Thursday, June 20, 2013

On the trail of pale ale in Burton-on-Trent

During a recent stay in London, a growing beer destination in itself with numerous new pubs and micro breweries, I decided to take a daytrip out of the city to visit a small town in Staffordshire by the name of Burton upon Trent.

Burton upon Trent, also known as Burton-on-Trent but I'll just call it Burton from now on, is a town of about 43 thousand inhabitants. It's located by the River Trent in East Staffordshire, some 10 miles south west of Derby. Burton may not mean much to people nowadays, despite being home to the National Brewery Centre in England, but it hasn't always been like this. A mere century ago this small town was at the very heart of a vast and successful English brewing industry, home to some of the biggest and most famous breweries on the planet. So, what happened?

Burton-on-Trent, a gateway to English brewing history

The history of brewing in Burton goes back at least a thousand years, but for a long time brewing was an activity performed at inns or taverns to make beer to their guests. Only at the start of the 18th century did commercial breweries appear, the first one was opened by a Benjamin Printon right next to the Burton Bridge in 1708.

Commercial brewing didn't immediately take off in Burton, because its remote, inland location made it expensive to transport barrels of beer outside the town. But in 1712, George Hayne opened the River Trent Navigation and constructed a wharf and other buildings to help Burton become an important commercial centre. This allowed Burton beer to be shipped to Hull, and from there to the Baltic Sea and Prussia, as well as to London where it was being sold in 1712. At this time, the Porter of London was all the rage so the brewers of Burton probably brewed much dark beer.

But it was pale ales that would make Burton famous. Burton is known for its "hard water", rich in calcium, which accentuates hop bitterness and flavor in a beer. This is not so important for dark beers but crucial for hoppy pale ales (when science finally caught up with brewing it was found that by adding sulphate, often in the form of gypsum, to "soft" water you could get something similar to the water in Burton - this process is now known as "Burtonisation").

A number of breweries opened in Burton in the second half of the 18th century, including Worthington in 1760 and Bass in 1777, to take advantage of the new trade routes and the excellent brewing water. The Napoleonic wars, in the early 19th century, brought an end to the trade with the Baltic, instead the Burton brewers focused more on London and a bit later the growing overseas market. The building of a railway to Liverpool in 1839 enabled brewers to export their beer throughout the British Empire and in particular to India, for which the India Pale Ale became so famous.

The second half of the 19th century was a golden era for Burton which dominated the brewing trade, at its height one quarter of all beer sold in Britain was produced here. Burton became so famous for its excellent brewing water and Burton pale ale that many breweries elsewhere either moved to or opened up a second bewery in Burton. London brewery Ind Coope did so in 1856 and Truman, Hanbury, Buxton & Co followed in 1873. AB Walker & Sons from Liverpool opened a brewery here in 1877 and in 1892 the famous Manchester brewery Boddington and Leicester based Everard & Co opened up breweries in Burton. By 1880 there was a total of 30 breweries operating in Burton, many of them large ones with international export.

The famous red triangle trademark of Bass
- at Coopers Tavern in Burton
However, the popularity of Burton ales caused a serious issue for the Burton breweries: Counterfeit. At the time many small breweries, in other parts of England, started selling their beer as "Burton ales" too and often reusing barrels from famous Burton breweries. This became such a big problem, both for the Burton breweries and their loyal customers who didn't want to get ripped off with a counterfeit, that when the United Kingdom introduced the Trade Mark Registration Act on January 1st 1876, the first man in line at the registration office was an employee of Bass. He had spent New Year's Eve queueing up to register the Bass Red Triangle for their pale ale, which became the very first trademark in the UK! In fact, Bass, Ratcliff & Gretton Limited received the first two registrations, the second trademark was the Bass Red Diamond for their strong ale.

The red Bass triangle, in particular, was soon a common sight all over the world, ensuring customers that this was the real deal. Sadly, after Coors bought Bass in 2000, they dropped this 125 year old trademark. Today you'll only find it on old beer ads, often used as decoration on pub walls around the globe.

In the last couple of decades of the 19th century, Bass was the greatest brewery in the world - employing some 3,500 men and boys only in Burton and brewing one and a half million barrels of beer annually (1902). With a UK liquid barrel taking 36 imperial gallons or 163,6 liter, that should amount to 245 million liter beer per year.

