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Hunting for Burtons

For the second time this week, we find ourselves thinking about Burton Ale, a type of beer that doesn’t exist, at least according to some taxonomies.

We didn’t like McEwan’s Champion when we tried it at the weekend. Martyn Cornell suggested that this might be because Burton is an acquired taste; if it wasn’t, it might not have disappeared from the British drinkers consciousness so rapidly and completely after World War II.

We want to test that theory by finding and drinking some. As step one in that mission, we need a list of currently available beers that might qualify. (Few are described as such on the label or pumpclip.) Here’s a first, very short attempt, awaiting your additions and corrections.

  • Young’s Winter Warmer (5%)
  • Bristol Beer Factory Exhibition (5.2%, based on a recipe from the defunct Smiles brewery)
  • Fuller’s Past Masters XX (7.5%) and 1845. (We already know these well.)
  • Old Dairy Brewery Snow Top (6%)
  • Blue Anchor Spingo Special (6.5% — “Dark in colour and sweet in taste”) and Extra Special (7.5%)
  • And McEwan’s Champion, of course.

UPDATE 06/03/2012 — suggested by commenters

  • Marston’s Owd Roger (7.6%)
  • J.W. Lees Moonraker (7.5%)
  • Porterhouse Brainblásta (7%)

That’s not a very long list. Are there are any specific Old Ales which are really/also Burtons? Are any of Harvey’s huge range of beers Burton-like? We are eyeing their Christmas and Elizabethan Ales with suspicion.

Of course, thinking about it, we might have more luck hunting Burtons when the season opens in the autumn...

26 replies on “Hunting for Burtons”

Marston’s Owd Roger and Theakston’s Old Peculier

I agree McEwan’s Champion isn’t very good, though I have drunk more than a few as it was included in the four for a fiver at Morrisons.

Here is a 2008 Burton post from over at my place which I can lend you for a bit. Ron suggest Winter Welcome was not one and Martyn gave some times on spotting one. Sweetness seems key. Not sure I would raise my hand for the XX for this test though I would never not if the question is if I want one.

Might be worth asking Thwaites about Old Dan – might be along the right lines (though I wasn’t a fan of it at all). Don’t know if you can get it in bottle, but Church End “Rest In Peace” is one I found at a festival once.

Thanks all.

T_i_B — couldn’t work out if that was still available. Looked like a limited edition, now off the market. Have you see it about anywhere recently?

Ed — Owd Roger we can see — not had one for a while but remember it being very sweet. But OP? Really? Interesting.

Alan — thanks. There seems to be some confusion around beers like Fuller’s ESB which took the place of a Burton in the line-up (strong and warming, etc.) but doesn’t, in its DNA, have any connection to the ‘style’. Suspect the trick is, in some cases, to look for darker beers we wrote off as too sweet (flawed) on previous tastings.

Graeme — is Old Dan a bit sickly sweet?

s far as I remember – real strong fruity component and almost syrupy, caramelly – bitterness is certainly subdued. I keep meaning to buy some to try again to lay down to see if age makes it more drinkable.

I wouldn’t put OP down as a Burton myself either – it’s quite dry really – sugar in the recipe dries it out, and there’s a roast edge which further enhances the dryness.

I wonder how many dark, sweet, hoppy beers over here that we usually call “American strong ale” would roughly fall into the Burton style?

Reading a few more posts over at Martyn’s blog, it would seem that the lines between old ale/barley wine/Burton are blurred at best. Beginning to zero in on c.7.5% and sweet as a good, broad indicator of Burton status. Any particular beers that we might be able to get in the UK spring to mind?

Owd Rodger is definitely a Burton Ale, but Old Peculier is an interesting one: it’s in the “ale” tradition, I’d say, but I don’t personally think it’s sweet+fruity enough to qualify as belonging to the specific Burton Ale style. However, I’m happy if anyone wants to disagree.

The classic “very strong Burton ale” is Bass No 1, which most categorisers would probably prefer to call a barley wine, of course.

Martyn — what about Fuller’s Old Nick? (Do they still make it?) I remember that being very sweet indeed.

