Burton-on-Trent—The World’s Most Important Beer Town
Ask your typical British beer drinker what Burton-on-Trent is famous for, and you might not get the answer you were expecting. They’ll probably frown, think for a second, then say, “Oh yeah, the FA Cup upset last year!”
The last time this small but world-renowned brewing town troubled the UK news headlines was early 2006, when Burton Albion, a lowly, non-league soccer club, held Manchester United to a draw in England’s most celebrated cup competition. Burton lost the replay but not their pride, and for a few weeks they were everyone’s second favorite team. Burton brewer Marston’s managed to sneak beer into the story by creating a commemorative ale dubbed Fergie’s Fury, after the Manchester manager. But few who enjoyed that beer would have had any inkling that it was merely an echo of arguably the world’s greatest ever brewing tradition.
When you visit a place whose name has passed into legend, you anticipate the feeling of walking on hallowed ground. The reality is seldom how you imagined. Twenty-first century Burton-on-Trent is an unassuming market town in the English Midlands, with the same chain names of high street shops and pubs as any other. In the main, the pubs and bars sell the same lagers as anywhere else. Of course, Burton’s biggest brewer is well-represented: you see Coors wherever you go.
Like many towns, Burton’s bookshops all have local history sections. A browse here might yield a book about local pubs, but there’s nothing dealing specifically with Burton’s heritage as one of a handful of towns that invented beer as we know it. Back in London, the British Library has a file copy of every book published in the UK. The catalogue search engine responds to words like “Burton,” “beer” and “history” with a page full of titles—the most recent of which was published in 1882.
You might think that Munich, Pilsen or Dublin could challenge Burton for the title of World’s Most Important Brewing Town. But those other towns never had a reputation that scaled the heights of Burton, the spiritual home of America’s favorite beer style, India Pale Ale. Just over a century ago, Burton was the undisputed brewing capital of the world. It was home to over thirty breweries, and the world’s most famous beer brand. The town’s beers were imitated globally, but never bettered.
How did Burton fly so high? And how did it fall so dramatically? The history of brewing in the town turns out to be a story of mythic proportions. When you’ve heard it, the nondescript red-brick streets echo once more with the import of beery history. Or maybe that’s just me hearing things after too many IPAs. Either way, it’s a story that deserves to be retold properly.
It all begins, of course, with the water.
Burton-on-Trent stands in a broad river valley carved out of ancient rock, covered with layers of sand and gravel up to sixty feet deep. Water has trickled through these beds for tens of thousands of years, depositing minerals in the gravel and sandstone. When you examine the mineral content with beer in mind, it’s hard to resist thoughts of divine intervention: a higher sulphate content than any other major brewing centre in the world gives Burton beer a dry, slightly sulphurous aroma known as the “Burton snatch,” and a character that was described beautifully by one nineteenth century writer as, “A brightly sparkling bitter, the colour of sherry and the condition of champagne.”
Burton water also has the highest calcium content of any major brewing region, the highest magnesium, and low levels of sodium and bicarbonate. It’s hardly surprising that another long-dead writer was moved to wax lyrical about Burton as “The one spot in the world where the well-water is so obviously intended by Nature for kindly union with those fruits of the earth, to give beer incomparable.”
Burton only became famous for its brewing water in the eighteenth century. But the water is in fact the reason for the town’s existence. Allegedly, it does a lot more than create great beer.
In the seventh or eighth century AD, an Irish nun named Modwen was passing through England on a pilgrimage to Rome. She stopped to rest on an island in the River Trent, and liked it so much she forgot all about Rome for a time, built a temple and hung out there for seven years.
While she there, a young boy was sent to her with what seemed to be a terminal illness. Using the waters from a well on the island, Modwen cured him. The boy grew up to be King Alfred the Great. Modwen’s fame as a healer spread, and led eventually to her canonisation. There must have been something in it: Modwen herself allegedly lived to see her 130th birthday.
In the seventeenth century, “Modwen’s Well” was still being used for the treatment of “scorbutic diseases” (ailments of the skin and eyes). Of course, it may just be coincidence that the world’s best brewing water also has reputed legendary healing properties. But it would be one heck of a coincidence.
When Modwen died sometime around 900 AD, her remains were brought back to the island. A century later, the splendidly named Wulric Spot, a wealthy landowner and great-great grandson of Alfred the Great, founded an abbey at ‘Byrtune’, in her honour.
A guiding principle of medieval monasteries was that they should be self-sufficient: the monks were supposed to be able to eat, drink, and make everything they needed in order to continue their hermetic existence. And yet, curiously, everywhere an abbey was built, a town soon followed. The Trent was also major river, and the important crossing at Burton Bridge was built about half a mile down river from the abbey. A bustling market town soon sprang up between the two landmarks.
