Maybe a Burton, but not a good one

McEwan's Champion -- a Burton or Scottish Ale

Both Martyn ‘Zythophile’ Cornell and Ron ‘No Internet Pseudonym’ Pattinson are enthusiastic drinkers and historians of Burton, a type of beer once popular, surviving examples of which are hard to find. Where it does survive, it’s usually under a name like Winter Warmer.

Largely through their repeated cheerleading, we’ve come to be mildly obsessed with Burton too. When, in a recent post, Zythophile described McEwan’s Champion as “a truly excellent Edinburgh Ale/Burton Ale”, we got a touch excited: a Burton available in supermarkets up and down the land? For not many pennies? Yes please!

The reason we’d never tried it before was an assumption that it would be ‘trampagne’ (© VIZ comic) — a strong, acrid, sugary beer whose 7.3% abv strength is its prime selling point. We can now report that it is not exactly that. It is an interesting beer and one we derived some enjoyment from drinking.

It is complex in the sense that there were flavours and aromas we struggled to identify. We liked smelling and tasting something like butter shortbread and the incredible, long-lasting bitterness. Unfortunately, not all of the associations were so pleasant. Was that a whiff of bottom-of-the-wheely-bin? Rotting orange peel? Drains? By the last dregs, with a cardboard dryness asserting itself, the phrase that sprang to mind was “souped up John Smith’s”.

But we will certainly try it again because we suspect our bottle was stale (and not in the sense that it had been carefully aged by a nineteenth century pub landlord or brewer).

16 thoughts on “Maybe a Burton, but not a good one”

  1. McEwan’s Champion is the version of the brewed-for-Belgium Gordon’s Scotch Ale S&N decided to enter into one of (IIRC) Sainsbury’s competitions for new bottled beers, and I’m absolutely delighted they did: I love these big, bitter-sweet Burton Ales/Scotch Ales (an almost indistinguishable pair of brother styles). For a brief while there was another brew, Newcastle Star, in the same style, also available in Sainsbury’s, but not any more, alas. This is a beer I would absolutely adore to try on draught.

  2. Maybe a Burton, but not a good one.

    Got to disagree with you.
    McEwan’s Champion is yummy.
    Do try it again – with a parachute mind [ie Open]
    And then tell me again you don’t like it.

      1. Or even over the length of Upstairs, Downstairs. (I don’t recommend anyone else to follow my example and watch Upstairs, Downstairs. Kids, just say No.

  3. I don’t believe I’ve ever enjoyed a single beer with McEwan on the label, and this was no exception, but it is several years since I’ve tried it so I might give it another go.

    The off flavours sound fairly typical. There’s a reason Scotland’s a lager-drinking country, and it starts with M and rhymes with l’quewans.

    1. If Martyn likes it, it’s got to be worth another try. There are quite a few beers we’ve tried or given a second chance because someone who knows their onions has blogged positively about it.

  4. I was surprised when I read it in Martyn’s article too… For me the sweetness was harsh and it didn’t have enough to balance it out, rendering it rather clumsy. Still, I’d be happier if I had enjoyed it since it seems quite widely available!

  5. It does sound like your bottle was lightstruck and skunked.
    “botom of the wheelie bin. Drains…..”
    Too long under supermarket lights perhaps?

    1. We’re quite sensitive to skunkiness in lagers and lighter ales; maybe it was that and we just didn’t quite recognise it in a strong, sweetish beer?

  6. I do have to say, I get some amusment mentioning Burtons to American beer geeks, and non-beer geeks alike, and recieveing a look of “What-the-eff-is-a-Burton?” Describing a beer that 99.9999999% of Americans haven’t heard of, let alone tasted, is a fantastic conversation starter!

  7. I think Rod has nailed the culprit. I don’t really rate brewers bottling in clear glass, less so supermarkets whose top shelf is too near strip lighting – especially if they keep BCA’s up there…

    Perhaps the rather uncool (no pun) lumbering chracteristics of a 7% plus Scottish dark beer mean this is a slow seller, so it spends rather longer than say, a tasty Summer Lightning, being turned rank on the shelf?

  8. If Martyn likes it, it’s got to be worth another try.

    Hmm, well, thank you for that vote of confidence, Bailey, but I certainly wouldn’t put myself up as the Robert Parker of the beer world.

    Burton Ale/Scotch Ale is not going to be to everybody’s taste, self-evidently, or it wouldn’t have almost died out as a style. Its underlying sweetness strongly marks it out from the comparatively dry beers that have been popular in the UK for the past 50 or more years. It can, very occasionally, taste a bit metallic (even in bottle). But for me, it has a rotundity, a fullness, a depth that is, sometimes, exactly what I need for a long, contemplative, quiet evening’s pint. And it’s great with roast beef, grilled steak or a gravy-rich pie …

  9. I tried it for a second time last night, having had a bottle of Lees’ Moonraker on Friday, and I liked it rather a lot. On complexity and depths of malt flavour I think the Moonraker edges it; I’d place it midway between Old Tom and Old Peculier, which perhaps puts it just outside the Burton bracket. What the Champion had was an extraordinary combination of sweet, heavy and bitter; sweetness predominates – even the bitterness tastes more of caramel than hops – but never becomes cloying. There’s an odd, almost savoury edge to it, as well, which you notice most on the first mouthful. Fine beer. (And it’s in a brown bottle, so I’d be surprised if yours was skunked.)

Comments are closed.