Burton Beers Today
A visit to Burton-on-Trent can still yield delights for the discerning beer drinker. These beers may not fit the American idea of what an IPA should be, but they are all heirs to the tradition and have much to recommend them.
Pedigree 4.5% ABV, Marston’s
Unlike Coors, which strips the minerals out of its water before artificially Burtonising it where needed, Marston’s still brew with the well water that made the town famous. The high levels of gypsum and the uncompromising character of Marston’s yeast give Pedigree a faint sulphurous aroma, the renowned “Burton snatch.” This is the beer that is still brewed in the famous Burton Union sets, the sole survivor of Burton’s unique brewing tradition. Dry, fruity and malty with a clean finish, the hops are kept in check to produce a cracking session beer.
Worthington White Shield, 5.6% ABV, Coors
The small White Shield brewery that sits within the brewing museum on the vast Coors complex is allowed to go its own way—an acknowledgement by Coors that it is sitting on brewing legend. White Shield is bottle-conditioned and will mature for three years. It’s not exactly pale, and it lacks the citrusy hop kick you might expect from an IPA, but it remains a world-beating IPA. The hops are definitely there, as evidenced by a dry, zingy bitterness, but this takes its place among a whole basket full of bready, fruity and spicy flavors.
Empire Pale Ale, 7.5% ABV, Burton Bridge
Burton’s independent micro claims this to be an authentic recreation of a nineteenth century IPA. That’s certainly true on paper, with a muscular alcohol content and an assertive hop character. Many who have tasted it are puzzled by a funky spiciness that places the beer somewhere between a modern IPA and a Belgian light ale. But strip away a century’s worth of advances in understanding yeast, and it’s a safe bet to say this is probably what IPA tasted like in its heyday.
Old Empire, 5.7% ABV, Marston’s
The flagship Pedigree brand may be Burton brewing at its finest, but it was born in 1952, a century after IPA’s heyday. That’s why Marston’s decided to create an IPA that’s as authentic as possible. Critics will argue that this beer has pulled its punches in terms of strength and hop character, but the beer’s legions of admirers have turned a one-off special edition into a permanent fixture in the portfolio. Late hopped with Cascade, this is much more similar to what Americans might be expecting from an IPA.
Bass Ale, 5% ABV, Inbev
Loved by Napoleon, painted by the greats, served on the Titanic … Bass is truly an historic beer. Bass the brewery no longer exists, following its acquisition by Coors. Bass, the brand, is now owned by Inbev, whose UK base is a hundred miles south of Burton. But the beer is still brewed in Burton, because Inbev contracts the brewing out to Marston’s. Confused? Think how the beer must feel. English ale aficionados complain the beer is a shadow of its former self. Many Americans regard it as the most perfect balance of hops and malt.