The Town Pale Ale Built

Molson Coors brewery in Burton upon Trent.

Arriving in Burton (upon Trent; on Trent; -on-Trent), the first thing we noticed was the smell: as in Bamberg, the aromas of brewing and associated industries are thick enough to catch the breath. Though the town feels run down, it is still hard at work making beer, and enormous branded lorries thunder by every few seconds: Carling, Carling, Worthington’s, Hobgoblin, Carling, Grolsch, Pedigree, Carling, Carling…

We took our time getting to the National Brewery Centre, via the Unilever Marmite factory and Marston’s (‘Mild, Strong, Pale’). We knew we were nearly there when we spotted a forlorn Burton Union — wooden barrels, pipework and yeast collection trays — in the corner of a car park sheltering under what looks like a cowshed.Joule's of Stone brewery advertising.

It’s a funny old place, the museum. The history of beer and brewing, and Burton, and Bass (with historian-baiting myths present and correct) are crammed into one large room at the start, like a kind of ‘executive summary’. Ephemera ripped from the walls of the old brewery, such as a fire notice from the nineteen-fifties with instructions for the ‘Senior Barmer’ and ‘Senior Getter-down’, are the highlights. The explanation of the Union system, complete with cutaway, is also the clearest we’ve come across.

This being built by a ‘Big Six’ brewer in its final death throes, and then maintained by Coors, the wording is careful throughout: it was great how they used to do it in the old days, but it’s just as good now, in a different way; the Burton Union was very interesting, but dirty and inefficient; nostalgia is fine, but progress is good, too; Joule’s of Stone was a lovely old brewery and all that, but time marches on! And so on.

whiteshieldcarExiting, we followed a red line painted on the ground which leads us through a collection of drays and pub signs, past some docile shire horses the size of dinosaurs, and out into the midst of a collection of vintage brewery vehicles. The Worthington White Shield ‘bottle car’ takes pride of place. Everywhere there are reminders of regional breweries and brands Bass swallowed up in the twentieth century before it, too, was absorbed.

Finally, confusingly, we reach a second museum. This exhibition, slightly larger, tells the story of Burton and Bass in particular in more detail. What comes across here is the sheer scale of the operation at its height: besides the brewing itself, there were coopers, sign-painters, railwaymen, engineers, maltsters, bookkeepers and carpenters occupying acres of offices, workshops and yards.

There are also small but moving details, such as the officer’s beret of the Staffordshire Yeomanry from World War II, which incorporated the famous red triangle into its regimental insignia.

We, of course, loved recreations of both an Edwardian pub and a keg-only nineteen-sixties bar.

Winding up in the brewery tap, we were gasping for a pint of Bass, having forgotten that Molson Coors, who are lumbered with the premises, don’t own the brand. Rarely-seen cask-conditioned Worthington beers were a welcome substitute, though. White Shield was much juicier and fruitier than in bottles; Spring Shield was a very modern, zippy pale-n-hoppy, despite its heritage branding; and ‘E’, brewed, we think, to a nineteen-sixties recipe for Bass, was pleasingly, drily bitter, with a funky note in the finish.

Worthington White Shield and Spring Shield.

As we drank, we conducted a post-mortem. On the one hand, this isn’t the museum the British brewing industry deserves. It doesn’t tell a story as it ought to — it seemed a jumble of odds and sods — and we’d have preferred it to be more clearly about Bass, Burton or Britain, rather than a bit of all three. That we had it almost to ourselves for two hours made us worry for its future. Would it perhaps be better off as part of something like the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, where it might get more passing trade? The people of Burton wouldn’t like that idea, we suspect.

And, on the other hand, it’s better than nothing, and anyone with an interest in beer, of whatever variety, will find plenty here to fascinate them. The fact is, if we don’t play with the toys we’ve got, we won’t get anything better.

Entry to the National Brewery Centre costs £8.95, which includes four quarter-of-a-pint tokens redeemable in the brewery tap. We also picked up some interesting bottled beer from the gift shop at very reasonable prices.

Pinning down the Big Six

Window with the Bass logo, Kennington, South London.

We’ve been grappling with a problem this weekend: commentary on the British beer industry makes frequent reference to the Big Six, a set of colossal brewing companies emerging from the takeover mania of the nineteen-fifties and sixties. Sometimes, though, it’s the Big Five, the Big Seven, or even the Big Eight; and the companies making up the Big Six in 1960 merge with others, grow and change names, which makes it hard to keep track.

In trying to tell a story, this is a pain.

Should we explain every name change as it happens, possibly confusing the reader and slowing down the narrative? Rely on footnotes? Or, as we’ve seen people do when writing about, say, the Royal Air Force, or Archibald ‘Cary Grant’ Leach, refer to them throughout by one name for the sake of clarity at the expense of accuracy? (With an explanatory note, of course.) We’re inclined towards the latter approach, but still thinking.