Feel a graphic coming on.

Actually, Porterhouse Brainblásta — 7% and officially a “strong ale” — is beginning to sound Burtonish to me.

It is quite bitter, but then I thought the Thornbridge/Kernal Burton was pretty damn bitter too.

Beer Nut — Fuller’s XX and 1845 also pretty bitter, we think, but it’s that ‘fruitcake’ comparison that does it. Brainblásta (thanks copy and paste) I recall as being clear, dark red. No recall of its flavour at all other than “yum”.

Steve — not tried either of those. Have you got tasting notes on your blog somewhere?

Another reminder that, while we drown in Double Stout over here, no-one has seen fit to bring XX in. I must rectify this!
*puts on rectification hat*
*goes to whine at local off licence*

That’s because, as everyone knows, Irish people only drink stout, probably because they invented it as a way to use up leftover roasted barley in 1759.

Granite might be right, but I could just ask Dave, I suppose! O’Hanlon’s sounds too strong to my mind.

Young’s Old Nick rather than Fuller’s – long time since I drank it, but I don’t recall it having the characteristic Burton fruitiness. In Young’s Winter Warmer that comes from their proprietorial brewing sugars, called YSM, “Young’s Special Mixture”.

Ah, that’s right. “D’oh”, as they say.

Does YSM contribute non-fermentable sugar, then? Hence the residual sweetness?

J. W. Lees Moonraker? A lovely beer, currently going cheap at your (or at least my) friendly local Morrison’s; it probably doesn’t sell too well because of its strength (7.5%). Why do so few British brewers use 330ml bottles for strong beers?

Speaking of small bottles, would Old Tom qualify as a Burton?

It depends on what era you’re talking about, I guess. When I had the great fortune to visit Fuller’s, we tried the Past Masters, and I exclaimed that it certainly seemed like a Burton. Neither Derek Prentice nor John Keeling would go that far.

From my reading of Cornell, the style morphed quite a bit over the centuries (especially if you throw the Baltic exports into the mix). I will not claim authority over the style, but it seems to me that including five percent beers in the mix substantially conceals what Burtons once were. If you think of them as those robust, hoppy, but–critically–heavy and sweet beers from nearly 200 years ago, they’re very different from the beers brewed today.

Of course, Martyn should correct me where I’ve gone wrong.

This is complicated territory. Our list now contains:

* original Burtons which have mutated over time to 5%
* historical recreations of Burtons (i.e. Fuller’s)
* beers we or others have designated as “Burton-like”.

19th century (and indeed early-to-mid 20th century) Burtons went from the insanely loopy (No1 and above, above being eg Arctic Ale) down at least as low as the 1060s or so, which would be the No 6s, and which would be sold as milds, certainly in the 20th century … it’s a classic example of how one “style” (Burton) crossed a whole set of other “styles” (barley wine, old ale and mild). So a 5% Burton was always perfectly possible …

Old Tom is another of those brews I suspect comes from a slightly different tradition of strong ales to Burtons – Old Tom was a common name, particularly in the North of England, for a strong ale, and it would be interesting to compare the recipes for, eg, the former Oldham brewery’s Old Tom, Robinson’s ditto and others to see what they had in common, and how they might have differed from Burton Ales.

This idea of “the ale tradition” has chimed with us quite strongly.

We tasted several beers at Bodmin beer festival which were strong and sweet and *could* be described as Burton-like, but we suspect they’re actually from yet another tradition, i.e. sweet, brown west country ales.

Still gathering info before we do anything rash like post on the subject, but, from what we hear, Devenish and Redruth used to brew sweet brown beer, and Spingo is certainly like that these days. Local taste amongst older drinkers is towards sweet and dark and St Austell Admiral’s ale, though strong and dark, just like HSD, we’ve heard dismissed as “too light”. We think that actually means “too hoppy”, i.e. in the beer tradition.

Everyone forgets Marston’s Owd Roger, it maybe be the longest continuously Burton in the uk, early 1900′s. Also the modern version hopping rate are much reduced compared to their contemporaries

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