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

1776 and all that

Very soon, it will be a year since I finished working for a large, multi-national American brewer.  As with any job change, it’s been a year of excitement and nervousness, peaks and troughs, many surprises and most of all of new friendships and old friendships reborn.  Of course,  I still have many friends in the old country  and I meet and talk with them at regular intervals – what’s good, what’s bad, what can be learned.  And the curious thing of course is how re-energised I feel about beer again. It’s my passion once more, not just my job.

The most striking thing I have noticed as a ‘drinker’ is the ‘before’ and ‘after’ world.  At University, I was developing my interest in beer (both consuming it, and being interested in it).  And the focus was ale – critical of what I saw as mundane lager, this was a world of real ale. Of cask beers; of bottled conditioned ales where I could find them; of experimentation.   I was extremely lucky to be living in the West Country which had, and mostly still has, a vibrant and energised population of free trade pubs.  And of course, the off trade was not what it was today – there was still a reasonable range of beers without the stack-it-high mentality (24 pack slabs didn’t exist for example).  These were days spent at The Beer Engine at Newton St Cyres; over pints of Directors at The Jolly Porter, or Bass at The Great Western.  The Turf Locks, jutting out into the Exe estuary, was a promised land that, back then, could only be reached on foot or by private boat, yet put on a wonderful selection of local beers (as it does today – if anything, nowadays it’s better).  The Double Locks, higher up the river towards Exeter was and remains a superb cask beer shrine, where tasty pints from an ever changing range are served direct from the cask in an elbows tucked-in-tight bar amongst ruddy-cheeked locals and braying Sloans.

Yet the world I emerge into today is different. Ironically, the world of cask and bottled beer is more vibrant than I can ever recall. The positive unintended consequence of the Beer Orders now sees a cask and micro brewery movement that is building a new beer culture and growing respect for beer again. New breweries, new beers, limited editions are coming to market at a rate where it’s virtually impossible to keep up. Age old ‘problems’, like the young men drinking cask, and women drinking beer (at all) are being slowly eroded by a groundswell of new news that seeps into our consciousness on a weekly basis.  One factor is where I now live.  Despite its Grail-like reputation in the brewing world, Burton and the Midlands don’t have a pub scene like the West Country.  Don’t get me wrong – there are some terrific individual pubs. The Yew Tree at Cauldon Low, The Burton Bridge, The Brunswick in Derby is an insultingly short list to all the great pubs I’ve missed. No, the issue is a structural one.  Whereas in my Exeter days you just didn’t know what choice of beers you would get if you chose a free house, in the Midlands, you have to go looking hard to break free of the yoke of a Marston’s, or a Punch, or an Enterprise.  Great beer is frequently served, but the range means I’m often peering into the fridge to eke out something new.

But actually, despite this, the irony is that the context has changed.  When I was last a free man in beer, I hadn’t seen the world.  Aye lad, I ‘adn’t travelled much beyond me own shores.  Serendipitously, while I have broadened my horizons, so the brewing world has broadened its horizons.   My love affair – for ‘tis that – with craft US beers really picked up Steam in 1998.  My wife (who in a commitment to the cause, I met in a pub whilst drinking, if I recall correctly, a pint of Marston’s Oatmeal Stout) and I travelled to California the year after we were married.  We had picked up the bug a bit for the ‘States with a first trip to New England, and now wanted to see the land of the American dream.  It was a pilgrimage too – I had places I wanted to tick off the list. Anchor was one of course – the mythical place it all began. An inspiring place – one day, I will have an office that overlooks a copper.  Yet it was the vibrancy of the beer scene that struck me all over – and this when it was still juvenile. In San Francisco on our first night, we wandered down to Pier 39. Mostly this is tourist tat shops, but in a great setting overlooking Alcatraz Island and the spectacle of the seals underneath the pier barking like infants with Croup.  We went for a drink in a bar called the Cannery – an oak clad wall with beer taps peeking through confronted us; locals and tourists alike animatedly chatting and discussing hot topics.  I drank an Anchor Porter which was biscuity and baked yet refreshingly moreish too.  Later, we drove to Napa and Sonoma  – beautiful valleys, filled with lime green vines stretching up into the hills, weaving roads enticing the eye up to a distant col. The wineries (we went to Mondavi and Mumm) had fantastically run tours, free samples a go-go and were just great places to kick back enjoying the sun and the scenery.  Yet my fondest memory was a little brewpub in Napa itself.  I can’t remember its name, but I can remember the experience.  The building was an old fire station with tall, arched windows stretching floor to eaves in beautiful Amsterdam-style brick.  We ate straightforward food: wood fired pizza before it was the rage; a rocket salad; home made sausages with garlic mash and gravy.  Pub grub, done well.  And of course a fantastic range of beers – I had a Hefeweizen, a Pale Ale and an IPA, my wife had a citrusy Summer wheat and a glass of Zin.

The drive down the Big Sur coast was as legendary as the reputation would suggest, sweeping through the precipice-hugging bends – dream like open-top cruising in our 1 litre Yugo.  We stopped overnight in Santa Barbara and ate a fantastic meal in The Brewhouse, a recently opened brewpub.  It was my first experience of properly hoppy ales – a taste of things to come if you follow the scene today.  We bypassed LA and headed to San Diego – where the brewing scene was only just kicking off. We drank beers from Stone Brewing and popped into a couple of Brewpubs which sowed the seed of yet another dream back home.  We went to the Zoo and Seaworld, in case you’re asking. Mrs P didn’t suffer too much.

And the love affair spread – Denver, Chicago, Boston, Dallas, Tampa, Seattle…great brews are popping up all over.  Yet it was only the other day, when I finally got round to drinking a beer from the Big Apple. For whatever reason, Brooklyn Brewery had passed me by.  The label didn’t catch my eye; the story on their Lager (a Pre Prohibition beer) seemed to be an afterthought.  ‘They don’t care that much’, I thought, ‘I won’t bother’.  So I didn’t.

Until last week. I bought three bottles of Brooklyn Lager in Mr Tesco’s corner shop.  3 for £2, if you’re asking, which I reckoned was a good deal, and good enough to try something new.

Silly, silly, me.  A blast of leafy, green, hop aroma swelled out from the bottle top as soon as I levered off the crown. The colour, a deep copper brown, with red hues just glinting in the corner of your eye. The head, a deep lemon meringue of headiness, topping off a bigger, fatter, mouthful of lager loveliness with a balanced sweet malt, and hop linger. Silly, silly, me.

And so the love affair grows. Pick the stereotype you wish – America: the young upstart. Brash, big American beers.  No class, just in your face. Yep – all of those.  And the dynamism they bring to beer – the respect for the past with the excitement of the legacy being left for the future is palpable.  I love British beers; I’m basking in the warm glow of what some of our brewers are doing at the moment, but love them or hate them, there’s another American Revolution going on at the moment. It’s entirely peaceful and changing the world all over again.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, Originally posted on Posterous, May 2012