Some months ago, the list of brewers started to appear on the De Molen brewery website for Borefts, their annual beer festival, . For those who haven’t heard of this beer festival, now held annually at the brewery in Bodegraven, it is a celebration of innovative craft beer from what is described on their website as the ‘best of the best European breweries’, with geeky favourites such as Alvinne, Struise, Mikkeller, Emelisse and the legendary Narke usually there. The beer list contains more crackers than a Prince ‘Greatest Hits’ album. Now some brewers like to get their prestigious awards, such as the World Beer Cup, World Beer Awards, Solihull CAMRA Beer Festival Gold Medal etc.(we’ve got a few in the bag ourselves), but to me personally, the highest honour in brewing is an e-mail from the De Molen team asking if we would like to exhibit our beer at their bash. We already knew we were invited – Matthew had bribed Menno Olivier, the Head Brewer, with a case of Jaipur the year before.
This year I was delighted to see another UK brewery had been invited too – the miscreants at the Kernel Brewery- perhaps the most celebrated of all the current London microbreweries, of which there are now many (and all producing the best beer that London has seen for many years). After sending him a brief message of congratulations, I got to thinking it might be a good idea if we did a couple of beers together to be launched at the festival. E-mails fired back and forth, and thus it came to pass – it was time to get our thinking caps on. Both Thornbridge and Kernel are famed for our hoppy pale ales and imperial stouts; surely we would produce a big, crowd-pleasing hop monster, or chewy, tear-jerkingly awesome Baltic Porter? Er, no.
Evin O’ Riordain, the Head Brewer at Kernel, and I share more than a passing interest in historical beer recipes. Before I met him, I was disappointed to learn he’d already brewed an Export India Porter, a beer made in huge quantities by the London brewers of the 19th Century. I’d always wanted to make this, as whilst India Pale Ale (IPA) is the big famous export beer much brewed, copied, bastardised and written about today, it was India Porter that London’s great breweries, including Whitbread and Barclay Perkins exported the most. Brewed to a standard strength of around 5-5.5%abv, the recipes I have seen contain a frightening amount of hops in the recipe. Black IPA anyone? But any recreation of EIP now would simply look like I was copying the Kernel. I shouldn’t be angry though -Evin is just keen to preserve and celebrate the great old beers of the Capital. Amongst others, they’ve also done an Imperial Brown Stout from 1856, and an Export Stout from 1890. It was clear one of the beers had to be a historical recipe, and seeing as Thornbridge hadn’t done one yet, this was the plan for the Derbyshire end.
His first suggestion was a Courage Imperial Double Stout Porter, surely the greatest of all old beer names. Alas, it decided that, as Stefano had just brewed the old Courage Russian Imperial Stout recipe (with Brettanomyces), and this was bubbling away in the fermenting room, the recipes were just too similar and we decided to think of something else (Evin may still do this recipe at his place, but don’t tell him I told you). So it was back to the drawing board. Not for long though. ‘How about a Burton Ale?’, asked Evin.
Now THERE’S a good idea, I thought.
So what is a Burton Ale?* Burton Ales began life as the beers Burton breweries such as Bass, Worthington and Allsopp made and exported in great quantities to Russia and other Baltic states from the 1740s. This beer was not Porter or Stout, but was a style of beer unique to Burton – very strong, dark and sweet. In 1822 the Russian Government imposed a deliberately high import tariff on British goods, so the trade was effectively stopped. The Burton brewers needed a new market and none of them had thought of sending Pale Ale to India yet, so they toned down the sweetness, made it more bitter, and, once left to mature a bit, the style was thus decided more suitable for the English palate. The new and improved beer was sold to an even more exotic market – London, via the newly built railway. It wasn’t long before the rest of Britain’s brewers started brewing a ‘Burton Ale’, (as they eventually did with IPA too) and so it was that the style of ‘Burton Ale’ became a staple on the bar for well over one hundred years. Indeed, in ‘Back to the Local’, a book from 1949 detailing London pub life, it was said that there were three types of beer to be found – Mild, Bitter and Burton Ale. Expensive, warming, and hearty, always dry hopped and given time to mature in the cellar, these beers became a Winter favourite with British beer drinkers.
However, public tastes changed away from dark and sweet beer towards lighter, more dry beers like Bitter. Burton Ale disappeared off the bar very quickly – By the end of the 1960s it simply wasn’t being brewed anymore. Fullers had replaced theirs, Old Burton Extra, with a new strong pale beer called ‘Winter Bitter’, soon to be renamed ESB (note to Americans – just one beer name, not a ‘style’). Unlike other beers like IPA, Porter and Mild, Burton Ale wasn’t a style revived by the new microbreweries born after CAMRA was founded in the 1970s. The ‘other’ Michael Jackson, famous beer writer, never mentioned it, Burton ale having died out before he published his books. It’s almost as if the style has been erased from collective memory.
