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.

Beers from beyond the grave

It’s getting easier then ever to buy and drink beer brewed to specific historical recipes and to get at least a sense of what beer tasted like before the 1970s.

Here’s a list of some notable beers which are recreations of specific beers based on recipes from the archives. We’ve also included a couple of beers which, although perhaps not exactly recreations, can help us understand specific aspects of the beer of the past.

1. Harvey’s Imperial Extra Double Stout (9%, bottle)
It’s hard to work out if this is an accurate recreation of an historic recipe but, nonetheless, it is reckoned by some to be the best chance most of us will get to experience the sour Brettanomyces character which would have been present in many 19th century beers. (As they say on Wikipedia, CITATION NEEDED.) It’s pretty intense; you might not even like it the first time you try it (we didn’t) but it’s well worth trying twice and is one of our favourites now.

2. Fuller’s Past Masters XX Strong Ale (7.5%, bottle)
Based on a recipe from 1891, some work went into this, including tracking down a specific variety of barley and then having it malted as it would have been at the end of the nineteenth century. Trying to understand styles gets our heads in a whirl but, as we understand it, this could be called a ‘burton’, a type of beer rarely found these days.

3. Fuller’s Past Masters Double Stout (7.4%, bottle)
This was brewed from an 1893 recipe and, despite the ‘double’ moniker, is interesting because it represents what you might have got if you’d ordered just a straight stout in a London pub at that time. Great to contrast with Fuller’s London Porter.

4. Westerham’s Audit Ale (bottle Cask)
An occasional but award-winning product from this Kent brewery, Audit Ale is “brewed to the 1938 strength and using the same ingredients as the original best selling bottled beer of the Black Eagle Brewery”. We haven’t tried it, but we’d like to. Thanks to Ed for tipping us off to this one.

5. Kernel’s historic range (bottle)
There are too many beers in this range to list them all. Each recreates a porter, stout or IPA from a specific year and, the brewer tells us on the Twitter, most are based on specific historical recipes. Kernel have also collaborated with Thornbridge on a burton for this year’s Borefts festival. Again, we haven’t tried any of these, but others have.

6. Worthington E (4.8%, bottle)
A sullied name because it was applied to a Worthington keg beer in the 1970s and 80s but, we are told, this is brewed to the 1965 recipe for Bass Pale Ale. Again, we haven’t tried it, but Zak has. Thank to the Beer Nut for the tip on this one.

7. Harvey’s Ration Ale (2.7%, cask)
We’ve only seen it for sale once and they don’t mention it on their website but this is a recreation of a beer brewed during World War II when raw materials were scarce and beers got very weak. From what we’ve seen in Ron’s tables, only milds generally got down this low, but the point is made. We expect to see it crop up again now there are tax breaks for beers at this strength.

8. Greene King Suffolk Strong (6%)
This strong beer is interesting because, as many beers would once have been at point of sale, it is a mix of ‘stale’ beer matured in wooden vats (Greene King’s 5X, which they don’t sell) with a younger, ‘milder’ beer.

9. Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby Mild (6%, bottle/cask)
According to the brewers, this is a strong mild brewed to a pre-World War I recipe. We’ve never tried it but everyone else in the entire world hasThe idea that milds are weak, sub-4% beers is quite a modern idea after all. (With thanks to Graeme Coates for reminding us of this one.)

10. Courage Imperial Stout (tbc)
The word on the street (actually Ed’s blog again) is that Wells and Youngs are planning to revive Courage Imperial Stout. Which recipe will they use? Who knows. UPDATE: it’s out in the US.

Need we say (again) that we think this kind of thing is fascinating and that we’d like to see more breweries give it a go?

Of course, the main reason for this post is to keep everyone busy correcting us and adding to the list while we’re away in Spain for a fortnight. Hasta luego!

UPDATES

20:49 23/09/11 Somehow we missed Pretty Things and their Once Upon at Time series, which they worked on with Ron Pattinson. There’s a 1901 Whitbread KK, an 1832 Truman Mild and an 1855 Barclay Perkins East India Porter. Thanks to Dave for tipping us off to this in a comment below.