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Whatever Happened to the Beers of Burton?

By Jim Hargan 
Originally published by British Heritage magazine. Published Online: January 30, 2013 
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A third reason for Burton's former glory can be found on the plant's eastern edge—a canal boat port on the Trent and Mersey Canal, now filled with pleasure craft but once jammed with beer barges. And not only for Marston's; on the east side of the marina sits the former malting for Bass Ale, the largest brewer in Britain until the company's destruction and dismemberment in 2000. The massive Bass compound is now owned by Coors, which uses it to manufacture light American-style Pilsners, while the Bass brand itself is owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev. Bottled and keg Bass is no longer brewed in Burton, while the Bass we get in America is brewed by Anheuser-Busch in New York. Cask Bass, however, remains a Burton beer — brewed across the canal by Marston's, under license from InBev, and found only in British pubs.

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Burton brewing actually dates from 1708, when the Trent River's navigable reaches were extended upstream to the town's medieval stone bridge (now gone), and a wharf was built. The Trent flows northward, reaching the North Sea at the Humber Estuary. This gave Burton sea access to the ports of northern Europe. Soon, Burton beers were being shipped to ports around Britain, Germany and the Baltic.

In 1777 the Trent and Mersey Canal opened, giving Burton's already well-established brewers direct access to Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. William Bass founded his famous brewery the same year—not coincidentally, as the 60-year-old Bass had already made a fortune as a common carrier. By the 1840s Burton brewers discovered that their gypsum-laden waters made for a particularly good India Pale Ale (IPA), brewed for an extended shipping life by adding extra hops. As railroads linked Burton to the far corners of the island, Burton's IPAs flowed to the far corners of the Earth.

There are byproducts of any industry, and they are particularly copious from breweries, whose soaked, spent barley and hops make up a smelly mush that somehow must be disposed of. Of course, it's edible, smelly mush, and much of it has always been sold as cattle feed. The pungent spent yeast, however, was (and is) sold as people feed—the ubiquitous and beloved breakfast spread Marmite (with an overpowering taste reminiscent of heavily salted seaweed). The giant Marmite plant is still in Burton, but is not open to the public.

The inedible residue had to be sent to the sewage works; in the 1860s, Burton produced more sewage than an ordinary town 10 times its size. Starting in the 1880s, the Claymills Station disposed of this effluent by using an array of four huge steam engines to pump it up a hill to be spread as fertilizer. It is once again in operation, with two of its giant pumps under steam and more than two score lesser engines in operation—one of the grandest, largest and most complete steam-powered sites in Britain.

The heirs of wealthy brewers became politically active brewers, organizing Burton as a borough, dominating its municipal government and representing it in Parliament. One by one, these politically active brewers were granted titles and elevated to the House of Lords. Originally the brewer-lords were split between the Tories and the Liberals, but when the Liberals began a long flirtation with the Temperance movement, the brewers deserted. Known for decades as the Beerage, the brewer-lords collaborated to defeat British Prohibition and prevent punitive anti-pub laws.

The Beerage did well by Burton. Civic buildings, institutes, memorials and parks were duly funded. None remain as impressive as the massive water meadows of the Trent, converted into extensive parklands known as The Washlands. Here the eastern bank of the Trent pushes against substantial bluffs to spread westward across seasonally flooded flatlands—the hayfields of the medieval town. The town sits above the Washlands on a low flat shelf, squeezed between the water meadows on the east and the Trend and Mersey Canal on the west. The Washlands are the town's true glory—cut by meandering arms of the river and crossed by fine old footbridges, installed in the Victorian height of the brewery era. The best is the half-mile-long Stapenhill Viaduct, built by Michael Arthur Bass, 1st Baron Burton, and includes a 120-foot-long suspension footbridge of cast iron. This was an act of practical philanthropy; it allowed brewery workers who lived on the far side of the river to reach the town when the river was in flood.

Not unexpectedly, Burton has a first-rate beer museum—the National Brewery Centre, set up by Bass in the 1990s as a monument to itself. The Bass Company may be long gone, but its museum lives on, now in the hands of a charitable trust. And a grand one it is, with period-costumed docents guiding you through intelligent and imaginative exhibits, including a stable of draft horses still used for parades. There's a superb micro-brewery on site, where Head Brewer Jim Appelbee has set about reviving Burton's great Worthington cask ales, famous during World War II. The tiny plant does more than furnish a tour stop and fine historic ales for the attached pub (where the food is excellent, by the way); it's developing recipes and expertise for a potential cask ale revival in the adjacent Coors plant.

With the loss of so many giants, the title of Burton's second-largest brewer of traditional English ales has fallen to Burton Bridge Brewery, near town center at the site of the old medieval bridge and its modern replacement. Founded in 1980, the small brewery is jammed into the cramped spaces behind its first pub (it now owns six), with casks stacked in every spare corner. The pub itself is a perfect gem—a classic two-sided bar, both sides jammed with regulars, serving a full range of site-brewed cask ales on tap kept perfectly down in the cellar. Founder and co-owner Geoff Mumford admits it's not been easy running for 30 years a small brewery whose beers are distributed over 100-mile radius. "Many's the time I've had to drive the truck myself." But when accused of being a microbrew pioneer, he answers only with an odd look, which may be shyness or maybe just amusement. As that may be, he's keeping up a grand tradition—the famous beers of Burton.

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One Response to “Whatever Happened to the Beers of Burton?”

  1. 1
    Peter Baker says:

    Could you please send me full details of British Heritage magazine and let me know contacts in the Editorial and Image departments with email addresses if possible please.

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