In addition to the highly successful India Pale Ale, Burton breweries also brewed a number of strong ales. In 1903, Bass introduced their Bass No 1 which became the first beer in the world commercially designated as a barley wine. Unfortunately, that style and other types of strong ales virtually disappeared when war broke out in Europe in 1914. In England, the authorities added taxes and forced brewers to reduce the amount of malt used in brewing beer, so that more of the food cereal could be used for making bread, the result was much weaker beers, evolving over the decades into that most common English ale of today - the low alcohol bitter.

Because of the war and the anti-drinking attitudes of the Liberal government, causing high taxes and lower gravity beers, and the advances of brewing science, allowing brewers elsewhere to recreate the Burton water, the Burton breweries went into a sharp decline at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1928 only 8 breweries remained and by 1980 there were only three large ones - Bass, Allied and Marston's. A decade into the 21st century only the Marston's brewery remains independent, Carlsberg having taken over Allied in 1992 (selling it to Bass in 1997) while Bass was acquired by InterBrew in June 2000 who sold the Burton brewery division to Coors.

Today, Burton is just a pale shadow of its former self, but there is still much of interest if beer and history is your fancy. I certainly found it worthwhile to make the two hour train ride up from London. Here's what I managed to explore in the span of seven hours.

An old brewery wagon at The National Brewery Centre

The National Brewery Centre
The National Brewery Centre is located near the intersection of Guild St and Horninglow St in Burton, next to the former Bass brewery. This museum started out as the Bass Museum of Brewing, while Bass was still around. After Bass had been acquired and sold to Coors, it was renamed the Coors Visitor Centre & The Museum of Brewing which was the largest tourist attraction in Burton until Coors decided to close it in June 2008. Fortunately, a steering group was established to investigate a re-opening and in May 2010 the museum was relaunched as the National Brewery Centre.

Naturally, I started here to get my bearings and an understanding of what Burton must have been like as a brewing town in its heydays. I arrived shortly after the doors opened on a Saturday, so I had the entire museum to myself. Vistors are guided through the museum by following a painted path and numbered stations. You start inside a big hall with numerous displays, showing old brewing equipment with a rich documentation, often with old photos, informing guests on how the equipment was used.

After spending time learning about the brewing and conditioning of beer, you continue outside to another building that houses the stables where you can still view real brewery horses (18 year old Charlie was chewing away on some hay while I walked passed him). There are also some beautiful horse-drawn carriages on display, that was used to transport beer, as well as old lorries from the first half of the 20th century. Further on you arrive at what looks like a small train station where two small, old-style locomotives can be viewed from up close. One of them was used by Worthington and the other by Bass for transporting beer on the rails leading from the brewery to the main railway line where I assume the carriages were connected to larger locomotives.

A Burton Union System outside The National Brewery Centre

In addition to its water, Burton was also famous for its unique way of fermenting beer: The Burton Union System. This system was based on the principle of recirculating overflow beer and was originally patented in 1838 by Mr Peter Walker, a brewer from Liverpool. The idea was as follows.

A row of casks are connected via swan neck pipes to a trough above them, so when beer ferments inside the casks the foam is pushed out and up the pipes by the pressure. Here the yeast remained while any liquid (wort or beer) ran back down another set of pipes to bottom troughs and from there into the casks again, to join the fermentation. Gradually beer in the casks would become bright and free from yeast as the process continued. When the process was complete, the supply from the side rods to the casks was cut off and the taps on the underside of the casks opened to allow the beer to run into the bottom troughs and from there into the racking squares below.

The advantages of the Burton Union System was that it reduced the loss of beer during fermentation and provided an easy way of collecting good yeast for future use. It remained widely used by Burton brewers, well into the second half of the 20th century, but today it's seen as impractical and difficult to maintain and clean. No commercial breweries use it anymore, with one single exception: Marston's use it when brewing their famous Marston's Pedigree bitter.

The principles of the Burton Union are explained inside the brewery museum and a complete double set, consisting of 2 x 26 casks, has been preserved near the car park, just behind the fence along Guild Street.

After the very interesting visit to the brewery museum I decided to continue down Horninglow Street, towards Burton Bridge, to visit Burton Bridge Inn for lunch.

