Burton-on-Trent bugs the hell out of me.
To any beer fan it’s a legend, but to the average British beer drinker, Burton is the name of a cheesy menswear chain and nothing else. Even as an acolyte, if you ever get around to that long-dreamt of beer pilgrimage to this small Midlands town, beervana will prove elusive among the car parks and shopping malls that have replaced once great breweries such as Bass and Allsopp.
I’ve been trying to get this place to confess its beery secrets for years, but Burton simply refuses to look or feel like the greatest brewing town in history. Then, last summer, I discovered that if you really want to get a feel for Beer Town, you can do worse than abandoning your car, and entering Burton via the waterways that first enabled it to become the world’s first great beer exporter.
When the River Trent was made navigable at the start of the 18th century, Burton’s brewers could send their strong beers to Hull for export. But it was slow, expensive and dangerous, and the arrival of the Trent and Mersey Canal made trade much easier. Today the mighty Trent is unnavigable once more, but the canal still allows narrow boats and cruisers to float back into England’s Arcadian past, through places whose very names seem to smell of homebaked bread. Whittington. King’s Bromley. Barton-under- Needwood, where there are still pubs with names like the White Swan and the Shoulder of Mutton.
Coming from the south, you can stop for lunch and a pint of Marston’s Pedigree at the Blacksmith’s Arms in Branston, and you should be nearing Burton by four-ish. And you’ll be left in no doubt as to where you are: purring up to Shobnall Basin on the south-west outskirts of the town you pass signs for the Museum of Brewing, and then the gun-metal road bridge above your head welcomes you in cheerful mid-20th century modernist type to “The home of Marston’s.”
As soon as you’re under the bridge, the Marston’s brewery yawns away up the entire left bank of the canal, the buildings sitting back in the distance to allow an army of trucks to serve the bottling plant, nudging you back into the 21st century with their constant reversing signals.
When Alfred Barnard, the godfather of brewery visitors, came here in 1888, the Albion Brewery was five years old, “constructed according to the most approved model of modern times” by London brewer Mann, Crossman and Paulin. Burton ale, “a brightly sparkling bitter, the colour of sherry and the condition of champagne,” held fashionable Victorian society in its thrall. Doctors recommended it for stomach upsets. It allegedly saved the Prince of Wales from death by typhoid. London brewers who had dominated the market for more than a century with dark porters were forced to switch to pale, sparkling ale, and that meant opening breweries in Burton itself. The famous spring water, with its unique mineral content, was Beer Town’s crown jewel.
Well, for a while, anyway.
Within 20 years of Mann Crossman & Paulin completing their Burton brewery, scientists had perfected the ‘Burtonisation’ of water, meaning Burton pale ale could be brewed anywhere. Purists may insist even today that you can’t beat the real thing, but the beery exodus from Burton suggested otherwise. This may have spelled the beginning of the end for the world’s ale metropolis, but it would prove a boon to one of its lesser known inhabitants.
Marston, Thompson & Evershed always managed to avoid the boom and bust that characterised Burton, maybe because it was a little outside the town and not quite part of its famous story. A relative newcomer, John Marston only started brewing in 1834, though the firms he merged with can trace their roots back to the dawn of commercial brewing in Burton. As giants like Allsopp entered decades of messy receivership, Marston’s had grown modestly to the point where it needed a bigger brewery. In 1898 it picked up the Albion brewery, still one of the most state-of-the-art in the whole town, for a song. The firm now known simply as Marston’s has been there ever since.
“Yeah, Marston’s has always been a survivor,” says Ian Ward, Marston’s marketing manager, as we walk through what still looks like a model brewery, all tidy in neat red brick. “I think you can feel the pulse of cask ale here. Our brands are growing, we brew beer for other regional brewers, and we do the packaging and distribution for a lot of our fellow brewers as well.”