“In the middle of the nineteenth century the name of Burton-on-Trent was world famous. Burton was the greatest brewing town the world has ever seen,” writes Pete Brown in Hops and Glory. It’s also the spiritual home of India Pale Ale, probably the most prominent beer style in the world right now, owing to its unsubtle ubiquity in the American craft beer scene. Choosing to visit Burton as our second Twissup (following Sheffield) was a no-brainer – this place is the heart of British brewing history and I wanted to see it for myself.
Burton is a strange town. It’s almost entirely dominated by Molson Coors but there’s a sense that no one actually mentions these huge Apollo-like (to steal from Pete Brown’s description) silver beer-making tanks, as if they refuse to mention them because by talking about them they’d have to recognise that they are there. Aware of the long beer history, the town feels like it’s lost something. Those huge, looming tanks scream of the high output production of the big brands in the Molson Coors catalogue, not of the breweries of centuries ago, but look a little deeper and their marks still remain.
‘Beer Town’ is an accurate description of Burton and you can’t open your eyes without a reminder: The Malthouse, The Grain Store, Coopers Square Shopping Centre, beer-related street names, old signs, Bass stones in the ground; beer is everywhere. Maybe we were looking for it, maybe we weren’t, but it was around every corner. And that heady, sweet aroma of wort mixes with the air and hangs over the town like a delicious fog.
Knowing the history I was like an excited school boy going on a trip to the museum to see the dinosaur skeletons. Burton is a near-mythical beer town which now sits in the shadow of Molson Coors. But Molson Coors being there isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s a good thing as it means that Burton is still an important beer landmark in Britain as a very significant volume of beer is produced there (Burton currently produces 15% of beer in Britain), including Carling, Britain’s biggest selling lager for 30 years. Marstons are also there, as are a number of smaller breweries – Burton Bridge, Black Hole, Burton Old Cottage, Tower Brewery and of course White Shield. Beer is very much still at the heart of Burton.
But Burton is a strange town. I can’t put my finger on it. It feels too quiet, too empty, yet there’s a lot of stuff there. The handsome old buildings sit next to modern, shiny-fronted bars and loudly-coloured shops; the stores usually found out of town are in the middle of town; there’s a vaguely unsettling mix of new and old which feels confused, almost like it’s stuck in a strange time warp, moving at two different speeds, entwining. But at the same time it’s a wonderful town. The sights and smells of brewing beer, the pubs, the reminders of the beer history, it’s all there.
The pub we started in, and the pub I liked the most, was the Cooper’s Tavern. A backstreet boozer with beery knick-knacks all around and a bar with a line-up of beer served on stillage, including Bass. This is where we set the meeting point for the visit and I don’t think they knew what hit them: over 25 beer drinkers in there from 11.00am on a sleepy Saturday morning.
About a mile out of town, Molson Coors have their own malting where they turn barley into malt ready to make their beer. This is the fourth largest malting in the UK and to tour it was to experience a fascinating mix of beer, science and industry. At different stages you get the aroma equivalent of a cuddle: fresh bread. A little later you get the aroma equivalent of a dead frog: the sulphorous and famous ‘Burton Snatch’. The maltings was a great insight to a side of beer production that we rarely see and it felt like a privilege to be allowed in and shown around (even if it did feel like a school trip for grown-ups).
One of the other reasons for visiting Beer Town was to see the reopened National Brewery Centre in the heart of what was once the Bass brewery. It was also here that we planned the highlight of the day: a tour around the White Shield Brewery with Steve Wellington. It’s a handsome old building, remarkably small, rusting in the most charming of ways; I can imagine it creak and groan as it brews, the sounds of a well-used brewhouse ready to retire. But an aging brewhouse is exactly what it is and a new brewery with four-times the capacity is being built opposite. This, to Steve, is a wonderful thing and he is filled with the enthusiasm of a boy on Christmas day. Steve has one of those voices – soft, calm, interesting – that lulls and inspires at the same time and I could listen to him talk for hours. The sadness of him leaving us was only replaced by the happiness at seeing a pint of Brewery Tap beer and a buffet. Brewery Tap is 4.5% and hopped with Centennials. It was the beer I enjoyed the most over the whole day and I could’ve happily finished a couple more, but by the time that had gone we had cask White Shield and P2 to drink, two beer institutions that cannot be eschewed for the modern. White Shield is a seriously good beer; bready at its base, spicy at its finish, each mouthful is as interesting as the last. It’s not an IPA in the modern US-inspired style and it won’t explode in your face with fiery hops, but it’s a wonderful beer. And the P2, with its luscious chocolate body and berry sweetness, was a rare treat. I’m sure there was probably more to see in the museum, but by this stage we’d kicked on a gear and were ‘on the beer’, so no time for any of that history guff.
Burton Bridge Brewery was a few minutes walk away. We arrived and a grumpy-looking Bruce met us, saying that he’d been waiting ages (a mis-communication from the Comms Director). He had the look of a child that had been woken early and then left alone for half an hour before getting attention, but that’s probably unfair because we had made him come into work on a Saturday to show a group of people around his office. It’s a quaint little brewery behind the pub and the beers are pretty good, although it was with the Golden Delicious that I put one and one together and worked out what Burton Snatch actually was – that aroma (eggs, arse) given off from the famous sulphate-rich local water (some think that it’s a good thing in a beer – not me).
A couple more pubs, some more beers, a slice of orange in a pint, more White Shield, more P2, a midnight curry in which everyone forgot their order as it was arriving and then a night in the Town House with unnervingly wonky floors, finished off the trip.
It’s a great town and a must-visit place for any beer lover. The best thing is that most of the beers we had over the day were brewed within a mile radius of where we drank them, some brewed within throwing distance. Burton is called Beer Town for a very good reason; it may have changed in many ways, but beer is still at its heart.
This is a very late post about the Burton Twissup. I wrote it the day after I got back but have only just got around to posting it. Cheers for the hospitality of Molson Coors – we couldn’t have done it without them. If you are up for a challenge then try and name everyone who attended in the picture above.
Now it’s time to think about the next Twissup. We need cities which are easy for people to get to en masse, where there is a good selection of pubs and at least one brewery or beer-related attraction for us to look around; ideally someone needs some local knowledge of the place and it needs to be affordable. I’ve been thinking and so far I’ve got the following:
London – plenty of breweries, no shortage of excellent pubs and we could probably organise some good activities
Manchester – Marble and a pub crawl
Sheffield – let’s go back there, it was great!
Dublin – Guinness, craft beer and craic
Scotland – somewhere?!
Brussels – Cantillon, chocolate and lots of bars
Amsterdam – drugs and hookers (it doesn’t always have to be about beer, right?)
A different event will be in the diary from the end of August/beginning of September and we’re planning on doing some hop picking in Kent followed by a few pubs.
Any other suggests for places and when can people go? We can probably get a trip in around October/November?