Burton-on-Trent is famous as the home of England’s most famous beer style, India pale ale. Since before 1800, IPA has spread it’s influence all over the brewing world. It’s a rare brewery in today’s hop-crazed America, that doesn’t brew one.
Yet right behind IPA is another style, once highly celebrated and so synonymous with Burton that it actually took the name of the town for its own. This was the strong, sweet, and long-lived Burton ale.
The origin of strong English ales goes back well before the introduction of hopped beers in the early 16th century, But when we first hear of strong ales from the North being sold in London, it is 1639 at a public house called Peacock in Gray’s Inn Lane. Almost 200 years later, the same place was still selling Burton ale.
As an important item of commerce, things really picked up for Burton ale in 198 when a public works project gave the town an outlet to the sea at Hull. By 1746 Benjamin Wilson’s brewery—later to become Allsopp—was doing a booming trade in the Baltic, to Russia and elsewhere. As a later observer noted, Peter the Great and his Empress Catharine loved Burton ale, “which in those days was highly coloured and sweet and of very great strength and especially suited to the Russian palate.”
The dark color in those days was likely due to the use of a portion (possibly a large portion) of amber malt, a moderately kilned malt that is often prominent in English beer recipes before 1825 or so. It is known today as either amber or more commonly, biscuit. An 1890 analysis of a then 90 year-old Worthington Burton ale showed an original gravity of 1.1095 (25.8°P) with a terminal gravity of 1.028 (7.5°P). Many were stronger than that, as high as 1140 according to a contemporary book called the Young Brewer’s Monitor.
In 1822 the Russian export business comes to a crashing end as the Russians suddenly slap a punitive tariff on imported beer. Allsopp has no choice but to try to sell the beer in its own country, and after some initial skepticism, the beer finds a following. The next year, he retools the recipe for English tastes, adding more hops and brewing it in a less sweet style, but still very strong.
In the meantime, India pale Ale had developed as the hoppier little brother of Burton ale, and has found a strong market on the homeland. It is useful to compare the two. George Amsinck, a London brewing consultant, gives a number of detailed recipes in 1851. By then, both beers are being brewed exclusively with pale malt, the expensive but low-yielding amber being largely obsolete. The gravities for Burton fall in the 1.072 to 1.086 range, with one example way up at 1122. Hopping is between 0.57 and 0.68 ounces per pound of malt (noted in lbs per quarter), with 20 percent of that destined for dry hopping in the cask. The IPA gravities fall between 1.052 and 1.067, similar to today’s examples, but the hops come in at a whopping 1.06 to 1.4 ounces per pound of malt. Working out the recipes, this puts bitterness in the range of 50 to 80 IBU for the Burton ales, and a calculated IBU of 130 to 150 for the IPAs. It is useful to note that 100 IBU is about the maximum amount of bitterness than can be dissolved in wort. Notations from later in the century (Wagner, 1877) drop these stupendous quantities down by about half. It’s plain that Burton ale is a reasonably hoppy beer even at half the bitterness of IPA.