My six visits to the Bass Museum (now formally known as the National Brewery Centre) this Xmas might qualify as some sort of record if it weren’t for the fact that five of them were pretend excursions with my imaginative four year old neice, Seren. Nevertheless, I like to think that the ratio of real to imagined trips is a testament to the quality of Burton’s premier tourist attraction and its celebration of real ale.
Burton means “beer town” and good ale has been brewed here for a thousand years, thanks to the propitious mineral properties of the local water. No matter how good the agua, however, bumpy roads meant that Burton’s beer was drunk only locally until local freight operators (led by one Mr Bass) successfully petitioned to have the River Trent made navigable up to the port of Hull in the mid-eighteenth century.
Thereafter, word of the quality of Burton ale spread as quickly as the barrels could travel, a trend which broadened as the canal age took off, and then accelerated with the dawning of the railway age. Burton’s brewers invested heavily in both transport revolutions, leaving the town circled and criss-crossed with rail lines and waterways, a topography lovingly depicted in the Brewery Centre’s scale model of the 1920s town centre.
Two hundred years ago beer was the staple fare of the peasantry and working classes, but Burton ale also attracted a following among those who thought themselves better. Most famously, following a year-long incognito jaunt around Britain, Peter the Great became so hooked that even upon his return to Russia he still insisted on being served his daily ration of Burton beer. The ensuing Baltic trade sustained the town’s brewers for many decades
This marked the start of the Burton ale export market, but it was the the thirst of Britain’s imperial expats that turned Burton into the brewing capital of the world
Britain came late to empire, watching Portugal and Spain amass vast foreign domains while it could only pilfer some of the returning bounty, through Eliabeth I’s strategy of state sponsored piracy (“privateering” to her spin-doctors). But once this capital was invested in a growing navy and new voyages of exploration in the 17th and 18th centuries, Britain quickly started to establish some colonies of its own.
Most importantly for Burton’s brewers, was the gradual conquest of India, because by the early nineteenth century it had become home to thousands of parched soliders, civil servants and imperial bureaucrats.
Once it had been established that the local fire-water was lethal, demand for a nice pint from home began to grow. There was a problem, however, because while plenty of barrels of standard dark ale were shipped over most deteriorted beyond the point of pleasurable consumption on the rocky six month voyage east.
After some trial and error it was discovered that the extra strength and hoppiness of pale ale, added to the particular mineral qualities of Burton water, ensured that Burton India Pale Ale (IPA) not only survived the journey, but improved en route*.
Bolstered by the profits of this lucrative eastern trade, Burton’s beer magnates were also able to dominate domestic markets and by the1920s Burton was responsible for producing over half of all the beer drunk in Britain and the town itself had become entirely dominated by the local brews. Indeed, even by the time I was first frequenting Burton pubs in the late 1980s it was almost impossible to buy beer that was produced anywhere else, as every pub was tied to a local brewery.
Today, Burton is responsible for a more modest 15% of Britain’s beer output and anti-monopoly legislation has forced the breweries to divest much of their pub ownership. Burton’s iconic Bass brewery is owned by Coors, and Carlsberg swallowed up Ind Coope. Only Marstons remains from the golden age, but the town is still dominated by brewing and its by-products, such as Marmite, a fact that anyone with a sense of smell can attest to upon arriving at Burton train station.
The National Brewing Centre tells this history of the town and its breweries in informative and entertaining fashion across two floors of a former malt-house at the end of the museum tour. The first sections, which we skipped on this visit, concentrate on the process of brewing itself, and there’s also a middle outdoor bit where you get to visit the shire-horse stables – but it was a bit nippy to linger long in the December snow.
This being a museum of beer, a proper visit should end with a few pints, and tokens for up to four taster ales from the on-site bar come free with entry. We enjoyed a reunion with one of the favourite beers of my youth, the mid-dark Bridge Bitter, plus a paler newcomer from Derby called ‘Ay Up’ (a local greeting that I lost the habit of using when I left the town). And for the train back home to London, a couple of bottles of Worthington’s ‘White Shield’ IPA and a copy of Pete Brown’s wonderful ‘Hops and Glory‘, more of which anon. A perfect Xmas cultural excursion!
* This is the bit where I wish I had been listening more closely to the musuem guide and/or had paid attention in chemistry, but I believe that the high calcium sulphate levels in Burton spring water helped bring a sparkle and fresheness that eluded other pale ale brews.
** Editor’s note: the above narrative only applies to the author’s real visits. Each pretend trip, of course, ended with a pram race around the stables and a visit to the museum shop to purchase “something nice for mummy”..