Gone for a Burton

by Steve Renshaw

Having read about Draught Bass in Greg Richards’ column last month, I decided it was time for a visit to the National Brewery Centre in Burton upon Trent. This was formerly the Bass Museum and it provides a fascinating insight into how Burton became the brewing capital of Britain.

The Staffordshire town has over one thousand years of brewing history. From the earliest times, the water from the wells in and around Burton was recognised as being ideal for brewing. The sulphate-rich water brings out the hoppy flavours and helps the beer to clear. Brewers across the world “Burtonise” their water by adding sulphates, often in the form of gypsum, to produce pale ales and bitters.

By the mid-18th century brewing had become a significant industry in Burton but expansion was limited by poor transport links. This changed in 1699 when Parliament passed The Trent Navigation Act. This resulted in Burton becoming the centre of one of Britain’s largest canal networks.

By the 1860s, Burton had become “Beeropolis”. The centre of the town was full of breweries and was criss-crossed by railway tracks linking them to the main lines. Over half the men in Burton worked in the brewing industry.

In the early 20th century, there was a slump in beer sales which caused many breweries to fail. This was exacerbated by anti-drinking attitudes during the First World War. The number of breweries in Burton shrank from 20 in 1900 to 8 in 1928. A further process of mergers and buy-outs resulted in three main breweries remaining by 1980: Bass, Ind Coope and Marston’s.

By this time, Bass had merged with Charrington United Breweries to become Bass Charrington, the UK’s largest brewing company. In 2000, the brewing operations of the company were bought by Interbrew, which is now the global megabrewer Anheuser-Busch InBev). The UK Competition Commission was concerned about the monopoly implications arising from the deal, and instructed Interbrew to dispose of the brewery and certain brands (Carling and Worthington) to Coors (now Molson Coors Brewing Company). However, Interbrew retained the rights to the Bass Pale Ale brand. Draught Bass has been brewed under contract by Marston’s for AB-InBev since 2005.

The Bass Museum had opened in 1977 and, in 2001, Coors took it over. However, in 2008, they pulled the funding and the museum was closed for 18 months. A campaign was mounted to save the museum which included a protest march through the town. Stung by the bad publicity, executives from Coors flew to Britain to sort out the problem, and an agreement was struck with Planning Solutions Limited to take over the running of the site. Planning Solutions manage a number of visitor attractions, including the nearby Conkers adventure park.

These days, Burton is a little down-at-heel, but it is still home to Britain’s biggest brewery. The giant steel tanks of the Molson Coors’ site dominate the town’s skyline. Formerly the Worthington’s brewery, it produces Carling, Coors Light and Cobra, among other brands. Marston’s is the only other large brewer in the town. However, there are four small breweries: Burton Bridge, Burton Old Cottage, Tower and Gates Burton Brewery.

And what about the beer? My visit to the Brewery Centre finished in the Brewery Tap Bar where I tried Reservoir Premium (4.6% ABV) from Gates. It’s a full-bodied, amber bitter with a good balance of malt and hops. A classic Burton brew!

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