall, Mark Newton, Marston's cooper, scrapes the inside of a barrel. [Ask for #270.228.]


Mark Newton, Marston's cooper, prepares a 150 gallon wood barrel for a Burton Union Set. [Ask for #270.228.]
ENG: West Midlands Region, Staffordshire, The Trent Valley, Burton-on-Trent, Marstons Brewery, Shobnall, Mash tuns, in the brewery building, showing hops [Ask for #270.226.]


Marston's mash tuns, with a bucket of hops. [Ask for #270.226.]

A third reason for Burton’s former glory can be found on the plant’s eastern edge — a canal boat port for the Trent and Mersey Canal, now filled with pleasure craft but once jammed with beer barges. And not only for Marston’s; on the east side of the marina sits the former malting for Bass Ale, the largest brewer in Britain until the company’s destruction and dismemberment in 2000. The massive Bass compound is now owned by Coors who uses it to manufacture American-style beers, while the Bass brand itself is owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev. Bottled and keg Bass is no longer brewed in Burton, while the “Bass” we get in America is brewed by Anheuser-Busch in New York. Cask Bass, however, remains a Burton beer — brewed across the canal by Marston’s, under license from InBev, and found only in British pubs.

ENG: West Midlands Region, Staffordshire, The Trent Valley, Burton-on-Trent, The Trent and Mersey Canal, Industrial continuity; the canal port responsible for the Marstons and Bass brewery sites of the 1850s is still in use beneath the barley silos of Coors [Ask for #270.245.]


The canal port on the Trent and Mersey Canal, once serving the Marston's and Bass brewery sites of the 1850s, is still in use beneath the barley silos of Coors' maltings.[Ask for #270.245.]
ENG: West Midlands Region, Staffordshire, The Trent Valley, Burton-on-Trent, The Trent and Mersey Canal, Industrial continuity; the canal port responsible for the Marstons and Bass brewery sites of the 1850s is still in use, overpassed by a Marstons pipeline [Ask for #270.247.]


The canal port responsible for the Marstons and Bass brewery sites of the 1850s is still in use, overpassed by a Marstons pipeline [Ask for #270.247.]

Burton brewing actually dates from 1708, when the Trent River’s navigable reaches were extended upstream to the town’s medieval stone bridge (now gone), and a wharf built. The Trent flows northward, reaching the North Sea at the Humber Estuary, and this gave Burton sea access to the ports of northern Europe. Soon Burton beers were being shipped to ports around Britain, Germany, and the Baltic. In 1777 the Trent and Mersey Canal opened, giving Burton’s already well-established brewers direct access to Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool. William Bass founded his famous brewery the same year — not coincidentally, as the sixty-year-old Bass had already made a fortune as a common carrier. (Britain’s largest mover, Pickfords, is descended from Bass’s first company.) By the 1840s Burton brewers discovered that their gypsum-laden waters made for a particularly good India Pale Ale (IPA), brewed for an extended shipping life by adding extra hops. As railroads linked Burton to the far corners of the island, Burton’s IPAs flowed to the far corners of the Earth.

ENG: West Midlands Region, Staffordshire, The Trent Valley, Burton-on-Trent, Town Center, National Brewery Centre.  Red delivery wagon from the 19th c. [Ask for #270.041.]


A Bass delivery wagon from the 19th Century, at the National Brewery Centre. [Ask for #270.041.]

Pollution is a byproduct of any industry, and particularly copious from breweries, whose soaked, spent barley and hops make up a smelly mush that somehow must be disposed of. Of course it’s edible smelly mush, and much of it was (and still is) sold as cattle feed. The foulest of the edible mush was the spent yeast, and this was (and is) sold as people feed — the ubiquitous and beloved breakfast spread Marmite, with an overpowering taste reminiscent of heavily salted seaweed. The giant Marmite plant is still in Burton, but is not open to the public. The inedible portion of the muck, however, had to be sent to the sewage works, and Burton in the 1860s produced more sewage than an ordinary town ten times its size. Starting in the 1880s the Claymills Station disposed of this effluent by using an array of four huge steam engines to pump it up a hill to be spread as fertilizer. It is once again in operation with two of its giant pumps under steam and more than two score lesser engines in operation — one of the largest and most complete steam sites in Britain.

ENG: West Midlands Region, Staffordshire, The Trent Valley, Burton-on-Trent, Claymills Pumping Station, The massive beam of a restored and operating steam pumping engine [Ask for #270.221.]


The massive beam of a restored and operating steam pumping engine at Claymills Pumping Station. [Ask for #270.221.]
ENG: West Midlands Region, Staffordshire, The Trent Valley, Burton-on-Trent, Claymills Pumping Station, Terry Davis, a volunteer, readies a steam pumping engine for running. [Ask for #270.217.]


Claymills Pumping Station. Terry Davis, a volunteer, readies a steam pumping engine for running. [Ask for #270.217.]
ENG: West Midlands Region, Staffordshire, The Trent Valley, Burton-on-Trent, Claymills Pumping Station, A valve releases steam while an engine is being readied to run [Ask for #270.218.]


