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Burton Ale: Back From The Dead

Added: Thursday, December 1st 2011

They may get in your heels and inspire you to dance. But Ale of old Burton if mellow and right Will get in your head and inspire you to fight. (19th-century rhyme)

Burton Ale: back from the dead

by Roger Protz , 04/2011

Burton-on-Trent is so identified with the development in the 19th century of India Pale Ale and its domestic spin-off, pale ale, that we tend to overlook the fact that the town was famous for beer for several centuries before the arrival of IPA. That fame was built on a style known as Burton Ale, a beer that was just as vigorously exported in the 18th century as IPA was a century later. It was Burton Ale that built both the reputations and fortunes of the Burton brewers but as a style it disappeared in the 20th century, taxed out of existence as a result of its strength, and overtaken in popularity by pale ale and bitter. Its fighting reputation may not have helped!

The first commercial or "common" brewer in Burton was Benjamin Printon around 1708. Before Printon arrived, brewing was solely in the hands of licensed victuallers, publicans who brewed on the premises. There are claims that beer from Burton had been on sale in London as early as 1623 and by the early 18th century, as better roads and canals were built, it was possible to send beer from Burton to London on a regular basis. Burton Ale became a cult drink in the Peacock in Gray's Inn Lane and the Dagger in Holborn. There were references in London journals to "Hull ale" and the diarist Samuel Pepys professed a liking for "Hull beer" but this was more likely beer from Burton that had reached Hull by way of the Trent and was then taken on to London by boat. In 1712, 638 barrels of Burton beer passed through Hull en route to London and Joseph Addison, the journalist and playwright, noted in the Spectator that "We concluded our walk with a glass of Burton ale". The same paper reported that Burton beer was in great demand in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.

Burton heads east

The Trent Navigation Act of 1699 had made the river navigable from Burton to Shardlow and by 1712 it had been extended to Gainsborough and Hull. The Burton brewers could now send their beer to most parts of England. Just as important, they could export them from Hull to Russia and the Baltic States. Tsar Peter the Great and the Empress Catherine of Russia enjoyed the ales from far-away Burton that were brewed strong - around 12% alcohol - and could remain in sound condition for seven years. At the time, Russia had no commercial brewing industry to speak of - brewing was mainly a domestic activity - but Burton Ale inspired Peter the Great to develop commercial brewing in St Petersburg. At its peak, trade with Russia and the Baltic accounted for 70 per cent of Burton's production and encouraged William Bass to sell his carrying business and set up as a brewer in the town, where at first he played second fiddle to the established brewery run by Benjamin Wilson, which later became the celebrated Samuel Allsopp's.

As relations between Britain and Russia soured, the Russians imposed heavy tariffs on British goods. The entire Baltic trade collapsed early in the 19th century with the wars with France, as a result of which Napoleon blockaded ports in the east. The impact in Burton was catastrophic. The number of brewers in the town fell from 13 to just five between 1780 and the 1820s. The surviving brewers, including Allsopp, Bass, Salt and Worthington, were desperate for new markets for their beer. They were encouraged by the mighty East India Company to turn their attention to India but as a director of the company, Campbell Marjoribanks, told Samuel Allsopp: "Your Burton Ale, so strong and sweet, will not suit our market." The result was a rush in Burton to follow the London brewer Hodgson and develop pale and well-hopped beer for the India trade.

Not quite the end of an era...

You could say the rest is history except for the fact that history has tended to suggest Burton Ale disappeared as IPA took over. In fact, the Burton brewers continued to brew large quantities of Burton Ale. It remained not only a popular style was also copied by brewers throughout the country. It was said in the 19th century that every brewer had to have "a Burton" in its portfolio. A price list from the late 19th century that was displayed in the Sample Room at Young's Brewery in Wandsworth, south London, included Burton and the beer exists today as Young's Winter Warmer. Similarly, both Fuller's ESB and Greene King's Abbot Ale are developments of those breweries' versions of Burton Ale.