Evidence of brewing at Burton Abbey goes back to 1295. All abbeys brewed their own beer for monks, and for travelling pilgrims (the first inns originated as accommodation for such pilgrims). And it seems that Burton beer enjoyed a great reputation from the start. It was being sold in London as early as 1630. But there are few references to it before the end of the seventeenth century. Beer is a delicate beverage that doesn’t enjoy rough treatment. Britain’s roads back then left a great deal to be desired. It simply wasn’t economical for any brewer to sell outside a local radius—which is why most “brewers” were in fact publicans who brewed for themselves. By 1604 there were 46 of these in Burton, serving a population of 1,500.
This all changed thanks to the Trent Navigation Act of 1699. The River Trent had never been navigable by boat, because of its weirs and falls. To make it so required an expensive programme of locks and aqueducts.
In 1712 the Trent Navigation opened. Sixty-five years later, the Trent and Mersey Canal was completed. Burton was now at the head of one of Britain’s most extensive navigation systems, linked to huge areas of the country, including the important ports of Hull, Liverpool and Bristol.
It was now feasible to buy the best quality barley from Norfolk and Suffolk, and the finest hops from Kent and Worcestershire. The resulting ale could be shipped to the booming, thirsty market in London—not to mention the rest of Europe—via Hull. Water not only sparked the foundation of the town and provided the vital ingredient for it’s beer, it was also the means of selling it economically everywhere else.
Until the twentieth century, one aspect of brewing that no brewer could afford to compromise on was the quality of wood for barrels. It had to be oak, cut from thick trunks with no low branches, because knots would render a stave unusable. While “good English oak,” was revered as the highest quality, there simply were not enough trees in the UK after centuries of ship-building. A suitable source of timber was discovered in Russia, and the ships that were dispatched to get it took with them beer to trade.
Talk about making a strong impression. The heart of this trade was the Imperial court in St. Petersburg. Both Peter the Great and Catherine the Great (who described herself as “frank and original as any Englishman”) were “immoderately fond” of Burton beer. Exports increased from 740 barrels in 1750 to 11,025 barrels in 1775. Apart from Russia, Burton beer found popularity in Sweden and Poland—some small quantities even reached Italy and Portugal.
In 1806 the Napoleonic Wars brought the Baltic trade to a standstill. Trade began again in 1814, but not for long. In 1822, the Russian court decided it liked beer so much it would like to have a thriving brewing industry of its own. Prohibitive duties were placed on imported beer. At a stroke, it became entirely uneconomical to sell British beer in Russia.
Most historical references to Britain’s beer trade with Russia talk about strong stout or porter being the dominant style. Breweries around the world today brew strong “Imperial stout” as a celebration and recreation of the beer that first made Burton famous. But records show this isn’t really true. Stout was shipped to Russia in great quantities, but only during the second period of trade, from 1814 to 1822, when both Peter and Catherine were long gone. When the Burton Baltic trade boomed sixty years earlier, stout wasn’t a very well-known beer style. In its later heyday, it was produced in much greater quantities by London brewers rather than in Burton. No, the beer the Czars enjoyed so much in the main period of trade was in fact “nut-brown Burton ale,” which was then “high coloured and sweet, and of remarkable strength—qualities which appeared specially suited to the Russian temperament.”
By 1822 it was a beer that had largely disappeared, as Burton’s new brewing aristocracy went in search of new markets, both closer and much, much further away from home. The strong, sweet, nut-brown ale beloved of the Czars was too heady for Britain. Burton’s brewers tried to sell it to the colonies in India, but the qualities that made it perfect for the freezing Baltic made it entirely unsuitable for a hot climate. Less challenging Burton ales quickly found a grateful domestic market via the canals in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, but the town was geared up to produce large quantities of beer for export.
A London brewer by the name of Hodgson had developed a pale beer called India Ale, and was selling decent amounts of it in the subcontinent. It was better suited to the weather there, but a Captain Chapman of the India Service suggested the introduction of Burton ale as competition. It would have to be high in alcohol and highly hopped, as both these characteristics would help it survive a long sea voyage. It would have to be bright and clear, refreshing for the climate. Whether Chapman realised it or not, his suggestion brought out everything that was great about Burton water and Burton ale: there was nowhere better to brew the beer he required.
According to Burton brewing’s greatest historian, William Molyneaux, “The reception given to it in India was of the most satisfactory character, and thenceforth it gradually assumed the position in the market, so long and tenaciously held before by Hodgson’s pale ale.”