So what do you do when you need to replicate a beer style that everyone has forgotten about and no-one has brewed for nearly 50 years? Luckily, I have the fortune to know Ron Pattinson, a beer historian based in Amsterdam. To call him a beer historian is selling him a bit short actually. To see what I mean, have a look at this or this next time you want to know anything about beer, beer styles, the history of beer, beer tourism etc. Quite frankly he’s one of my heroes. Anyway, Ron has amassed piles of data about Burton Ale, including numerous recipes transcribed from Brewing logs that he let us look at. So we weren’t short of a recipe. But which one to go for? The Kernel brewery is based in Bermondsey, London, a stone’s throw away from the old Anchor Brewery, home of the famous Courage & Co. It was obvious we had to base our recipe on theirs. Fortunately, Ron had a good few from them, so we stole the best bits from the 1920s versions and merged them into one recipe. It is also fair to say we had a good bit of influence from a Fullers recipe, and what Burton Ale recipe would be complete without a bit of guidance from Barclay Perkins?
Time to source the ingredients. We used a mix of Fawcetts’ Mild ale malt, Maris Otter, a bit of Crystal and a sprinkling of Black. The hop grist required all Goldings, and lots of them, so I called one of Thornbridge’s best friends, Will at Farams, Hop Merchants, and he sent me the very best Berry Farm and Pridewood Goldings (Kent and Worcestershire respectively – exactly what we needed). For the yeast, we needed an authentic British Ale yeast. The Thornbridge house British yeast would be perfect – the right fruity profile, a hint of Sulphur, medium attenuation etc. This was shaping up to be an easy affair.
Sugar was also essential for an authentic recipe. Not just any old sugar – Invert Brewing Sugar No.3. This was going to be a bit more difficult. I tried the sugar manufacturers, who said the minimum order was a tonne. Try the Bakery wholesalers, they said. I spent an hour phoning them all. Minimum order – 1 metric tonne. I know, I thought, I’ll phone Mr Prentice at Fullers. He’ll know where to get it from. Despite being great fun to talk to, he didn’t have any to spare. ’Try asking Mr Jenner at Harvey’s', was his advice, ‘they are quite traditional’ – which appears to include having 4 hour lunch breaks. Time to phone the old family brewers of Manchester: they always looked after us when I brewed at Marble. No luck. I was starting to get desperate. Internet searches revealed nothing. Without Invert Sugar No.3, we wouldn’t be sticking to our chosen recipe, which, when recreating an old style, is pretty essential. There could be no throwing in of granulated sugar, as it was necessary for the right colour and flavour of the beer. I wasn’t having Martyn Cornell annoyed with us. Eventually, after a week of sleepless nights and worry, I found a supplier (I’m not telling you where). We were now ready to brew our Burton.
Evin and I turned up at the Hall Brewery on the morning a bit bleary-eyed following a ‘couple of halves’ at the Greystones the previous evening. Thankfully, Giada was going to lead the brew and we would just be required to do a bit of donkey-work and make sure we got the recipe right. We weighed out the malt and sorted the hop additions, prepared the yeast and did a few calculations to ensure we were going to be ‘in spec’.
Thanks to Giada, the brew went swimmingly, and we all shared a couple of bottles of beer, a bit of cheese and some fennel salami. An excellent Monday’s brewing had by all. I must say ‘Cheers’ to Stefano too, for cleaning up after us and giving us help with the recipe execution. Rumours that I nearly died digging the vast amount of hops out of the copper after losing my ability to brew without an shiny automated brewplant are completely unfounded.
You’ll be delighted to hear the fermentation went beautifully and we hit our attenuation target with ease. It was racked by my own fair hand last week, and is now sat maturing in our cellar with dry hops.
‘So what’s it like?’ I hear you ask. It’s 7.2%abv, a dark ruby red, with an orangey fruity malt character. The spicy, resinous, lemony Goldings absolutely sing through the beer combining beautifully with the malt, and the bitterness is powerful and lasting, punching through the residual sweetness. It’s a momentous beer and I’m really pleased with it. Those of you who are attending the Borefts Beer Festival at De Molen Brewery, Bodegraven (23-24th September) will be the first to try it, and after that a small number of casks will be appearing at various excellent drinking establishments, where Burton Ale will once again take its rightful place back on the bar. Before I sign off, I’d like to thank Evin for spending the day with us and I implore everyone to buy his beers (if you can find them). And thanks to Mr Pattinson too, to whom Evin and I would like to dedicate the project. I’ll buy you a drink at the festival, Ron.
*All this bit is based on what I learnt from Ron and also read about in Martyn Cornell’s book, ‘Amber, Gold and Black’, which is the Bible of British Beer. You should buy it. His blog is here. You should read it.