The brown signs to Burton-upon-Trent

There must have been a slightly incredulous look on my face when a colleague at work, who is part owner of a small brewery in the south east, suggested to me that Windsor, and not Burton on Trent was one of the original homes of UK brewing.  In fact, there seems to be the root of a hypothesis here and in truth, Windsor, like many towns (and perhaps more than most) did have many breweries – some burgher breweries, started by influential locals to ‘control’ the trade for some purpose, most, ‘alehouses’, more akin to modern-day brewpubs.  The claim though is ultimately hollow: you can argue all you like that is was Fry’s chocolate of Birmingham that was the first real brand of chocolate, but it was the Cadbury Family who unequivocally made the city famous for the product and their company with it.

I will not repeat the story of Burton in any great detail: the discovery of the ‘miracle’ water by Saint Modwen; the growing fame of ‘Burton Ale’ with the growth of the canal system & the Baltic trade and latterly, ultimate fame for the town and many of its companies with the annexation of India Pale Ale by the likes of Allsopp’s and Bass and the trade with India.  Industrialisation & imperialism catapulted Burton into a famous brewing town and with it a secure place in history – along with Plzen, Milwaukee and Munich.  It is one of the great hearths of worldwide brewing. Or was.

This week, after their purchase of StarBev, a conglomerate of eastern European businesses stretching from the Czech Republic through Romania, Molson Coors announced that it is centralising its European operation into one, based out of Prague. Geographically it all makes sense, yet you can’t help but feel that the legacy of brewing passed down to the current management team has yet again been forgotten – terminally so in this case. Of course, the company is at pains to point out that Burton will remain the UK headquarters, and they are investing a pretty significant amount into the brewery in the town at the moment bringing as much as they can onto one site in the town.  But they know it; we know it.  The impact of this announcement will be profound: Burton or UK based support roles will move; UK brewing will be consolidated; marketing will centralise to Prague as much as is possible; local sales teams will need to cow-tow to central diktats – Burton for Molson Coors will become, just as Edinburgh or Manchester are for Heineken, or Plzen is for SAB Miller, a town where they happen to have a beer factory.  It is a clear case of brewing Darwinianism: the commercially fittest adapt and survive.

They join the list of brewers who started, or relocated to the town for its raw materials and skills:

Brewer Date of Closure / Acquisition
Benjamin Printon 1729
James Musgrave & Sons 1803
Samuel & William Sketchley 1790
Thomas Dickens 1800
Benjamin Wilson 1807
Joseph Clay 1813
William Worthington 1927
William Bass 2000
John Walker-Wilson 1790
Hill & Sherratts 1820
John Greaves 1815
Samuel Allsopp 1913
Thomas Salt 1927
Lewis Meakin 1822
John Marston 1898
John Allen Bindley 1914
Burton Brewery Company 1915
Ind Coope 1913 (merger with Allsopp)
Charrington 1926
Truman, Hanbury, Buxton & Co 1971
Mann, Crossman & Paulin 1958
Peter Walker 1923
Sydney Evershed 1909 (merger)
John Thompson 1898 (merger)
J Nunneley & Co Mid 1900s
John Bell & Co 1901
Henry Boddington & Co 1892
James Eadie 1933
Thomas Sykes 1898
William Everard 1985
Marston, Thompson & Evershed 1999
Molson Coors Brewing Company 2012

Note there were other companies but their dates of demise are less clear.

Yet in all of this, there are signs of hope.  The raw materials, skills and passion to brew great beer in the town are still there.  Burton Bridge is testament to it; and other brewers, although tiny, do exist – Tower Brewery and Old Cottage are small acorns.  Great beers are still brewed – Molson Coors are brewing some great Worthington beers, including White Shield, at the National Brewery Centre, and Marston’s are brewing Bass as well as Pedigree at the Albion Brewery.  But you know, something happens when the brewery leaves the town.  The Marston’s brewery is no longer the humming centre of energy it once was; Bass has declined six-fold since the Government intervention into the acquisition of the old Bass Breweries by InBev – who immediately lost focus, put it in keg and generally gave it a proper back-alley beating.  Let’s hope it survives (and pray someone buys the brand off them).

It will be a sad day indeed when the only remnants of brewing in Burton are the brown tourist signs directing you to the National Brewery Museum, shopping centres with statues of Coopers of yesteryear (ironically, the one in the main shopping centre has a time capsule built into its base – how prophetic) and walking trails prompting you to see the towns former brewing glories.  I’m hopeful the new management of Molson Coors can turn their business around whilst having just the occasional glance in the rear view mirror to remind themselves of the great brewing legacy they inherited and for which they should feel a responsibility to pass on to future generations.

Museum

The National Brewery Centre: what will the attractions of tomorrow be?

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, October 2012

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