In 1827 a ship carrying a consignment of Burton India Pale Ale was wrecked in the Irish Sea. Several casks were saved and sold in Liverpool by the insurance underwriters. Such was the reaction that very soon, people were clamouring for this ‘export’ beer across Britain. When the railway reached Burton in 1839, Burton pale ale swept the nation. The town grew, driven by the breweries. In his new memoir, Gone for a Burton, former Bass managing director Bob Ricketts muses, “It was not a question of the breweries being in the town centre, it was the town centre that was in the middle of the breweries.”
Burton-on-Trent has had more than its fair share of disaster over the centuries. In 1255 most of the town was destroyed by fire. In 1321 it was burned again by Thomas, Earl of Lancaster. It flooded catastrophically in 1514, 1771, and 1792. In 1795, there was a flood that submerged the entire town, a hurricane and an earthquake. There was another flood in 1852. In the First World War, the town was bombed by zeppelins; not because it was a target, but because the Germans were lost. In 1944 an underground munitions store exploded, killing seventy people, creating a huge crater, bursting the banks of a reservoir and creating an avalanche of sludge.
This eight hundred year run of bad luck has turned Burtoners into hardy, stubborn, independently-minded people who go their own way, do things differently and protest belligerently against anything they see as being wrong. The town was bitterly contested during the English Civil War because it refused to declare for either side. The last man to be burned for heresy in Britain was a Burton publican. And although Lady Godiva rode naked through the streets of Coventry in her protest against tax, she actually lived in Branston Manor near Burton, a possession of Burton Abbey.
Burton’s brewers had to call on this dogged determination to protect their position and reputation in the nineteenth century. In 1830, the “Society for Diffusing Useful Knowledge,” published a treatise on The Art of Brewing which accused Burton brewers of adulterating their ale with all manner of murky substances including salt, steel, sulphate of lime and black rosin.
The brewers sued them for libel and won. It turned out that their attacker hadn’t done any local research before making his accusations. According to his defence counsel, he was “not aware that the springs at Burton ran over a rock of gypsum, which gave them a natural impregnation.”
Undeterred by this faux pas, in 1852, a Frenchman, M. Payer, declared to a packed audience at the Conservatoire des Art et Metier in Paris that the peculiar bitterness of pale ale was derived from strychnine, which was added during the brewing process. Every brewer in Burton opened his cellar and laboratory for analysis by anyone around the world who wanted to look. Newspapers followed the case daily. And a potentially fatal slur turned into the best advertisement imaginable for Burton beers. By the end of the case, it seemed the whole world felt “the desire to cultivate a closer acquaintance with a beverage admitted to be of so wholesome and genial a character.” New brewers surged to Burton for a piece of the action.
Of course, not every brewer who wanted to brew Burton pale ale had access to the sacred water. Perhaps inspired by these slanderous attacks, brewers elsewhere did in fact start adulterating their water with chemicals, producing beer that was often terrible, sometimes fatal. By now Bass had emerged as the biggest Burton brand, and brewers around the UK would simply call their beers Bass beer.
That’s why, on New Year’s Eve 1875, a representative from Bass spent the night shivering on the steps of a registrar’s office. The 1875 Trademarks Registration Act came into force the following morning, and minutes after the office opened its doors the first two registered marks were the Bass red triangle for pale ale, and the lesser known red diamond for Bass strong ale.
This kind of shrewd business practice, combined with being the first to recognise the vital strategic importance of the railways, not to mention a stunning beer, propelled Bass to become the biggest brewer in the UK and then, the world. The iconic red triangle became synonymous with quality beer and even featured in works by the French impressionist painters. Bass was the McDonald’s or Nike of its day.
So dominant a style was Burton ale, it is probably the main reason the UK bucked the global trend towards pilsner lager in the late nineteenth century. We already had a bright, sparkling, good-looking beer of our own, thanks, and by the way, the sun never set on our Empire. So our beer was clearly superior to lager. Right?
As anyone who has ever been unfortunate enough to follow British sporting endeavours will understand, something simply had to go wrong.
Decline and Obsolescence
Demand for beer peaked in the UK in the 1880s, and has been in steady decline ever since. Brewers could no longer grow their business by growing the market—they could only do so by stealing share from their competitors. And as most of Britain’s pubs were by now owned by the brewers that supplied them, the only way to grow was to acquire breweries in order to acquire their pubs. The only affordable way to do this was to float on the stock market, which immediately put any brewer at risk of being taken over themselves.
And abroad, just like the British Empire itself, the global influence of Burton beer fell into long, steady decline. A few years before the death of Queen Victoria, the huge advances in industrial technology under her reign—particularly in brewing—meant that those who weren’t lucky enough to be based in Burton managed to work out a rough approximation of the magical water’s mineral content and reproduce an adequate copy of it.
