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Most historical references to Britain’s beer trade with Russia talk about strong stout or porter being the dominant style.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.