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.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Where is the traditional?

I do not claim to be an expert by any stretch of the imagination.  My experience with beer in the UK has been limited to one area, North Yorkshire, and for quite a short amount of time, two weeks, so it is difficult to claim that I have a broad perspective of the state of the beer industry in the UK.  But it is impossible to overlook the fact, that American craft beer has a profound influence on beer in the UK.  I have traveled across an ocean with hopes of being exposed to traditional English ales served properly in a proper setting, however, everywhere I go the “craft” beer being served is one variation after another of an American Pale ale.  It is quite obvious that the “cutting edge” breweries and the craft beer aficionados in the UK have come to reject the traditional flavors and styles that were once prolific in every pub in the country, replacing them with the ubiquitous American hop flavor.  As I pursue my inspiration for trying to bring traditional English ales to Chicago, it is becoming more and more apparent to me that my endeavor may also be helping to preserve an endangered style in its homeland.

Angel Inn in Leeds, a very traditional pub and one of many
Samuel Smith pubs.  Samuel Smith tied houses have changed
very little over time, maintaining low prices, but tending
to have a questionable reputations with many people.  
I was naïve to think that the UK that I had read about in literature, glamorizing the pub culture with hand pumps, casks, and traditional ales, would be left unchanged in the year 2015.  It is so easy to glamorize a place based on movies and books…to think that those stories of fiction or those generalized summaries of history carryon through time unspoiled and are a continuous reality of a place.  As I have endured the ever changing landscape of Chicago, with its fluid trends and fickle consumerism, there was a part of me that thought there existed across the Atlantic this land of tradition, where people valued meaningful things and appreciated good, traditional beer.  However, just like Chicago, people in the UK are ever chasing after the latest and greatest, most often overlooking the traditions that I have come to admire.

The Crane Bar in Galway, Ireland
This realization of my naiveté came to me even before I arrived in the UK.  I left Chicago a few days before I was to start work at the brewery so that I could spend some time in Ireland.   If anyone knows me at all, they know that I love Irish music – yet another dying tradition in this world.  I have sought good Irish music whenever I have the opportunity.  Columbus, OH was a great place for Irish music.  There I discovered one of my favorite bands, the Drowsy Lads.  However, my appreciation for the music always brought to mind this far off place where Irish jigs and reels were played night after night to a raucous crowd of pub dwellers whose glasses never ran dry of Guinness…who reveled in the musicianship and were united by the exuberant energy.  Well, come to find out, after a few days driving around Ireland, seeking the most well-known places for music, these places no longer exists as they once did.  They have been spoiled by tourists, just like me, sucking out every ounce of genuineness that remained of the once prolific Irish folk music pubs.  What remained were places which catered to the foreigner, playing well known tunes to a completely detached crowd.  Sure Irish folk music still exists and occasionally glimpses of genuineness shine through in these settings, but the stories and places that are immortalized in the songs only continue to exist through the songs…these places have changed just like everywhere else.

The Grove Inn in Leeds,  A fine pub with a very
cozy, traditional interior.
So with that experience behind me, I headed to the UK – dreaming of cask ale and lively pubs with
dark aging wood interiors, full of character and soul warming, log burning fireplaces.  And what is all too common in my experience so far…American Pales ales, lots of keg beer, stark white, devoid of character interiors, and far too few fireplaces.  Don’t get me wrong; traditional places still exist, traditional ales still exist…they are just much harder to find.  They are no longer the norm, they are now a novelty, a weekend escape, a reminder of what once was.  The UK, at least North Yorkshire, can no longer be defined by their idyllic portrayal.  What has replaced them is simply a sign of the public’s changing preferences, the society’s acceptance of trend over substance.

With my first two weeks in the UK not quite what I had imagined, I am not disappointed with what I have experienced so far.  I continue to seek out substance and genuineness in the places that I visit.  Moments and places continue to surprise.  Whether it be the dingy pub I walked into that welcomed me in like family or the incredibly well balanced traditional Mild ale that everyone told me not to get, I can see and taste hints of the traditional everywhere.  Instead of trying to conform this new place in which I find myself to fit my expectations, I am, instead, trying to experience everything with an open mind.  I’ll leave it to the movies and history books to paint the pictures of how life once was, and I will take it upon myself to make the most of the present and develop my own understanding of the actual place in which I am blessed to spend the next few months.  Come to think of it, that is quite in line with the meaning of the name of our brewery – Present Tense.

