As the year draws to its close, there are several beery things on my mind. Deciding the Fuggled beers of the year for my categories of pale, amber, and dark. Choosing the beers that will make up most of my drinking on Christmas Day. Looking forward to January and my month of total booze abstinence. Working out what the theme will be for the International Homebrew Project in the coming Spring.
Thus it was at this time last year, unemployed and finally with the time to read Martn Cornell’s magnificent Amber, Gold, and Black, the essential guide to British beers, that an idea started to form in my head. I knew as I read that I wanted to bring a neglected beer style back to life for the homebrewers from around the world that partake in the project. Thankfully one particular beer style jumped from the pages of Martyn’s book (seriously, if you haven’t yet bought it from Amazon you should do, thinking about it, Christmas is coming so treat yourself, or persuade someone to treat you), a beer with a story rooted in the imperial history of Great Britain, and tied inextricably to some of the most famous names in British brewing history; Bass, Allsopp, Ind Coope.
For those who don’t follow Fuggled all that regularly, the International Homebrew Project will running for the 5th time this spring, and I very much imagine that we will continue our burgeoning tradition of bringing a piece of brewing history back to life. The project started out with just myself and one other homebrewer here in Virginia. Last year, brewers from several US states, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Czech Republic, Lithuania, and a clutch of other countries took part.
Last year’s International Homebrew Project revived a strong Scottish mild from 1853 that single handedly smashed many a homebrew/craft brew myth about Scottish ales. You know the kind of bullshit, hops don’t grow in Scotland so the brewers there had to import hops from England, and an act of national living up to stereotyping were too cheap to do so in any great volume, all the while shipping peat infused water from the west to the breweries in the east. So, I didn’t really have the heart to mess too much with people’s heads, after all wouldn’t a 10.5% abv, north of 100 IBU, pale mild be enough of a mind bend? Well, in the end, no, not really.
If there is a beer style that defines the microbrewing world, then surely India Pale Ale would be the forerunner, in a race of one pretty much. As such, given the sometimes woeful understanding of beer history and development that seems to abound, a pale beer with a shit ton of hops chucked into the boil, originally made in Burton upon Trent, has to have been the original India Pale Ale right? Well, no, beer history is, like most of human history, far more complex, and interesting, than the simple pronouncements that might one day make it into an Oxford University Press ultimate guide.
While Burton may be most famous in the modern age as the spiritual home of India Pale Ale, it is a beer which stayed much closer to home to which the city lent its name. At the same time as the likes of Bass and Allsop were shipping barrels of pale ale with plenty of hops to the sub-continent, they were making a pale ale with plenty of hops for the home market. By the middle of the 20th Century, Burton Ale was being listed as one of four principal ales being made by British brewers, the other three being pale ale, mild ale, and stout.
At the end of the 1940s, Burton Ale was described as being:
‘a draught beer darker and sweeter than bitter…common to all breweries wherever they are. Burton is also known as ‘old’ ‘.
One hundred years previously though, Burton Ale had been a strong beer, made exclusively from pale malt, and with generous amounts of hops. An anonymous writer in the early 19th Century had Burton Ale with an original gravity of 1.140, 4.5 lbs of hops per barrel (in comparison, an IPA of the time would have had about 6lbs per barrel), and needed a year and a half maturation. This was clearly a beer which demanded respect.
Go back a further hundred years. From the 1740s until the Russian Imperial government introduced tariffs on beer imports in 1822, Burton Ale was a thick, sweet, brown ale, which was ‘so rich and luscious that if a little were spilled on the table the glass would stick to it’. As an interesting historical side note, there was an exception made on the tariff for porter, which eventually led to the creation of Russian Imperial Stout.
What to do then with a beer which has evolved and meandered through the various colours, strengths, and bitterness levels associated with the drink. The answer is really rather obvious, ask the people that take part in the project. Thus it was that I suggested the following options:
- 1860s Scottish version of Burton
- 1870s English recipe, originally brewed in Burton itself
- 1900s American Burton
- 1910s English ‘Mild’ Burton
- 1930s English Old Burton Extra
- 1990s English recreation of 1840s pale Burton
The eventual winner was the 1870s variant, which was originally brewed by the legendary Truman’s brewing company. Despite being most closely related with the East End of London, Truman’s owned a brewery in Burton as well during the 19th Century, and it was there in 1877 that they brewed Number 4, a pale ale brewed with American and English hops, to almost the same levels as an IPA.
From the recipe provided by Ron Pattinson, the beer chosen would have an Original Gravity of 1.079, 125 International Bitterness Units, and an alcohol content of 7.3% by volume. Clearly a sweet, powerfully ‘hoppy’ brew, but not a n IPA. It was this fact that annoyed me something rotten when I read the feedback sheets from this years Dominion Cup, in which I entered my Burton Ale in the dreaded Category 23, listed as simply a ‘Burton Ale’. The judges clearly weren’t au fait with 19 century beer knowledge, and judged the beer as a ‘historical IPA’.
I have since brewed an amended version of Burton Ale which was very well received by all who tried it at the recent Homebrew for Hunger, and I can see it becoming something a regular brew. As you can see though from the list above, I have another 5 recipes to brew, all of which claim their heritage from Burton Ale from different points in its timeline.
The next one I plan to make is the 1930s Old Burton Ale from Fullers. Just 58 years after Truman’s made their pale brew, Fullers were making a slightly darker ale with an Original Gravity of 1.067, and somewhat paired back hopping, with ‘just’ 69 IBUs of Goldings. Gone though is the 100% pale malt, replaced with 41% each of English 2 row and American 6 row, 14.5% flaked maize, 3% white sugar, and 0.5% caramel colouring, resulting in a rich cooper beer.
The thing though that confuses me when it comes to Burton Ale is why so few ‘craft’ breweries seem to be interested in making the style, regardless of era. As a reasonably strong, certainly well hopped, beer, Burton Ale would seem to tick all the right boxes for a revival in the ‘craft’ brewing world. Like it’s better known cousin that got to travel to exotic climes, perhaps the time has come to Burton to make a more concerted come back?
Sure, there are beers being made by various breweries that would be recognised as a Burton Ale at differing points in history. Fuller’s 1845 is perhaps the most obvious example, though Young’s Winter Warmer, and Timothy Taylor’s Ram Tam have both been cited as valid examples of the style. There is a strong argument for saying that many of the modern ‘Scotch’ ales have plenty in common with 19th century Burton Ales being made in the large Scottish breweries, yet so few lay claim to the Burton Ale moniker.
Having gone through various, frankly ridiculous, shades of IPA, an age of discovery when it comes to the brewing of sour ales, the recent interest in beers from Eastern Europe, especially Grodziskie, perhaps the next big thing in the brewing world should be Burton Ale. A beer with a wealth of history, a great story to tell, as well as all the booze, and hops, so beloved of many a craft beer drinker.
Thus it is that I want to make a plea to the brewers out there looking to do something a little different. Put down the weird ingredients, the herbs, spices, and flavourings, pick up a book, Martyn’s is a good place to start, and bring back to life the beers which have fallen by the wayside. Whether it is the Burton Ale which so piqued my interest or something yet more obscure, the past is as rich a resource for your imagination as the spice rack, and you might just find something more palatable there.