Tastings School - Marston's of the universe

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Marston's of the universe

Pete Brown visits Marston's Brewery in Burton upon Trent home of the legendary Burton Unions.

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 bewery 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 lesserknown 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.” One of those brewers in particular forms a parable so neat it would sound contrived were it not true. Bass, the brewery that made Burton famous around the globe, is no more. Bass the brand is now owned by Inbev – who contract out the brewing to Marston’s.

Bass has come home, a nice little earner for a rival it once dwarfed. And if that’s not enough of an irony, the punchline forms a perfect example of the sheer barminess of modern day commercial brewing.

Ian introduces me to Hector Macdonald, assistant to head brewer Emma Gilleland, who gives a revealing answer when I ask why the draught Bass in the Cooper’s Arms, Burton’s best pub, doesn’t taste all that great.

“When we brew it, it goes down to Luton, Inbev’s head office. The Cooper’s is part of Coors’ delivery system, so from Luton it goes to wherever it goes within Coors, and then comes back to Burton. Instead of travelling half a mile down the road, like it could, it does several hundred miles before it gets to the pub.” We’re chatting as Hector shows me the new brewhouse. We look at coppers and fermenters that are perfectly nice, but the same as coppers and fermenters in any decent brewery of this size. We both know this is not what I’m here to see. Because Marston’s is the keeper of a very special piece of brewing tradition, something you won’t see in any other brewery because it’s expensive, old-fashioned, cumbersome, inefficient, and requires too much looking after to be economically viable in today’s tightmargin world. Just another example of the sheer cussedness that characterises Marston’s then.

A comedian I saw once pondered the first person to ever eat an egg. Just imagine, a bloke standing staring at a chicken, thinking: “Know what? I’m going to eat the next thing that comes out of that bird’s arse.” I’m reminded of this as I gaze down at the Burton Unions from a lofty gantry, because I’m struggling to think how anyone could ever have invented it.

The light seems softer in here. The air is wet and warm, like a room where a hot bath sits waiting.

But these things look like baths designed by someone who has never seen one, was told about the concept of baths by a drunk bloke in a noisy pub, and wasn’t really listening.

Each union set consists of shallow stainless steel troughs sitting atop large wooden barrels. Pipes connect the barrels and arc up and over the troughs. How many barrels?

“Between 90 and 110, per set,” says Hector. “You need work out in advance which set a brew’s going into.” That’s right – we wouldn’t want to make this any easier than it has to be, would we?

The union is a system for fermenting beer. “We collect the beer in squares, get it up to its top heat, then drop it down into the set,” explains Hector. “The beer ferments in the barrels.

That action forces it up through the swan neck and into the trough. Then it runs down into another trough at the end there, and back into the barrels.

As it goes round, the yeast separates out.” OK, so it’s bizarre. But it must obviously make the beer taste better, right?

Hector looks uncomfortable, and searches for the right words. “We brew some beer in here and some in fermenting tanks.

There are subtle differences,” he says. “The unions are scalded and sterilised after use, so they don’t last as long as wooden barrels normally do. When you have a new union set the beer does have a woody flavour, but we blend that out.” So if Marston’s actively takes steps to ensure beer brewed in wood doesn’t taste any different, what’s the point?

“The yeast likes it,” shrugs Hector.

Ah. To a brewer, that would be explanation enough. “We don’t brew beer, the yeast brews the beer. We just keep the yeast happy,” is an oft-heard philosophy around the fermenting vessel. But I’m not a brewer, so Hector explains more fully.

“It helps keep the yeast in good nick. It ferments in a different way. And that makes the union a brilliant yeast propagator. We hardly ever have to repitch with new yeast. The beer might not taste different if it’s brewed here or in the tanks, but if we didn’t have the unions, the yeast would change. It wouldn’t work as well.

And then the beer really wouldn’t be the same.” “I wouldn’t be happy to brew Pedigree without ‘em,” says Phil, custodian of the union sets, as he joins us on the platform.

This is no museum piece kept alive for the occasional brewery visitor. It’s about getting to grips with the very essence of brewing.

“Of course it helps for brewery tours,” says Ian. “Often, going round a brewery is a bit of a let-down. You come expecting to see a bit of magic, and all you see is stainless steel tanks.” He gestures to the hall. “This does justice to brewing.” “It’s one of the reasons I came here,” nods Phil. “When it’s coughing, bubbling away... you just can’t see that anywhere else. It’s the only way you can see fermentation working. We had a party in last week on a brewing course. They’d seen yeast in a sample pot before, but it was the first time they’d ever actually seen it working in a fermenter. And these were brewers!” Once common across all Burton brewers, the unions here are only used to brew Pedigree. I have to ask: will Bass ever get a go?

“No!” Hector looks horrified at the thought.

“You wouldn’t be able to keep the yeast separate.

The Bass and Pedigree yeasts would contaminate each other. I mean, we clean the unions thoroughly, but wood is porous. They’d have to have their own set.” So Inbev would have to stump up for a brand new set of inefficient, old-fashioned, expensive brewing kit? We all laugh at the thought. But as we watch the yeast glooping out into the troughs, silent, soothed and half-hypnotised by the slow action of beer moving itself around, it’s like the biggest, most ornate, best-selling lava lamp in the world.

I can’t help thinking, perhaps a little cynically, that a new union set would make a fittingly extravagant desk toy for anyone who wanted to be the world’s biggest brewer.

Tasting notes PEDIGREE, 4.5% ABV Marston’s flagship, one of the best-loved cask ales in the United Kingdom. The legendary water gives it the legendary ‘Burton snatch,’ a faint sulphurous whiff. Don’t let that put you off – Pedigree is a perfect balance of sweetness and dryness, and of substance and drinkability DOUBLE DROP, 5% ABV The ‘double drop’ process sorts out the men from the boys in the yeast world and helps to produce a beer that’s particularly clean and bright. A hoppy, dry, bitter golden ale OLD EMPIRE, 5.7% ABV You might think Marston’s recreation of traditional Burton India pale ale has pulled its punches if you’re a fan of muscular American IPAs. But a late addition of Cascade helps ensure a fruity, hoppy hit that impresses without overpowering Contact Marston’s Brewery Shobnall Road, Burton upon Trent, Staffordshire, England DE14 2BW Tel: +44 (0)1283 507 391 www.marstonsdontcompromise.co.uk