Traditional or not….I still have an unimaginable supply of amazing cask ale all around me…and that makes me very happy!

Real Ale Festival - Weatherspoon, Harrogate

A very well supplied cellar in Newcastle.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The beginning of the next 3 months

Standing on Skipton Road at 6:15AM waiting on Oliver to pick me up, it was all becoming a reality now.  I was finally in the UK.  I was finally starting my first brewery job.  And I had woken up at the god forsaken time of 5am.  This was to be my schedule for the next 3 months.  A slight change of schedule from what I had grown accustomed to in Chicago – starting work at 10am.  Now by 10am almost half my work day would be over.

My expectations for the day were not very high. I expected to be doing basic labor for a while – cask washing, shoveling grain, cleaning, etc – but I was looking forward to getting past the uncomfortableness of being the new guy and contributing to the brewery in my own way.

Casks getting loaded on pallets to be
filled with beer the next day.
We arrived at the brewery in about 15 minutes after Oliver picked me up.  The drive from Harrogate to Knaresborough was surprisingly busy for such an hour – may be the English were earlier risers than Americans or maybe I just had no idea that people’s days started much earlier than mine typically had in the past.  Oliver and I entered in the side door behind the massive stainless steel tanks while everyone else was waiting at the front where two large steel sliding doors opened the brewery up to the world.  The brewery was housed in a large steel structure resembling an airplane hangar – a large half circle corrugated steel roof extending for nearly a football field’s length.

After I got introduced to everyone, and quickly forgot everyone’s name, everyone very promptly got to work.  Kat fixed coffee and tea for everyone.  Everyone had their own steel toe, waterproof boots and a locker to hold their stuff.  It all operated like a well-oiled machine – everyone had their tasks for the day and it was just a matter of getting it done that determined the success of their job.  As everyone started tackling their morning tasks, Oliver gave me a tour. 

The cask washer beside a wall of casks.
The brewery was very orderly and very logically set up.  Behind the two massive doors, the casks sat stacked 4 rows of 6 high.  Stacked on pallets with trays placed between each row, the casks were able to be easily moved and rearranged as needed.  There were 9 gallon casks, 11 gallon casks, and full 18 gallon casks.  Beside the casks was two bathrooms and a large stainless steel utility sink and dishwasher.  Behind the casks was the cask washer.  Placed up against the wall, the cask washer was a 3 cask washer.  A cask stand stood close to the cask washer with a large plastic tub positioned under the stand to catch the remaining contents of each cask as it was emptied and rinsed.  Behind the cask washer on the right side of the building was a two story structure with the lower level having an enclosed laboratory making up one room and a supplies closet making up the other.  The upper level was used for grain storage and for access to the top of the mash tun for loading the grain hopper.  The 30 barrel brew house stood behind this with a hot liquor tank, a cold liquor tank, a CIP system, and another hot liquor tank.  On the left side of the building stood a two story structure with the lower level having a small office for Oliver positioned adjacent to the kitchen and the upper level housed Tom’s office.  Behind that was a closet for storing the canning system, filters, and pumps.  Then more cask and can storage and then behind that stood CO2 tanks and O2 tanks beside a large bright tank for carbonating beer prior to kegging and canning.  6 large conical fermenters finished the remainder of the left side of the room across from the brew house.  The fermenters were custom made by a local fabricator with a manway opening at the top for dryhopping.  All of this composed the main area of the brewery.  Behind the main area was a two story cold room.  The lower level was held at cellar temperature for cask conditioning, while the upper level housed all of the hops at 2 deg C.  Finally, behind the cold storage was a staging area for prepping cask orders for delivery.

Research - Hales Pub, Harrogate's
oldest pub
This is my world for the next three months.  Day in and day out, opportunities will arise to make me become very familiar with every aspect of the brewery – but for now my main tasks are washing pallet after pallet of casks, making sure that they are absolutely spotless on the inside, and filling casks from the fermenters that stand 12 feet over my head in what seem like a tank of infinite capacity.  Regardless of how menial the task, I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity.  What can I complain about?  I am in UK, working for an awesome brewery…spending my free time “researching” the drinking culture in the UK while sampling as many cask beers that I can get my hands on.  Also, it doesn’t hurt that everyone I have met so far has been incredibly friendly and accommodating to me and very curious and supportive of our goals for Present Tense.  3 months is quite a while to be away, especially when I had to leave someone very special behind, but this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I am doing best to make the most of this experience and prepare myself to bring a little bit of the UK back to Chicago.