A hearty lunch at Burton Bridge Inn

Burton Bridge Inn and Brewery
Located on Bridge Street, just twenty yards from Burton Bridge across the River Trent, this Inn opened up in 1980 in the premises of the former Fox & Goose Inn and just across the street from where Benjamin Printon opened up the first commercial brewery in Burton 273 years earlier. Since 1982, the Inn has also had its own brewery - Burton Bridge Brewery - providing fresh real ales to serve its visitors.

Located in the back of the Inn, Burton Bridge Brewery started up in May 1982, long after Burton had gone into decline as a brewing centre. But unlike the large breweries of Allied (Ind Coope) and Bass, which has since disappeared, Burton Bridge Brewery has survived and is currently the second largest brewery in Burton when it comes to making cask conditioned ales (after Marston's).

Burton Bridge Inn is a cozy, rural English pub with a small central bar splitting the facilities in two, with smoking on one side and the non-smoking room on the other. When I was there, the pub offered five Burton Bridge ales on tap - from a dark porter via amber to light golden ales.

As any good Inn should, Burton Bridge serves homemade food and I ordered a burger for lunch. It came with fried egg and bacon on top, and big, chunky fries on the side. It was really well made, nothing fancy but tasty and filling. And it paired well with the beers I tasted.

I can't say any of the beers really impressed me, but they were handpulled, proper real ales. And the porter was fairly decent though it is the slightly stronger Festival ale, at 5.5%, that according to the young barkeeper is their best selling beer.

After lunch at Burton Bridge Inn, I walked around the bridgehead, looking at a group of kids learning how to canoe on River Trent, before heading back into town for my next planned stop - Coopers Tavern.

The awesome Coopers Tavern in Burton

Coopers Tavern
One of the most remarkable and memorable pubs I've ever been to, and I've been to many, is the Coopers Tavern on 43 Cross Street in Burton. Located just across the street from what was once the Ind Coope Brewery but now Molston Coors, this pub has history infused in its walls, with the charming landlady, Mary Bagley, operating the handpulls. Bagley has been the hostess at Coopers since August 2006 and has even started her own beer festival at the pub, held in August every year.

From some of the regulars and from signs on the walls I managed to piece together some semblance of a history. Originally, the Cooper's Tavern was built as a house for Bass's "brewer in charge". Records show that it later became an overflow store for special malts and then in 1826 the store for Bass Imperial Stout. The brewers would routinely sample the stouts, so a few tables and chairs sneaked in. Then beer was drawn directly from the barrels, as there was no proper bar. The place was known simply as "The Coopers" as a brewer's joke and it was their own private club for nearly 30 years, until it became licensed for the public in 1858.

Today, the walls of Cooper's Tavern are covered in old Burton memorabilia, from the Bass and Ind Coope breweries, such as mirrors and beer ads. There are two small rooms with wooden tables, chairs and benches where guests can sit down, in addition to the backroom where the beer is poured. The room you enter from the street is known as The Ind Coope Room while the one to the left of the entrance is The Bass Room. Because both Bass and Ind Coope are gone, there's no practical difference - you drink whatever you like in both.

The small "bar" at Coopers Tavern
On tap, Coopers Tavern offers only real ale and real cider from a number of small breweries. Including one from the next door neighbor, The Backyard Brewery. This is a tiny micro brewery run by a former Molson Coors employee who was asked by Mary Bagley if he could brew some cask beer for the tavern, and he agreed to do just that. So this is really short travelled beer and only available at Coopers.

In addition to Backyard Brewery and some guest beers, Coopers Tavern is the flagship of the re-launched Joules Brewery, serving a number of Joule's ales. Ironically, the old Joule's brewery was bought by Bass in 1974 but is now once more an independent brewery while Bass has become history!

The reason for the close ties with Joules is that Coopers Tavern acted as midwife when Joules was reborn: It was here in May 2007 that Molson Coors, who had taken over the ownership of Joules after acquiring Bass, was offered a 'pie and a pint' for Joules. The contract, which made Joules an independent brewery after 27 years of ownership, was signed at Coopers Tavern on February 4, 2009, and sealed with four pints of Bass and a toast raised to the building of the fourth Joules brewery.

