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.