Beer town on Trent
Burton, once one of the world’s most important brewing centres
Saturday 31 July 2021
This article is from
Share this article
They used to call it Beer Town. Burton-on-Trent, sometimes Burton upon Trent, usually just Burton, was one of the world’s most important brewing centres, famous for its role in the history of India Pale Ale.
That role, which it took on from the 1820s, saw Burton grow from a town with five brewers each making a few thousand barrels, to being the biggest brewing town in the world, with its 30-odd brewers collectively making some three million barrels by the 1880s.
Burton was home to Bass, the greatest brewery – in size and renown – of the Victorian era, with its Bass Ale, and its distinctive red triangle logo, available around the world. Bass’s neighbours included Allsopp’s, another British brewing behemoth, and Worthington’s, and as the town’s importance grew, brewers from the south, like Ind Coope, Truman and Charrington, built second facilities in the town to capitalise on the fame of the town’s beers, and the quality of the brewing water.
The local water is very hard and high in gypsum, making it ideal for brewing pale beer for export, while a different kind of water made that export easier; the town’s location on the Trent, and its connection to the wider British canal network, gave it access to the major rivers (Thames, Mersey and Severn) and the biggest ports (London, Hull, Liverpool and Bristol). Later the railways ran through the town and made transport quicker and easier, both domestically and internationally.
Most of Burton’s breweries were packed into little more than a square mile, making the centre of town a great complex of enormous factories, with many cask stores, over 80 maltings, dozens of cooperages, timber yards, stables, more than 300 licenced properties, and all intersected with miles of private railway lines used to transport goods between the breweries. It’s impossible to imagine what Burton was once like when it was at its brewing peak in the late 19th century, to imagine the sounds and smells, and to think of what it was like when half the working population were employed by the breweries, and most of the rest worked in ancillary industries which ringed the town. Beer truly was the blood of Burton.
But of course, things changed: exports declined; industrialisation, mechanisation and technical advances required less labour to make more beer; science taught brewers how to replicate Burton water, so those beer types could be made anywhere, though changing tastes made them less popular; kegged ales and then lagers grew in importance; breweries began to employ graduates instead of the grandsons of past employees; there were mergers, consolidations and closures, with a general rationalisation greatly impacting Burton’s breweries. The town’s identity fundamentally changed, and then so did the town itself, with the old brewery buildings repurposed or replaced.
The local water is very hard and high in gypsum
Beer does remain in Burton, and significantly so with some one billion pints of beer brewed there annually, combining small microbreweries, Marston’s, plus what the locals refer to as The Brewery: Molson Coors run much of the old Bass and Allsopp’s/Ind Coope’s brewing site, making Britain’s best-selling on-trade beer, Carling, the best-selling cask ale, Doom Bar, plus Coors, Cobra, Blue Moon, Staropramen, Pravha, and more.
Beer is still undeniably the heart of Burton, responsible for a lot of the town’s economy, but national and international brands are not focused on the local community in the way that Messrs Bass, Allsopp and their contemporaries were, meaning the town has lost its brewing soul.
And yet Burton on Trent is still a name in the popular beer consciousness, forever associated with India Pale Ale, with its name so often repeated in the retelling of that famous style’s story, giving it an almost mythical identity. And for that reason, plus many others, Burton is worthy of our attention, and we should visit to drink excellent pints of traditional ale surrounded by two centuries of indelible beer history.
Let’s be honest to begin: Burton is not a handsome town, nor is it charming or endearing; it’s an ugly post-industrial town which had much of the old Victorian buildings demolished and replaced with a mix of identikit retail parks, chain restaurants and supermarkets (all of which used to belong to breweries). But you don’t go to Burton for its external beauty, you go there to sit inside pubs and drink.
Arrive by train, exit the station, look to your right, and it’s a sweeping skyline of giant brewing tanks alongside huge 19th century red brick buildings and unlovable 1960s steel and glass blocks. It’s an impressive sight, even if it only covers a fraction of what the brewing footprint would’ve once been.