Both trends led to a marked decline in the number of brewers operating in Burton. Consolidation was the only viable economic strategy. Allsopp’s, one of the giants of nineteenth century Burton, suffered a disastrous stock market flotation in 1891, went into receivership in 1910, and struggled on until 1934, when it was captured by London’s Ind Coope. In 1926, Worthington’s was swallowed by Bass.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Canadian entrepreneur Eddie Taylor came to the UK and took advantage of the fact that, while most of the value of a brewery lay in its tied pub estate, the value of that estate had not been recalculated for decades. He snapped up breweries with indecent haste to create a market for his brand, Canadian lager Carling Black Label. Over a period of less than twenty years, he turned an estate of a few pubs around the northern city of Sheffield into the country’s largest brewing concern, culminating in the purchase and merger of Bass with London brewer Charrington in 1970.
Taylor understood how the business worked: where brewers of fine quality lagers such as Heineken and Carlsberg had failed to seduce one of the largest beer markets in the world, Eddie Taylor managed to make Carling the first genuinely national British beer brand. That he did so from a base in Burton was not deliberate. Nevertheless, it was a prophetic move. Within thirty years, mainstream Britain would abandon fine pale ales like Bass in favor of imitation pilsner lagers. Half a century after the loss of Empire, a new generation of Britons finally put aside a measure of their haughty belief in British-is-best, and began to take on habits that resembled the rest of the beer-drinking world.
At the same time, Britain underwent a revolution in transport and communications that rendered the notion of a “brewing town” obsolete. Six lane motorways—small by US standards, but remember that prior to this our best roads had been built by the Roman Empire—linked up Britain with an unprecedented level of efficiency. And the thing about motorways is you can build them anywhere, through anything. Just as Burton found fame when the Trent was incorporated into a network of canals, so it lost its prominence when mega-roads finally made the canals obsolete. The character of the town was instantly transformed, as Bob Ricketts remembers. “Almost overnight the brewers gave the town back to its people, leaving vast unwanted areas in the centre.”
The New Millennium
In 2002, Belgian brewer Interbrew bought Bass, completing a rout that left three of the UK’s four biggest brewers in foreign ownership. The government decided that it was unhealthy to have such a large concentration of brewing power resting with a handful of mega-corporations and insisted that Interbew sell on large chunks of Bass to someone else. That same government saw no problem with the recipient being Coors. Okay, Coors was a global giant that dwarfed all but a handful of breweries, but we didn’t know them in Britain, so that didn’t really count. Coors is now the UK’s largest brewer, supplying the nation with our best-selling brand—the 4.5% ABV imitation pilsner Carling—as well Grolsch and Coors itself. Ironically, Burton today brews more beer than ever before, around fifteen per cent of the UK’s total output.
When Coors took over, they wasted no time in removing all traces of the world-famous Bass red triangle. The Bass museum—Britain’s national brewing museum—was renamed the Coors Visitors Centre. You have to search the Visitor’s Centre very carefully for any mention of Bass. The sudden appearance of a Coors-branded horse-drawn dray in the stables meant that even the most open-minded visitor struggled to suppress a cynical giggle.
But it’s not all lost. The White Shield brewery, a “microbrewery” in the heart of the museum grounds, still produces Worthington White Shield, a multi-award-winning, globally adored IPA. On the other side of town from the museum, Marston’s is still plying its trade after 172 years in business. The Coors Visitor’s Centre has an exhibit displaying the Burton Union system, with a sign reading, “Burton Unions were very labour intensive in use and cleaning… Economics have forced the Burton breweries to return to a more labour-saving system of fermentation.” But someone forgot to tell Marston’s: not only do they still ferment in Unions, demand is such that they’ve had to build a new set.
And over by the bridge that formed one end of the old town with Modwen’s Abbey at the other, the Burton Bridge microbrewery is doing very good business turning out a well-liked range of beers that dig deep into the history and tradition of this remarkable town for inspiration.
If you know where to look, brewing remains an inescapable part of Burton. It’s tempting to see the town as a monument to a glorious past, but that’s not right. Burton is not just a museum town, it’s a place that is still at the heart of British brewing, in all its forms: the UK’s biggest brewer and best-selling lager, one of our most respected traditional real ale breweries, and an exciting young micro: all are within twenty minutes’ walk of each other. One suspects this belligerent, uncompromising, quirky little town still has a lot more to offer the beer world. Beer is in the air. It’s in the blood. And more than anything, it’s in the water.
Pete Brown is the author of Man Walks into a Bar and Three Sheets to the Wind.