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Bruce & Geoff: gone for a Burton

Added: Wednesday, November 2nd 2016

Burton Bridge

The rumour mill is already grinding away. A few weeks after Bruce Wilkinson and Geoff Mumford announced they were selling Burton Bridge Brewery, Geoff was in a restaurant in Burton and overhead a conversation at an adjacent table.

“I hear they’ve been bought by Greene King,” one person said.

“No,” the other replied, “it’s Marston’s.”

“Neither story is true,” Geoff laughs. “We haven’t heard from either of them.”

It’s unlikely the duo would sell to such large breweries. They are determined to protect their 10-strong workforce, the people who run their five pubs and the precious beers they have developed since they opened the brewery in 1982.

The reason they have put brewery and pubs on the market is simple: “We’re too bloody old!” Geoff says. He’s 74 and Bruce (left in picture), a mere stripling, is 67. When they started, they would regularly work a seven-day week. They would brew beer at 7am, go out and deliver, then return at 5pm to take over from a day time manager and run the Bridge Inn in front of the brewery.

Burton Bridge was a pioneering small brewery that inspired a legion of others to start making beer and offer greater choice to drinkers. It took a large dose of cheek to open the brewery in the most famous brewing town in the world, with the giant silos and fermenters of Bass, Ind Coope and Marston’s dominating the skyline and history of Burton.

But Bruce and Geoff were experienced local brewers. They worked for Ind Coope – part of Allied Breweries – in both Burton and Romford.

“We were the heads of our departments,” Geoff says, “and in the 1980s we could see the writing on the wall. Allied had closed Ansells in Birmingham and Romford was treated like the Siberia of brewing. We knew it would shut so we decided to jump ship.”

He drove into Burton one day, across the 17th-century bridge over the Trent, and saw a “For Sale” sign on a pub called the Fox & Goose. There was plenty of space at the back, with room to install a small brewery.

The Fox & Goose became the Bridge Inn and the first beer was Bridge Bitter, a classic Burton ale with a good smack of malt and hops, overlain by the famous sulphury aroma known as the “Burton snatch” from the local water rich in gypsum and magnesium.

No corners were cut. They’d witnessed at first hand the cheap ingredients used at Ind Coope and they wanted none of that. They use the finest Maris Otter malting barley and the best hops money can buy.

And in 1982 they sold beer for 50 pence a pint...

They were asked to brew a summer beer for a pub company called Midsummer Inns. It proved so popular that Bruce and Geoff turned it into a regular beer called Golden Delicious. It was one of the first golden ales and remains one of their top sellers.

At the other end of the colour spectrum, they had an approach to brew porter. They admit they had no idea what porter was back then, carried out some research and produced their interpretation of the dark, roasty beer. That, too, has become a regular member of their portfolio.

Over the long and often punishing 35 years, Bruce and Geoff have developed a wide range of beers, including Stairway to Heaven -- the best-seller in the free trade -- XL Bitter, Top Dog Stout, Festival Ale and Thomas Sykes, to name just a few. They are delivered throughout the Midlands and through wholesalers further afield.

True to their Burton roots, in1996 they launched a bottle-conditioned IPA called Empire Pale Ale that is aged in the brewery for six months to replicate the length of a journey to India in the 19th century.

Bruce and Geoff are less than enamoured of much of the beer being brewed by brash new craft brewers. They think too many modern IPAs follow the American style, not the traditional English one.

“Our IPA is the way beer would have gone to India,” Bruce says emphatically. “We went back to the originals.”

They are traditionalists. They think draught beer should be properly conditioned in its cask in the pub cellar, not rushed to the bar with the aid of new-fangled “fast cask” systems. They also stick to traditional beer styles such as mild and bitter.

“There are a lot of bizarre beers around,” Geoff says. “Standard bitter is abnormal now. It’s easier to brew strong beer than weaker ones. Alcohol can mask many things wrong with a beer.”

When they started out, Bruce adds, pubs sold “mild, bitter and perhaps a strong ale. Now if you see a pub with just three handpumps you think ‘It can’t be very busy’.”

He scratches his head in disbelief at the changes he has seen over the years. “Bridge Bitter is now the second biggest selling cask beer in Burton. Who would have thought Coors would have bought Bass?”

Geoff believes the Beer Orders in the 1990s, that forced the national brewers to sell off some 22,000 pubs, were “a retrograde step. They should have left things as they were. Maggie [Thatcher] had it in for the big brewers as Allied and Bass didn’t contribute much to Tory Party funds.” They dislike the modern world of the pubcos that demand enormous discounts for beers.

They brew 5,000 hectolitres a year. They could comfortably produce more but have kept to that level to avoid being hammered by excise duty. They are determined to sell to someone who shares their ideals and will take good care of the brewery workers, pub tenants and bar staff.

“We feel responsible for the people we employ and the sale will be influenced by what happens to them. We won’t go for the highest price,” Geoff says.

“Our tenants have low rents and good terms,” Bruce adds. “And we pay the staff well. We don’t use the minimum wage.”

The tumultuous changes they have witnessed over the past 35 years are encapsulated by their decision to brew Draught Burton Ale in 2015. It was a beer launched by Ind Coope in the late 1970s when Bruce and Geoff worked for the brewery. In spite of strong sales and winning CAMRA’s Champion Beer of Britain award, Allied Breweries let the beer slide. It ended up owned Carlsberg, who sidelined it and then finally discontinued it.

Bruce and Geoff brought the name and the style back to its home town. It’s a 4.8% beer, brewed with the addition of brewing sugar and dry hopped it cask. It was launched at the Burton Beer Festival in 2015 as a one-off brew but proved so popular it’s now a regular.

“We’ve had no come-backs about DBA,” Geoff laughs. “We’re disappointed – we thought they’d have a go at us. But there’s not much they can do about it. After all, it’s a draught ale brewed in Burton!”

The beer is part of their legacy. They have restored brewing and pride to Burton and inspired others to follow their lead. And they brew beer the way it should be – with time, patience and love.

They may retire but they’re not going away. They will continue to drink in their Burton pubs – the Bridge, Devonshire Arms, Great Northern, Plough and Prince Alfred -- and keep a beady eye on beer quality.

You can buy them a pint and make them an offer for the business. But not if you’re from Greene King or Marston’s.

Print version What’s Brewing November 2016