Ale in Burton-on-Trent
You don’t find many pubs like Burton Bridge Inn anymore. Not in England; not anywhere. When I duck in, on a windswept autumn evening, it feels like I’ve stumbled into a scene from a bygone age: a pub full of flinty sorts sipping cloudy bitters and chestnut-colored ales. I take a seat in the corner, not really sure what part to play in this foreign diorama. At the bar, a clique of older men throw suspicious glances my way.
Thankfully, I have a guide. Moments earlier I had interviewed the pub’s owner, Bruce Wilkinson, in his office out back, about Burton’s long association with beer. “Burton is the brewing capital of Britain, being modest, and the world if you’re more expansive,” he had told me, before explaining that the mineral-laden local water is ideal for brewing, which is why brewers around the world refer to the process of adding sulfate to water as Burtonization.
Bruce also runs the attached microbrewery, Burton Bridge Brewery, and back in the bar he invites me to sample their Draught Burton Ale, while introducing me to everyone there. When they learn about my interest in Burton’s brewing history, their unease washes away. And so does mine. Soon, the room abounds with stories, laughs, and gripes. Beer is in the blood here, and locals can talk about it (and imbibe it) long after the bell of last call strikes.
I hear about the good days and the bad. Roger, an earnest, bespectacled and flat-capped man sitting alone, speaks fondly of his days working for Bass, formerly one of the biggest brewers in Burton and in Britain. Even now, well into retirement, Roger meets up regularly with former colleagues—the ‘Bass-tards’ as they call themselves—to exchange stories and reminisce. To work for Bass, he explains, was to have a job for life, in a company that not only cared for its staff but for the town.
Those days are long gone. Now, after a succession of takeovers, Burton’s storied wells are mostly in the hands of Molson Coors, the brewing behemoth behind Budweiser, Cobra, and Carling. Many of those jobs-for-life were killed off, that commitment to community forgotten. Pubs catering for real ale drinkers and brewing folk used to be ten-a-penny in Burton, but many are now boarded up. Burton Bridge Inn is one of the last of a dying breed.
The Draught Burton Ale skips down my palate, a balanced concoction that plays dry hoppiness against sweeter notes of malt and fruit. Bruce explains that it’s their take on a much-loved beer of the same name, formerly produced by one of the town’s big brewers (Ind Coope) before it was discontinued by Molson Coors. The drinkers around me agree that it is pretty much spot-on.
“Ay, you don’t want to buy the place do you?” a barman shouts as I stand up to leave. I raise my eyebrows. “Haven’t you heard? Bruce is selling.”