To understand the town’s history you need to visit the National Brewery Centre. Outside is a large rack with wooden barrels lined up and a trough on top, and this is an old Burton Union System; all Burton breweries used these through the 19th century (and later) to ferment their beers (Marston’s still use theirs today in brews of Pedigree). Inside the National Brewery Centre you’ll find countless treasures, mostly from the Bass archive (they serve beer in the Brewery Tap, but you might be better off heading to some pubs).
The Union System is a monument of beer history, and a couple of other notable landmarks also exist in Burton. In the shopping centre, called Cooper’s Square, is the Burton Cooper statue, a reminder of how important the trade was to the town. And by the river is the old Bass Water Tower, built in 1866 and the only remnant from when the riverside section of land was just breweries – it’s an icon of the Burton landscape (also look nearby for another Burton icon: the Marmite statue. Since the early 1900s, Marmite has been made in Burton from excess brewing yeast).
Time for a beer and drinking a pint of Draught Bass, plus other traditional Burton-brewed ales, is an essential beer experience alongside drinking Munich in Helles and Pilsner in Pilsen. The local ales are distinctive in character, essential in the template of Bass, being amber, usually a little malt sweet, mildly bitter, with some yeast fruitiness. Like other classic beers, these are subtle and elegant, not designed for impact but for drinkability, and they reveal something of themselves and of their locale as you go from pint to pint.
There are two pubs that should be considered must-visit, and where you should have a pint of Bass in each, and where that Bass will be a different drinking experience in each.
The Coopers Tavern is the best-known pub in town. It used to be the house of Bass’s head brewer, then a store for malt and then for Imperial Stout, before becoming the unofficial brewery tap and being officially licensed as a pub from 1858. Every wall has red triangles and old plaques, mirrors and images. It’s charming and cosy, unusual in its layout and for how the beer is served from the tap room out the back, with casks lined up on stillage and served via gravity. They always have Draught Bass, plus beers from Joule’s Brewery who are the custodians of this classic pub (by the way, Bass is a brand owned by AB-InBev and brewed in Burton by Marston’s, now a Carlsberg-owned brewery; but locals will tell you that the quality of the beer, when kept and served well, is still superb).
Just around the corner is The Devonshire, a huge free house serving a range of the best-kept cask ales in town, where the Draught Bass is poured through a sparkler for a creamy foam (as opposed to the gravity serve in the Coopers). Also on cask will be beers from Gates Brewery, made just up the road.
Across town, another classic boozer is the Burton Bridge Inn, where the Burton Bridge Brewery beers have been made for 40 years. Their Bitter and Burton Draught Ale are classic Burton ales, and much-loved by locals. Another brewery pub that you should visit is The Roebuck in Draycott, which is a few miles out of town, but worth the journey. It’s a family business led by industry veteran Steve Topliss, and their traditional Burton ales are all excellent, especially the Bitter and IPA; the latter should be considered a defining example of a classic English-style IPA, being bright amber, with a marmalade-like English hop flavour and a deep peppery bitterness.
The other small brewers are the Burton Tower Brewer in the old water tower of a malting, and they open up every Friday to serve top-quality traditional local styles (try the Imperial IPA). Also nearby is the Burton Town Brewery, with a taproom (open Thursday to Saturday) in the front of the brewhouse and another selection of traditional ales, like their Albion Amber Ale. These breweries have become important new social spaces, with a popular local following, reinvigorating the idea of quality Burton-brewed beer.
And Burton is no longer just a place for old school ales. There’s Brews of the World with 20 taps of mostly modern kegged beer, and a really well-stocked bottle shop; The Last Heretic is a micropub with a mix of local ales on tap; Beeropolis is another micropub, this one with mostly keg beers on; and The Dog has lots of interesting hoppy cask ales and a good keg selection. Burton is still a town for drinkers, and the choice is now better than ever before.
The story of Burton is one of beer history’s most important chapters, and there’s no town in the world where breweries and beer dominated it so completely. It might not be like it once was, but Burton is still Beer Town.
Cover photo: Model of Burton upon Trent © The National Brewery Centre Archives
Share this article