Claymills Pumping Station. A valve releases steam while an engine is being readied to run [Ask for #270.218.]
ENG: West Midlands Region, Staffordshire, The Trent Valley, Burton-on-Trent, Claymills Pumping Station, Piston cylinders are clad in wood as insulation [Ask for #270.219.]


Claymills Pumping Station. Piston cylinders are clad in wood as insulation [Ask for #270.219.]

The heirs of wealthy brewers became politically active brewers, organizing Burton as a borough, dominating its municipal government, and representing it in Parliament. One by one these politically active brewers were granted titles and elevated to the House of Lords. Originally the brewer-lords were split between the Tories and the Liberals, but then the Liberals began a long flirtation with the Temperance movement and the brewers deserted. Known for decades as the Beerage, the brewer-lords collaborated to defeat British Prohibition and prevent punitive anti-pub laws, much to the scandal of the puritanical.

The Beerage did well by Burton. Civic buildings, institutes, memorials, and parks were duly funded. None remain as impressive as the massive water meadows of the Trent, converted into extensive parklands known as The Washlands. Here the eastern bank of the Trent pushes against substantial bluffs to spread westward across seasonally flooded flatlands, the hayfields of the medieval town. Burton sits above the Washlands on a low flat shelf, squeezed between the water meadows on the east and the Trent and Mersey Canal on the west. The Washlands are the town’s true glory — cut by meandering arms of the river and crossed by fine old footbridges, installed in the Victorian height of the brewery era. The best is the half-mile long Stapenhill Viaduct, built by Michael Arthur Bass, 1st Baron Burton, and includes a 120 foot long suspension foot bridge of cast iron. This was an act of practical philanthropy; it allowed brewery workers who lived on the far side of the river to reach the town when the river was in flood.

ENG: West Midlands Region, Staffordshire, The Trent Valley, Burton-on-Trent, Stapenhill District, Paths descend the bluffs of  the River Trent towads The Washlands [Ask for #270.018.]


A cast iron signpost for footpaths in The Washlands. [Ask for #270.018.]
ENG: West Midlands Region, Staffordshire, The Trent Valley, Burton-on-Trent, Trent River, Stapenhill Viaduct, in the Trent Washlands [Ask for #270.007.]


Stapenhill Viaduct, in The Washlands, crosses the River Trent on a cast iron suspension footbridge. [Ask for #270.007.]
ENG: West Midlands Region, Staffordshire, The Trent Valley, Burton-on-Trent, Trent River, View over the River Trent towards the town center [Ask for #270.014.]


The River Trent in the midst of The Washlands. [Ask for #270.014.]

Not unexpectedly, Burton has a first-rate beer museum — the National Brewery Centre, set up by Bass in the 1990s as a monument to itself. The Bass Company is long gone but its museum lives on, now in the hands of a charitable trust. And a grand one it is, with period-costumed docents guiding you through intelligent and imaginative exhibits, including a stable of draft horses still used for parades. There’s a superb micro-brewery on site with an attached pub.

ENG: West Midlands Region, Staffordshire, The Trent Valley, Burton-on-Trent, Town Center, National Brewery Centre. Shire Horse in stall [Ask for #270.039.]


A Shire Horse stalled at the National Brewery Centre. [Ask for #270.039.]

With the loss of so many giants, the title of Burton’s second-largest brewer of traditional English ales has fallen to Burton Bridge Brewery, near town center at the site of the old medieval bridge and its modern replacement. Founded in 1980, it’s jammed into the small spaces behind its first pub (it now owns six), with its casks stacked in every spare corner. The pub itself is a perfect gem — a classic two sided bar, both sides jammed with regulars, serving (as was once the tradition) no food, but with a full range of site-brewed cask ales on tap kept perfectly down in the cellar. Founder and co-owner Geoff Mumford admits it’s not been easy running for thirty years a small brewery whose beers are distributed over a hundred mile radius. “Many the times I’ve had to drive the truck myself.” But when accused of being a microbrew pioneer, he answers only with an odd look, which may be shyness, or maybe just amusement. As may be, he’s keeping up a grand tradition — the beers of Burton.

ENG: West Midlands Region, Staffordshire, The Trent Valley, Burton-on-Trent, Burton Bridge Brewery, Town Center, Casks and wooden barrels stacked behind the brewery, waiting to be shipped. [Ask for #270.239.]


Casks and wooden barrels stacked behind the Burton Bridge Brewery, waiting to be shipped. [Ask for #270.239.]
ENG: West Midlands Region, Staffordshire, The Trent Valley, Burton-on-Trent, Burton Bridge Brewery, Town Center, Casks in the basement beneath the attached pub, tapped and in use. [Ask for #270.244.]


Following traditional pub practice, the pub at the Burton Bridge Brewery keeps its tapped beers in the cellar. [Ask for #270.244.]
ENG: West Midlands Region, Staffordshire, The Trent Valley, Burton-on-Trent, Burton Bridge Brewery, Town Center, Casks stacked behind the brewery, waiting to be shipped [Ask for #270.243.]


Casks stacked behind the Burton Bridge Brewery, waiting to be shipped. [Ask for #270.243.]
Article by Jim Hargan
Originally published in British Heritage, January 2013
Jim's Brit
Travel + History
Contact Jim at:   jim@JimsBrit.com
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