Anyway, for your information, in the oh-so-2002 Schott’s Miscellany style, here’s our best attempt to explain the Big Six.

UPDATED: Tandleman highlighted that we’d picked a bad source for our 1960 list, so we’ve found a better one from 1959 and changed the first section below.

UPDATED AGAIN: based on Martyn’s suggestions below. (We’ll also try to identify newspaper sources for each of the mergers/changes.)

The Big Six in 1959#
Ind Coope and Taylor Walker, Watney Mann, Courage and Barclay, Bass Ratcliffe Gretton, Whitbread, Scottish Brewers.
Brewery mergers/takeovers 1960-67
Courage Barclay + Simonds = Courage Barclay & Simonds (1960)
Scottish Brewers + Newcastle Breweries = Scottish and Newcastle (1960)
Bass + Mitchells & Butlers = Bass Mitchells & Butlers (1961)
Ind Coope/Taylor Walker + Ansells+Tetley Walker = Ind Coope Tetley Ansell (1961)
Ind Coope Tetley Ansell = Allied Breweries (1963)
Charrington United + Bass Mitchells & Butlers = Bass Charrington (1967)
The Big Six in 1967##
Bass Charrington, Allied Breweries, Whitbread, Watney Mann, Scottish and Newcastle, Courage Barclay & Simonds.
Brewery mergers/takeovers/name changes after 1967
Courage Barclay & Simonds = Courage (1970)
Watney Mann + Truman Hanbury & Buxton (owned by Grand Metropolitan Hotels) = Watney Mann & Truman (part of Grand Metropolitan) (1973)
Allied + J. Lyons = Allied Lyons (1978)
Bass Charrington = Bass (1983)
The Big Six in 1989###
Allied, Bass, Courage, Grand Metropolitan, Scottish & Newcastle, Whitbread.
The Big Seven
As above, but with Guinness.
  • # ‘Towards Larger Units in the Brewery Trade’, The Times, 19 February 1960, p.17. ‘What the Brewery Merger Means’, The Financial Times, 4 June 1959, p.11.
  • ## Beer: a report on the supply of beer, Monopolies Commission, 1969, table IV, p.5.
  • ### The Suppply of Beer, Monopolies and Mergers Commission, March 1989, Appendix 2.3, p.238.

The Lost Runcorn Mega Brewery

Screenshot from A Round of Bass

The collection of documentaries about pubs from the British Film Institute we’ve been eagerly awaiting for some time has finally arrived, and our copy turned up this week. (We bought it with our own money, for the record.)

Quite apart from the aching nostalgia for an age before we born provoked by the faded films, there are lots of nuggets which demand further research.

For example, there’s the Runcorn mega brewery mentioned in A Round of Bass (dir. Geoffrey Reeve, 1972). We’ve been to Runcorn several times and never noticed any sign of the ‘most modern beer producing plant in Europe’. A quick Google turned up this academic paper (PDF) by David W Gutzke which summarises the story as follows:

Built by Bass Charrington, Britain’s pre-eminent brewery in the 1960s and 1970s, Runcorn was conceived as becoming western Europe’s largest brewery. Even before it opened in 1974, however, Runcorn was struck with paralysing labour disruptions, technological problems, and managerial miscalculations that would plague its history until its closure until 1991. What gave Runcorn broader significance was its role in reflecting the pervasive, but misplaced, assumptions about a new corporate culture, new technologies, the emergence of national brands, and advertising as a vehicle for replacing local consumer tastes with national markets.

The paper is an interesting beer-focused companion piece to Andy Beckett’s When the Lights Went Out and answers the riddle of why we didn’t spot any sign of a monstrously huge brewery on our trips to Cheshire:

Soon the entire brewery plant was dismantled and sold, with some of it shipped to Romania; Bass even disposed of the empty brewing site. Nothing remained to remind the company of a scheme so grandiose but so calamitous that its true nature was expunged from Bass’s official histories.

The Big Red Triangle

Bass is better regarded as an icon of graphic design than as a beer.

It’s usually found in pubs that seem stuck in a timewarp and, in our experience at least, is rarely drinkable, from either keg or cask. We’ve found it sour and stale everywhere from grotty pubs with sticky carpets to gaudily wallpapered ‘style bars’ in south London.

A couple of weeks ago, however, we had a pint that was in tip-top condition and were reminded that at its best, Bass is a complex beer which carries some intentional ‘off flavours’ with aplomb. The sulphurous aroma, the hint of cider-apple and a final chalkiness, are not repellent but absolutely harmonious. It is reminiscent of, and better than, recent bottles of Worthington White Shield.

Until it tastes this way more often, however, while we won’t give up on it, it’ll have to remain on our list of beers of last resort.

Simon ‘Reluctant Scooper’ Johnson seems to know where to find Bass in reliably good nick; and those who like to try to find the breaking point of the term craft beer will find Bass a useful bit of ammo.