Burton-on-Trent and beer

Burton-on-Trent is historically speaking a very important beer city and it is mainly known for this extensive brewing history, with its height around the 18th and 19th centuries. The town prospered around Burton Abbey. Via the river Trent beer was shipped to Hull and from there on to the Baltic Sea and Prussia as well as to London. Burton beers are extra special because of the water in Burton, which is extremely high in Sodium, Sulphate, Alkalinity, Calcium, and relatively high in Chloride, Bicarbonate and Magnesium. (In Burton they say the hard water was perfect because you could add more hops without effecting the taste which made it perfect for the pale ales that had to travel a long distance, like to India). For comparison, at the other side of the scale you have the water in Pilzn which is extremely low in all these things. Burton water is so special, they even named the water treatment process after it: Burtonise. Since the new StiBON-2-groups have to brew a Burton ale, we of course had to visit the town (I also visited Dortmund when we had to brew a Dortmunder Export for our StiBON lessons, about which I’ll tell you more in a later post).

Thanks to its extensive history Burton has a lot of beer related places to visit. Luckily the city isn’t particularly big, so it is possible to visit quite some places in a short time. On our list were The National Brewery Centre, Marston’s Brewery, The Burton Bridge Brewery, Molson Coors (Bass), The Burton Town Brewery, The Tower Brewery and The Winery. Other venues on our list were the two micropubs The Last Heretic and the Fuggle & Nugget Micropub and historic (and I mean very historic!) bars, inns and pubs like the Derby Inn, the Devonshire Arms, the Coopers Tavern and the Roebuck Inn. There’s also a beer shop Brews of the Worlds. I would have loved to also have been able to visit the Claymills Victorian Pumping Station, but that was a bit too much.

According to locals (who were very enthustiastic story tellers by the way, as soon as they found out why we were there), the history of Burton started with the special healing water of the well at the abbey. That water was the basis for the beers that they began brewing in the 18th century. Breweries and pubs came and went and at its height there were 200 pubs in Burton (that’s 1 pub for every 100 beer drinking persons in those days). At one time the whole town was just one big brewery. There are 100s of books written about the breweries, the pubs, the important people, who owned what when and more, so I won’t dive to deep in that now, but I will come back to that when I review some of those books later this month.

We arrived on wednesday night around 22.00h. We stayed in the Three Queens hotel, so we could go to the Bridge brewery inn for two last pints before going to bed (nevermind, we also drank some beers afterwards in the hotel).

Thursday we visited the National Brewery Centre (basically a brewery museum first founded by Bass brewery and since some years reopened as a more general Burton brewing museum) where we joined a two hours tour in which the guide told every little detail about mostly Bass brewery history and its effects on Burton-on-Trent, which was very interesting but also a bit too much. In the afternoon we visited Marston’s brewery, but that tour was way too short again (I believe the tour guide thought it was way too hot in and around the brewery for a tour and wanted to go to the drinking part as quickly as possible), although by talking to the brewers that were walking around we learned what we wanted to learn about things anyway. Interesting to see was that the brewery purifies the water to later add the salts and minerals again, which is quite logically, because it gives you more control over the whole brewing process. The most interesting part about Marston’s though, is that they are the only one that still use the Burton Union System.

The Burton Union system, at Marston’s called the Cathedral, is a unique yeast recovery system. It’s only used for their Pedigree nowadays. It’s a wood barrel fermentation system that was used predominately by the brewers in and around Burton-on-Trent in the mid- to late 19th century. As the Beer & Brewing Dictionary explains:

Barrels are linked together by a series of side rod pipes so that liquid can be evenly dispersed throughout the Union from a feeder vessel. A swan neck pipe leads from the top of each the barrel to a top trough, which is suspended over the barrels and is slightly pitched to one end. Connected to this trough, at the lower end, is the feeder trough. The Union is fed by gravity from the primary fermentation vessels, or squares, with fresh, actively fermenting ale wort, typically 12–24 hours after yeast has been added. At this time in the fermentation process the yeast is very active. The fermenting wort is introduced to the system at the feeder vessel and flows into the barrels through the side rods, flooding the Union. As the yeast ferments, it is forced out of the barrels in foamy bursts, along with some beer, through the swan necks, and into the top trough. Here some of the yeast stays behind while the beer runs down the trough, into the feeder vessel, and back into the casks through the side rods. As the fermentation proceeds, a large amount of healthy, viable yeast is retained in the top trough and the beer in the barrels, now cleansed of its yeast, gradually becomes bright. The yeast is collected from the top trough for subsequent fermentations

Afterwards the tour guide was so nice to show us their cask system, since that’s something we don’t really have in the Netherlands (save one pub in ‘s-Hertogenbosch).

What I find interesting is that it seems that brewers in England mash on one temperature only. The strike temperature is somewhere between 71 and 76 with an actual mash temperature between 65 and 68.

We ate at the Albion Pub and the rest of the evening we did a pubcrawl via some of the oldest pubs in town: Coopers Tavern, The Roebuck Inn, and the Devonshire Arms.

The next day we planned on visiting some of the smaller breweries and the rest of the pubs. The first one to visit was the Bridge Brewery and they were so nice to show us around and tell us more about their brewing processes. They utilize open fermentation and improved old coppers and mash tuns. He advised us to go eat at the Dial that evening, so we did. Tally-ho!

After the Bridge Brewery and Inn we went for lunch at the Winery. It’s an oyster bar now, but it used to be that abbey where the Burton beer history started, so of course we had to visit that. They also served really nice real ale. Afterwards the others went on to visit the Town brewery, which was closed, so they visited the Derby Inn instead. Next we met again at the Tower Brewery, which was an experience in itself. It totally had the look and feel of the Oedipus brewery in Amsterdam north: a craftbeer brewery in an industrial area.But the public was something else, not at all the hipster youth we expected. The visitors all came by car and taxi (most of them by taxi!) and they were all well over 70! There was no music, but there was a piano and one of the visitors began to play. It was awesome. The beer was good as well. I was wondering though, if they were having a problem with youth leaving Burton for the bigger cities. But no, we found thém again at the Dial and the Lord Burton.

The Dial is a nice restaurant and the Lord Burton is a… well, all their alcoholic drinks are in one sale or the other and the local youth was definitely there working their way towards a buzz for clubbing later that night.

The reason we visited Burton was for their beers first. I’m not sure if it’s due to treatment or something in the brewery process or maybe just the water, but half of the beers were not ok at all, they smelled and tasted like brackish water. Luckily other beers were wonderful!

We haven’t visited everything we wanted to visit. Next time we still have The Crossings, which used to be the old Blue Posts and the Old Royal Oak, which used to be a prison on our to do list as well as a lot of other locations. But it’s good to have something to come back for.

Which city did you visit especially for their beer and beer history?

I’m going to take a short break from blogging now, but I will be back in a fortnight!

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