The Coopers Tavern still draws beer straight from the cask, preserving the old Burton institution, and they serve some tasty pies - I can warmly recommend the pork & stilton. And with history oozing from its walls and the charming landlady bringing you handpulled beer, the Coopers Tavern in Burton is a great place to contemplate English brewing history, over a pint or three of real ale.

The Roebuck Inn
From Coopers Tavern I walked a couple of blocks to The Roebuck Inn on 101 Station Street, which has a beautiful facade with a gilded sign above the entrance with the large, horned head of a roebuck stuck above the name. As the name of the street indicates, this Inn is very close to the railway station in Burton, so it's a great place to while away the last minutes in Burton before catching an evening train back to London (or wherever you return to).

The Roebuck was built in the 19th century and offers all the charm of old worldly England, with a range of 8 real ales and a beer garden out back. The publican was a lady with a sandpaper kind of raspy voice that would have made Rod Stewart blush, and she would share jokes with regulars across the room while making sure to keep the ale flowing when people stopped by after work.

I asked for local beer from Burton and they offered one, a beer called Reservoir Premium from The Gates Burton Brewery. This small, independent brewery started brewing as recently as summer 2011 but despite its short history, the 4.6% abv Reservoir Premium bitter was surprisingly well made, with a lovely fruit character balancing a nice malt sweetness - making it more interesting than many regular bitters I've tasted over the years.

The Roebuck Inn on Station Street in Burton

When in Burton you should consider paying the Marston's brewery a visit. Founded in 1869 and located on Shobnall Road, about a mile north west of the railway station, Marston's is the only remaining independent brewery from the Burton heydays and the only commercial brewery in the world that still uses the Burton Union System for brewing beer.

However, to get a tour of the brewery you need to be in a group of at least ten persons and the email I sent a month prior to going to Burton, asking if I could join another group for a tour, went unanswered. So, if you fail to get an appointment you'll only be able to visit the brewery shop and that may not be worth it if your time is limited.


All in all, Burton is well worth a visit as it will help you get a sense of this historical epoch of English brewing. You'll find signs of its brewing history littered all around the town and the large breweries, now brewing only lager, are still an impressive sight. The brewery museum and the Coopers Tavern should be visited by anyone interested in the history of brewing.

A small, blue locomotive made for Worthington in 1926
- on display at the National Brewery Centre

More photos from this Burton visit can be found at Flickr.


  1. I’m impressed very informative, you did well in your blog. Pipe thank your for your Shower Heads, support you, hope you have a great day!

  2. A fantastic Blog! I am a Burton girl born & Brewed, it is so lovely to hear about your visit to our historic town and so sad that so many of our breweries have gone into decline. But still.. the phrase 'going for a Burton' is still as it always will be a chance to sample some of our finest beers! I hope you manage to make the journey up again, the National Brewery Centre is holding its annual beer festival in October and we are currently working on a project to celebrate our town and commemorate the First World War Centenary in Burton over the next few years. Bringing back the Bass Shire Horses on parade, music, events, exhibitions, performances and much more. I hope to see you there!

  3. kegs wtf there were no kegs at that time,proper barrels for proper beer not fizzy keg crap

  4. Thanks for your kind comments about Reservoir (Premium ) .Glad you enjoyed it ! The Roebuck Pub in Burton offers a great selection of real ales & the landlady knows how to keep a good beer. Thanks. Stu
    Gates Burton Brewery

  5. I'm sorry for that poor phrasing, Willie THOM; it was my Norwegian background (keg = cask = barrel) that led me astray. I've now edited that phrase to read barrel instead of keg.

  6. Thank you, Stu! Please keep brewing quality real ale.

  7. What a fantastic blog :) as a Burton girl and a member of staff at the roebuck Inn i thought that this was a very informative blog :) the only one mistake I found is the reference the publican of the roebuck as this is incorrect. The land lady is Julie. The lady you describe is a colleague of mine named sheila. Who you have described perfectly :) thanks for the great review from everyone here at roebuck we hope to see you again soon :)

  8. Very nice account of your trip, makes me want to go. One thing though, there are other breweries using the Burton Union system - one called Firestone Walker in California has done so for a couple decades -

  9. @George West: That's pretty awesome, thank you for letting me know. I'm sure this is unknown to the people at the museum in Burton, it would be nice if they were told and could update their information to include Firestone Walker.


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