The King's Ales and various royal jubilee ales brewed by Bass since 1902 are based on the company's Bass No 1. No 1 is still brewed by Steve Wellington in the William Worthington Brewery in the National Brewery Centre. It's labelled "barley wine" but it's a true example of Burton Ale. It's 10.5% alcohol and it's brewed only with pale malt but a long 12-hour copper boil with hops caramelises some of the brewing sugars and gives it a dark brown colour.

Well into the 19th century, Bass brewed not one but six different versions of Burton Ale, ranging from around 6% to 10.5%. The history of Burton Ale falls into two periods: the early versions would have been brewed with brown malt but once the industrial revolution created the technology to make pale malt on a large commercial scale Burton Ale became lighter in colour. The Burton brewers continued to produce the style for the sound reason there was a great demand for it. Pale Ale was expensive and was consumed mainly by the new, rising middle class while Burton Ale remained popular with those who enjoyed a sweeter beer.

Burton ale went into steep decline in the 20th century not only as consumer preference switched to Mild and Bitter but also a result of punitive increases in excise duty on stronger beers during both world wars.

The lure of Burton Ale

As a result of a book I've been researching into the history of brewing in Burton, I've become fascinated with Burton Ale. Others share my fascination. I went to see James McCrorie (right) who runs the Craft Brewing Association and is also a member of the Durden Park Beer Circle: both groups recreate old beer styles with great passion and dedication to detail. My reason for visiting was to discuss 19th-century IPAs but he also let me taste a Burton Ale he had brewed in 1995 and which was still in fine drinking condition. It's based on a 19th-century recipe, has an original gravity of 1135 degrees and a finished strength of 12.5%. It's made with just pale malt and Goldings hops, has a russet brown colour with hints of red and has a massive aroma of dark burnt fruit and chocolate. Sweet fruit in the mouth is overwhelming with some light peppery hop notes while the finish is dry, fruity and vinous, with dark chocolate notes and a faint hint of hops.

Burton Ale was revived as a commercial beer in 1976 when Allied Breweries launched Ind Coope Draught Burton Ale as an attempt to jump on the real ale bandwagon created by CAMRA. The beer was such an overnight success that Allied had to put Gaskell & Chambers, the major manufacturer of beer engines, on to permanent overtime to keep up with the demand for DBA from publicans who had sold only keg beer for years. DBA is 4.8% and is brewed with pale and chocolate malts, unspecified English hops and dry hopped with Styrian Goldings. It was a magnificent beer but when Allied Breweries split up, production of DBA was switched to Carlsberg-Tetley in Leeds and it's now currently brewed for Carlsberg by J W Lees in Manchester. It's almost impossible to find the beer.

I've heard rumours for years that DBA was a cask version of Ind Coope's keg beer, Double Diamond. But DD was only 3.8%. The mystery was solved when I spoke to Geoff Mumford and Bruce Wilkinson, who run the Burton Bridge Brewery and who previously worked as senior brewers for Ind Coope in both Burton and Romford. They were on the spot was DBA was formulated and confirm it was a cask version of bottled Double Diamond pale ale, which measured 4.7 or 4.8%.

To fill the gap and to create a Burton Ale for my book, the Otley Brewery in Pontypridd, south Wales, has brewed a beer that will be unveiled in May. Nick (left), Matthew and Charlie Otley run the brewery and they have brewed one-off beers in association with other beer writers, including Pete Brown, Melissa Cole and Adrian Tierney-Jones. Our beer may be called either O'Diamond or O'Roger. It's brewed to 5.4%, higher than DBA because Ind Coope used to warn publicans that, due to a powerful second fermentation in cask, the beer could reach 5.2% or higher. The Otley version is brewed with pale malt and a small amount of amber malt: the use of amber was my idea. We would have preferred to mature for several months but my book deadline is against us and I felt that a touch of darker malt would give the beer a mature flavour and good "mouthfeel". The hops used are English Fuggles and Goldings, with the American Columbus as a late hop in the copper. The beer will have a powerful 50 units of bitterness. The brewing liquor was "Burtonised" to give it the rich mineral content found in Burton and a yeast strain called Nottingham was used for fermentation.

The beer is now maturing in casks and will be unveiled in May in Burton-on-Trent. All fingers crossed...