Early 20th-Century Burton, Brief Return

On Friday, home brewer extraordinaire Bill Schneller sent me an email about a special beer pouring at the Firkin Fest over the weekend: Burton ale to evoke the style as it was made in the 1930s, recipe by Bill, brewing by the Green Dragon (Buckman) brewery.  I had planned to skip that fest in very mild protest (it's a huge missed opportunity and offends my love of cask ale).  Fortunately, the Green Dragon continued to pour beers after the fest, and so I went and grabbed a pint last night.  Rare is the opportunity to try a Burton; doubly rare is the opportunity to drink it fresh on cask.

Burton Ales
Burton ales go back a very long time.  They were originally brewed in Burton upon Trent in the 18th century for the export Russian market.  They were then brown ales, made at insane gravities--both original and finishing.  When Russia passed a massive import tariff in 1822, Burton's export market dried up and brewers had to figure out how to sell the product to locals for whom the malt syrup was too sticky and thick.  They lightened the beer somewhat--though it never got pale--and reduced the gravities ... somewhat.  The hallmark of Burtons is strange balance point: they are simultaneously packed with residual sugars and hops.  Imagine a beer as thick and dark as Grade B maple syrup (and damn near as sweet) but hopped to the heavens.  It's both sweet and heavy and sharply bitter.
Bill's Burton is in the foreground.

As you would expect, Martyn Cornell is the go-to source for the style:
The recipe ... is absolutely typical of the Burton Ale style: pale ale and crystal malts, brewing sugar for additional extract, caramel, and Special Brewing Sugar, a dark molasses-type sugar, for colour and extra flavour. The result is a sweet, dark, fruity warming beer, just like its few surviving brother beers in the Burton Ale style, which include Young’s Winter Warmer, Marston’s Owd Roger and Theakston’s Old Peculier.
Now listen to Bill's recipe and see how he did:
"[T]he bulk of the invert was demerara sugar that someone there inverted to slightly darker than the Invert No 2 that a lot of these beers used.  Less refined sugars like that tend to burn a tad and can give a little roastiness.  Oh, the grain bill also had about 20% Mild ale malt.  It was 60% Pale (split between Maris Otter and Golden Promise), 20% Mild Ale, 5% dark crystal, and 15% Invert Sugar (about 85% of that was Invert 2 and the balance was the Belgian 160L)."

It was brewed to 1.075 and had 75 BUs of hops--100% East Kent Goldings.  Bill didn't mention amending the water in the first email, but that was clear on the palate, and he confirmed they went about half-Burton on the salts ("I've done full-on Burtonization and it can make the bitterness pretty intense and aggressive.")  I'm long past trying to defend these revivals as "authentic," but I would say Bill did a great job trying to evoke a beer that approximates the experience of a beer from 80 years ago.

So what's a Burton taste like?  For modern palates, it's quite unusual.  One 19th century writer referred to Burtons as "glutinous," and that's what sprang to my mind.  Some beers are sweet and heavy--barley wines, some stouts--but they can't compare with the heaviness and stickiness of this beer.  It was almost gluey.  But then the hops come roaring in and nip the sweetness; it's balanced by having both the malt and hops cranked to 10.  It also had a slight roasty note that, based on the recipe, surprised me (that's what Bill is responding to in the quote above).  A heavy, heady beer.  I could actually imagine modern palates--those who adore extreme beers--shifting just a half step and finding real pleasure in Burtons.

The most important discovery, though, were the minerals in the water.  They add a stiffness, sharpening hops and giving beer a sense of dryness.  When you read about Burtons, you wonder how anyone could have drunk the things.  The key is the hard Burton water--it ties the elements together so that they don't just scream at you but achieve a palatable lusciousness.  A lot is made of the water that came up through the gypsum beds underneath the city, especially as it influenced the development of pale ales.  But to understand the style most associated with the city, this element is critical.  I can imagine that making a Burton out of totally neutral Portland water would result in a sticky, treacly mess.

There's purportedly another cask of this beer left on earth.  I will endeavor to alert you as to when and where it goes on tap.  Anyone interested in the history of beer really should have a pint.