Burton-upon-Trent, Britain's Brewing Capital

In the entire world, only a handful of cities both defined and popularized a great beer style. One of them is Burton-upon-Trent, a town of 50,000 in west-central England.

How did Burton become a world brewing capital? The first reason is, literally, something in the water. The area's water supply, which percolates up through gypsum beds, is rich in calcium and magnesium. It is well-suited for brewing bitter beer, so much so that ale brewers around the world "burtonize" their water by purifying it, then adding hardening agents.

Another reason is transportation. The Trent & Mersey Canal turned Burton into an inland port, making it possible to ship ale to Russia and India. Later, railways connected the town to the rest of England, making wide-scale domestic distribution possible.

Finally, there were the men who came there to make a fortune as beer barons. At one time, Burton had 30 breweries that together accounted for one-fourth of the nation's beer production. Today, only two survive. One of them is Bass, which began operations in 1777 as a sideline to a family freight-hauling business. It grew to become a brewing legend and, for a while, was England's largest brewery.

The Bass Heritage

Today, Bass's heritage is preserved at the Brewery Museum. The museum, which is part of the vast brewery complex, draws 200,000 visitors a year, rewarding them with a delightful history lesson followed by samples of the brewer's art. Its exhibits show how beer was brewed then and now, and explain what makes Burton ale so special.

During a recent stay in London, I took a day trip to Burton: a two-hour journey each way. Although locals complain about their rail service, British trains run on time and the ride is more pleasant than on trains back home. From the Burton train station, the museum is a 20-minute walk--longer if you take time to look at the brewing-related landmarks identified by easy-to-find plaques.

One of the first stops on the tour is the cooperage. Barrels were once made here, but nowadays the building is filled with brewing equipment used during the 19th century. The items on display include a mash tun where King Edward VII and other royals wielded a paddle for photographers, wooden beds once used to ferment grain, and rows of "union casks."

The union system, a process unique to Burton, dates back to 1838. It is considered the perfect way to brew bitter ales. Think of the union system as a Victorian-era brite beer tank: excess yeast was expelled into an upper trough that fed the ale back into the casks; the yeast was re-used, some of it as a spread called Marmite; and the ale was eventually run off into a lower trough and into racking barrels. The union system, like many brewing techniques from those days, was labor intensive and had to be abandoned when factory wages rose.

For years, Bass used powerful Shire horses to carry beer and operate grinding mills and other heavy machinery. The brewery's last working animal was put to pasture half a century ago, but the Shires have been brought back as a living exhibit. They are exercised at a paddock and stabled in a building that also contains horse-drawn drays from years past. In addition to the drays, there are also a dozen vintage trucks and buses and an N-gauge railway locomotive on the grounds.

Next to the paddock is a microbrewery that dates back to 1920. The five-barrel system is still used to brew specialty beers from the Bass archives, including Bass #1, the original barley wine. It also functions as a contract brewery, turning out beers to commemorate events such as weddings; in fact, some couples are reviving the English custom of serving "bride ale" at their reception. Next door is a building housing a huge Robey steam engine that once saw service at a Bass-owned malt house. It now huffs and puffs to the delight of visitors. Steam engines are so efficient that some were used at the brewery until the 1950s.

The main museum collection is in the Joiners Shop, a three-story building devoted to the history of the Bass family, their brewery, and the city they called home. The brewery began modestly; in its first year of operations, it produced about as much a large American brewpub. But a century later, it was turning out a million barrels a year.

Britain's Oldest Trademark

Michael Thomas Bass II, the founder's grandson, expanded the business, largely by exporting India pale ale to British colonists. Beer was ideal ballast for ships; and the cool ocean waters, along with generous amounts of alcohol and hops, kept the beer from spoiling en route. India pale ale was originally brewed for export only, but it became famous in Britain after local residents salvaged casks of it from a shipwrecked vessel and sold them in Liverpool.

Although Bass does not fit the style guidelines of India pale ale, "I.P.A." appeared on the label until recently. Still on the label is the famous red triangle, which is Britain's oldest registered trademark. To make sure the mark was first in line, brewery employees camped outside the registrar's office the night before it opened.

Like many manufacturing operations of the time, Bass was self-contained, employing skilled tradesmen in more than 30 specialties, from carpenters to blacksmith to chemists. The brewery even functioned as a bank. Employees were given tokens redeemable for free beer, and some circulated in the Burton area as an alternative currency.

By 19th century standards, Bass was a progressive, albeit paternalistic, employer. One employee perk was a summer outing to the seashore. It was so big an event that the national newspapers covered it.

Virtual Burton

One of the museum's highlights is "Virtual Burton 1881," a small theater where a dozen animated characters from all walks of life lead visitors through town, showing and telling how residents lived in those days. There is also an elaborate scale model of Burton as it looked in 1921, complete with model trains chugging down the city streets and tiny people going about their business.

Another must-see exhibit is a reproduction of an Edwardian pub. It features then-popular games like Devil Among the Tailors, shove ha'penny, and skittles. A gentleman is on hand to demonstrate proper technique. He might also explain why that little girl is standing next to the bar: she refilled customers' glasses so they would keep betting on games. The house took a percentage of the wagers, which more than offset the cost of the beer. Many museum staffers are retirees who worked for Bass or in one of Burton's other industries. They are rich sources of the town's oral history, and their presence gives the museum a warm human touch.

The final stop on the tour is the Burton Bar, where Bass Ale and a range of seasonal beers are available. The £5.50 price of admission includes a complimentary half-pint. If you prefer, a three half-pint sampler is available for £3.50.

Author's note: For more information, visit the museum's website, www.bass-museum.com. The museum is now part of the Coors Visitors Centre. In 2000, Bass was acquired by Belgium-based Interbrew, which later sold the Burton brewing operations to Coors in order to comply with a ruling by British antitrust authorities.

This article originally appeared in
All About Beer, November 2004.