Going for a Burton

Martyn Cornell

The Third Avenue bar, situated next to the Sheraton Hotel on Electra Street in Abu Dhabi a few hundred yards from the turquoise waters of the Persian Gulf, is an interior designer's idea of an English pub: dark woods, leather sofas and walls covered with ancient brewery memorabilia and pictures of century-old royalty.

No real English pub ever needed ceiling fans, however, or had so many leather sofas (the cigarette burns! the beer stains!) nor so many low coffee tables. But the items on the wall, shipped to the Arabian peninsula from the United Kingdom, include a fine 19th century pub mirror from the Bass brewery in Burton-upon-Trent that advertises Bass's "Pale and Burton Ales" of the kind found in many real pubs.

It amuses me, when I've sat in the bar drinking Warsteiner (not my favorite German lager but very acceptable after the temperature outside has reached 110 degrees) to look at the mirror and think that I am probably the only person for at least 3,000 miles in any direction who knows or cares what Burton Ale is and how it differs from pale ale.

Burton Ale is the beer the Burton brewers made before they started producing pale ales for export to India in the 1820’s. It was darker and sweeter than India Pale Ale – and in its initial incarnation stronger, too – and it was matured for at least 18 months.

The Burton brewers, men such as Michael Bass, Samuel Allsopp (whose descendant Kirstie Allsopp is now a well-known television presenter in the U.K.) and William Worthington, made a good living shipping strong Burton Ale down the Trent river by barge to the port of Hull on the North Sea, from where it was carried to the towns and cities of the Baltic, such as St Petersburg and Danzig. In return the ships that carried the ale out brought back to Britain iron and staves of fine-grained Memel oak to make casks with.

However, in 1822 the government of Russia introduced a prohibitive tax on beer imports to try to encourage its native brewing industry, and the Burton brewers' business collapsed. (The tariffs did not cover porter and stout, incidentally, which is why London brewers such as Barclay Perkins were able to continue exporting strong Imperial Stout to Russia.)

In their search for new markets Burton's brewers turned to India, making pale, bitter ales for sale to the European employees, both civilian and military, of the East India Company in places like Calcutta, Madras and Bombay. They also tried selling more of their original Burton Ale at home in Britain.

But while they had some success with the recipe as brewed for the Baltic in pubs in places such as Liverpool, Manchester and London, "those who admired its flavour and its purity, and who wished to drink more of it," according to the journalist John Stevenson Bushnan, writing in 1853, "found it too heady, too sweet, and too glutinous, if not too strong. Indeed it was so rich and luscious that if a little were spilled on a table the glass would stick to it."

Bushnan credits Samuel Allsopp with tweaking the recipe for Burton Ale to make it less strong, less sweet and more bitter than the Baltic version, introducing it when the October 1822 brewing season opened.

It was not an instant success: The first casks went to pubs in Liverpool, and after complaints, Bushnan wrote, Allsopp had to visit each publican to persuade them to let the beer mature, promising that he would take back any that remained unsold. The publicans found that the beer improved considerably with age, and Allsopp did not have any returns.

The other Burton brewers also began brewing this new style of Burton Ale, alongside IPA and other pale ales. The Bass brewery used a red diamond trademark for its Burton Ales, against the famous red triangle used for its India Pale Ale. Bass made at least four different strengths of Burton Ale for the pub trade, from Number 1, which had an original gravity of more than 1110 and 9 or 10 percent alcohol by volume, to No 4, with around 1070 OG.

It was a version of No. 1 that was bottled in 1869 as Ratcliff Ale to celebrate the birth of a son to one of the partners in the brewery. A few years ago bottles of Ratcliff Ale were found in the cellars at the brewery and proved to be perfectly drinkable after nearly 140 years, totally dry and slightly smoky, with a flavor like whisky and Christmas pudding.

As with IPA, the brewing of Burton Ale soon spread to other places outside Burton. Alfred Barnard, the Victorian drinks writer, found Burton Ale in 1890 being made from Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the north to Dorchester in the southwest. The style was particularly popular in London, where it was also known as Old and where most brewers made a Burton Ale, particularly during the winter months. London drinkers liked to mix it half-and-half with bitter to make an Old and Bitter, nicknamed, rather unkindly, "mother-in-law". Scottish brewers made a very similar style called Scotch Ale or Edinburgh Ale.

Burton Ale also crossed the Atlantic. In New York state, at least three pre-Prohibition brewer, CH Evans & Sons and Grainger & Gregg, both of Hudson, and Amsdell Brothers of Albany, made a Burton Ale. In Newark, N.J., P Ballantine & Sons' brewery (started by a Scot, Peter Ballantine, who had been a brewer in Albany) also brewed a Burton Ale, with an ABV of 10 or 11 percent.

By the mid-20th century Ballantine's Burton Ale was not sold to the public but aged for up to 20 years in oak vats before bottling, and it was handed out to the brewery's friends and valued customers every autumn. Ballantine's Burton Ale, according to the late beer writer Michael Jackson, was one of the inspirations for the creation of Old Foghorn Barley Wine at the Anchor brewery in San Francisco.

Back in Britain, Burton Ale could still be described in 1949 as one of the four types of draught beer to be found in British pubs, alongside pale ale, mild and stout. But within 20 years it had almost vanished, as drinkers turned from sweeter, darker beers to paler, more bitter ones.

One of the last draught Burton Ales was made by Young's brewery in Wandsworth, South London, every winter from a typical Burton Ale recipe that included a proprietorial blend of dark brewing sugars referred to as YSM, Young's Special Mixture. In 1971 Young's renamed its Burton Ale as Winter Warmer, and fortunately that beer, with an OG or 1055 but an ABV of only five per cent, is still with us to recall the beer that the Abu Dhabi pub mirror commemorates.

Martyn Cornell