Wednesday, October 28, 2015


Imagine a place developed from the ground up for the sole purpose of brewing beer.  Its entire infrastructure developed for making beer.  Its entire population existing to meet the needs of the industry.  Its streets, a complex rail system, the life line of each brewery, delivering raw ingredients, transporting casks, moving spent grain.  Day in and day out, around the clock, ingredients come in, beer flows out – faster, more efficient. 

Prior to my trip to Burton, I knew very little about its history.  I had a general understanding of its historical significance and its contribution to brewing, but little else.  So, I decided to make the trip from Harrogate to Burton with little expectations for the town, other than to pay homage to a place that is recognized by most every homebrewer and to visit the National Brewery Centre. 
After a 2.5 hour trip with a transfer at Leeds, I walked off the train to a sight of a rather aging city under a very grey and gloomy sky; not very picturesque by any stretch of the imagination, rather, very unspectacular looking.  Dominating the center of the city was the Molson Coors brewery.  Poor choices of exterior materials and a rather obvious sign of a lack of up keep, the brewery was an ugly site…enormous, yes, but not much consideration for aesthetics or taste.  Walking past the modern, but faded and aging brewery, I began to see signs of the Burton of the past – large brick buildings, many sitting vacant, others repurposed for restaurants or a variety of other needs.  The dramatic contrast of new and old caused me to shake my head…such grand brick buildings, standing for centuries, built with pride and integrity by the hands of hard working men next to thrown together metal structures that beg for respect, but with no substance behind their construction only get a passing glance from a passerby’s brief recognition of the multinational corporation’s sign bolted onto the black fence.

Molson Coors Brewery in Burton-on-Trent

The contrast of new and old in Burton.
This continued to be the trend through the town, one impressive brick building, surely a remnant of a former brewery, standing next to a new building of significantly inferior quality and substance.  Where there was not a new building, there was a parking lot.  Nothing in particular stood out about Burton, a city standing in the shadows of its past - a theme replayed across innumerable cities all over the world.  Just like any other former industrial town – trying to keep up with the present by demolishing one substantial, historical building after another to make way for a more convenient and suitable replacement.  I eventually made my way to my destination – the National Brewery Centre. 
One of the buildings of the National Brewery Center,
in an original building from the Worthington Brewery.
Housed in a large red brick building situated on the back corner of the Molson Coors parking lot, the National Brewery Centre recounted the once flourishing history of the Bass Brewery and its place in the brewing heritage of Burton-on-Trent.  The museum was enormous spanning across three buildings showing off antique brewing equipment, beer memorabilia, shire horses, dray carts, vintage delivery trucks, and on and on.  But what stood out to me the most was a large scale model of the city of Burton in the year 1880.  I was in heaven indulging in the historical artifacts of brewing in Burton, but I was astonished to learn of the massive influence brewing had on the city – culminating in an unbelievable scale model of how the city once stood.

Burton in 1880.
Burton in 1880.
Burton in 1880.
Burton in 1880.
So, going back to that brewing paradise mentioned above, that place once existed…it was called Burton-on-Trent.  Sitting directly above an abundant source of some of the most perfect brewing water in the world and situated alongside the River Trent, an important commercial route cutting across England, Burton established itself as the brewing capital of the world during the 19th century.  Dozens of wells scattered across the town provided the breweries access to the water sitting deep underground.  Complex rail systems tangled throughout the town linking each brewery to the main rail line.  At its peak, over 30 massive breweries called this place home – producing over a quarter of England’s beer production and exporting beer all over the world.  Each brewery employed armies of people to address the needs of every aspect of the brewery – brewers, coopers, construction workers, engineers, clerical workers, chemists, maltsters, uniform seamstresses, shoe makers, shire horses, and on and on…each brewery was basically like a little city within a city taking up dozens of buildings expanding across numerous city blocks.  The work was intense, but people flocked to the city to work in the harsh conditions and keep the industry booming.

Needless to say, my perspective of the unremarkable town that I had just walked through had dramatically changed in light of the more informed understanding I had gained of the place and its history.  I made my way back through the city, viewing things through a completely different lens – trying to imagine how the city once was.

The scale model I had seen in the museum was utterly impressive, the city that I was walking through was not.  There were no signs of the rail system that once filled the streets.  There was no sign of the smoke stacks rising high above the city.  And there was no hint of the sweet smell of brewing in the air.  Little remained of the once thriving industry.  Sure, lots of original brick buildings still stood, but they were all disconnected, repurposed, and mainly vacant.  Sure, brewing was still a significant part of the city, but the empire that once stood in Burton had been demolished and replaced with the latest, modern systems able to produce as much beer in only 1% of the space.   Sure, there still remained some major breweries in the city, but the craft of brewing had been replaced with the automation of the business of brewing.  The city has continued to limp along, but years of bad decisions, numerous brewery mergers, and greedy buy outs has crippled the city and left it only with relics of a once impressive past.

As I continued walking through the city, I came across a pub called the Bridge Inn.  On the front of the building, it said Burton Bridge Brewery in big block letters, and on a sign in front of the entrance it said “Now available: Burton Ale”.  I quickly decided that it was time for a pint or two.  That was a wise decision.  This pub was fantastic, the beer was incredible; I had discovered a reinvigoration of life into Burton by way of beer.  The namesake beer of the city had been revived by a small brewery keen on continuing the long tradition of making incredible beer in Burton-on-Trent.  And Burton’s legacy continues…the once booming city full of massive breweries is birthing a new generation of small scale breweries intent on providing the UK with amazing beer.

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