Food

On the Trail of Burton Ale

How a historic beer from the world's brewing capital faded into obscurity—and made it to a Wisconsin brewery by accident
TIMEDecember 19, 2021

Burton-upon-Trent has a long history of brewing. The town, a tad over 100 miles northwest of London, once dominated the beer business, counting more than 30 breweries in the late 19th century, including Bass Brewery, which became the largest brewery in the world in 1877.

Burton’s brewing history goes back to its namesake abbey in the 11th century. By the 18th century, Burton ales were known to be strong ales—rich, dark, and sweet—and while they could vary in strength, they trended toward the double digits in alcohol percentage. The Russians liked strong beer, and Burton brewers had great success exporting their potent brew.

Then, a Russian tariff on English products essentially took that market away in 1822. So now these brewers had more beer than drinkers.

In 1822, Samuel Allsopp picked up on London’s trend for pale ales, brewed with more hops bitterness and a bit lighter on alcohol, and residual sugars. Samuel Allsopp & Sons became second in size only to Bass over the following decades. Burton’s water contained high amounts of calcium sulfate, and this hard water brought out the character of the hops. Other breweries would actually “Burtonise” their water to try to achieve that effect.

Burton ales would darken again toward the end of the 19th century, but retain the pale ale bitterness. Brewers in both Burton and London often offered multiple strengths of their ales, numbered to distinguish the higher alcohol from the milder versions. And London beers, despite not being brewed in Burton or even labeled as such by the breweries, were often casually called Burton ales by consumers.

So what do we mean now when we say Burton ale?

Beer styles are a curious thing, and sometimes hard to define as they spill over blurred lines into other varieties. See the variations in porters and stouts these days. The Brewers Association offers a list of more than 100 beer styles. The Beer Judge Certification Program, of course, offers parameters giving brewers a framework to brew to style and judges standards to award them in competition. Each year has its own specific style guidelines, with (for now) 34 categories containing multiple styles. Burton ales may be judged as British Strong Ale, which is described more as a category than any specific style.

The style is hardly mentioned in the United States, and fairly uncommon back in the UK. In fact, Burton ale only came to my attention when one of my local brewers made it by accident. True story.

Burton-Upon-Chance

Jessica Jones of Giant Jones Brewing, a women-owned, certified organic craft brewery in Madison, learned to brew in the San Francisco Bay Area. While the artful labels of each of her beers feature a giant of legend or lore, “giant” is also a reference to their brewing standard: bigger beers heading north of 7 percent ABV. One of her favorite styles is an American barleywine (featuring the Brobdingnagian Babe the Blue Ox on its label), but she decided to try something a bit different.

“I had an idea for a British barleywine,” she told me. She started with Maris Otter, considered the essential malt for traditional British ales, though it was first bred in 1966, and used floral/fruity First Gold hops, a variety of Golding hops which are also considered characteristically British in flavor. Then she also added Biscuit malt, as well as Pacific Gem hops, which accentuate the First Golds.

“When it came out of the tank, my first thought was [expletive]. That’s not barleywine. It’s really good, though.” A light came on: “This is a Burton ale.”

“Not that I’d ever had one, but I’d read about it all over the place,” said Jones, referring to sources such as “The Home Brewer’s Guide to Vintage Beers” by Ron Pattinson, and “The Beer Bible” by Jeff Alworth.

Now, she wasn’t talking old-school brews, which were “thick, syrupy brown things,” nor the 1820s turn to British IPA. For Jones, a Burton ale “splits the difference between what became a British IPA and what became a modern British barleywine.”

Jones characterizes her Burton Ale as “what you’d find in the 1850s to 80s. Roughly an even balance between the malt and hops, but strong beer, moderately high alcohol, but not barleywine territory. About 8.5 to 9 percent ABV.” Its flavor profile is described as: “Biscuit leads with notes of daisy, mint, and black currant.”

Her “accident” is now part of her regular rotation, and one of the brewery’s most popular and anticipated beers.

Epoch Times Photo
Giant Jones Brewing Burton Ale was born from an accident. (Kevin Revolinski)

Burton-Upon-America

While quite uncommon, Burton Ale does appear in U.S. brewing history. P. Ballantine & Sons Brewing Company in Newark, New Jersey, brewed it as its first beer at the end of Prohibition—but they never sold it. Sweet, strong, with robust hops, the ale aged six months in the tank and two years more in the bottles. The brewery only offered it as gifts for special friends of the brewery—sometimes after an aging period as long as 20 years.

While Ballantine went beer belly up in 1972, the brand continued under Falstaff ownership until Pabst Brewing acquired the rights in 1985. Somewhere along the line, the original recipes disappeared. But even now, pricey original bottles of the Burton ale are out there in fanatical collectors’ land, and are still very much still drinkable.

A Revival of a Re-creation

Fuller’s 1845, first brewed in 1995 to celebrate the 150-year anniversary of the West London brewery’s founding, is a bottle-conditioned strong ale that may be in the Burton ballpark.

In 2015, Pabst had a go at it and released Ballantine Burton Ale as a holiday seasonal. Aged on American oak staves in a tank for several months, the brew finished at 11.3 percent a.b.v. This wasn’t your grandpa’s PBR. Beer review sites rated it highly.

And interestingly enough, your kids may have already heard of it. In “The Wind in the Willows,” the Rat “remarks approvingly” on the Mole’s beer selection: “I perceive this to be Old Burton”—but sadly offers no recipes or tasting notes.

Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler, craft beer enthusiast, and home-cooking fan. He is the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and his new collection of short stories, “Stealing Away.” He’s based in Madison, Wis., and his website is TheMadTraveler.com