The sweet smell of horseshit
I was halfway around the National Brewery Centre in Burton when I smelt it. The unmistakable aroma of horseshit filled the Bass Brewery’s former stable and, for about 20 seconds - as I peered half-heartedly at the old pub signs and dray carts covering the floor and walls - I mentally congratulated the museum’s management on laying on such a delightfully authentic note. Some of the museums’ exhibits might be a bit tatty, I thought, but this is really good. It genuinely smells like a stable. Very farmyard-y. Well done everyone.
Then I turned the corner and came face to face with a pair of huge Shire Horses. If anything, this revelation hit me even harder than my first notion. Presumably these horses are always here, munching hay, gazing up occasionally to register their complete disinterest in whichever punter is wandering past (although I didn’t see any other customers on my way round, on a Thursday afternoon. It appeared to be just me). What a marvellous surprise.
There’s plenty to surprise and delight in Burton. Those horses, the interior of the Coopers’ Tavern, the Burton Union sets still in use at Marston’s, the remarkably kind and helpful welcome at the museum. It’s a place with a unique story to tell, and a desire to tell it. But do British beer drinkers want to hear it?
Marston’s clearly hopes so. The bottle neck for their flagship beer, Pedigree, is festooned with information about the beer is made (including the Burton Union fermentation system), and they’ve just launched a new series of beers, Horninglow Street, made using one of their dozen-or-so Union sets, in an attempt to promote their admirable adherence to doing things the old way. There’s even more information about the Burton Union on those bottles. Putting aside the fact that it’s actually quite difficult to understand the Burton Union fermentation system (and what the benefit to the drinker is) without actually seeing it in action, it’s an interesting move.
I’m just not sure it’ll work. As a town, Burton is a poster-boy for post-war British mismanagement, with Bass - the saddest story in British beer - its grim centrepiece. The country’s favourite beer, Carling, is made here, but it hardly pays tribute to Burton’s traditions - quite the contrary. British drinkers have voted with their wallets. Canadian lager 1, British ale 0.
The only hope - and I think it’s a slim one - is that the idea of provenance is coming into fashion. In wine, terroir (a post-hoc justification for enjoying something that is delicious and makes you drunk, in my view, but let’s ignore that) has proven quite the sales pitch. It’s now right at the core of wine discussion.
(One interesting example of how that manifests itself is the way oak flavour, imparted by ageing in barrels or adding oak chips, has become much less fashionable. it is much less prevalent in wines now than 20 years ago, essentially because people got tired of its heavy-handed use. But one of the justifications winemakers use for reducing oak flavour in their wines is that it masks the terroir, that indefinable aspect that convinces drinkers they’re in the Rhone Valley rather than Rochester.)
Could the same trick work for Burton? Obviously the ingredients aren’t grown in the town, but Marston’s has its own hop garden now (in sunny Kent), and its process is unique and time-honoured. There is provenance, which is as good as terroir. Could drinkers be convinced to abandon their passion for hops grown in the Pacific Northwest in favour of a beer brewed as it was in Victoria’s day? I’m not sure.
Marston’s are doing plenty, but there are obvious things they’re getting wrong. The label for Pedigree, for one: it features an image of George Peard, the former brewer who apparently named the beer, in front of a barrels arranged in the Burton Union. It’s clearly a nod to that marvellous heritage, but I think it’s a mistake. This stuff goes over people’s heads. If you want to evoke tradition, use a (perhaps slightly-updated) label from the 1950s.
It feels like the time is ripe. A craft-beer bottle shop I follow recently tweeted an image of a collection of cans that had recently arrived. They looked remarkably same-y: cartoons, lurid patterns, that sort of thing. One of the wisest men in booze branding, Matt Burns of Glasgow’s Thirst Craft, told me about a year ago that when everyone is doing technicolor robots on a can, you need to do something more classical. Marston’s is well set there, with plenty of great old branding to call on.
Some of it, indeed, can be found in the National Brewery Centre, including a delightful beer tray that features the line, “Most men like Marston’s Burton Ales”. (Might need to update that). It’s a wonderful museum, which deserves a higher profile than it currently has. The same could probably be said of Marston’s, and of Burton itself. In a beer world with its fair share of horseshit, there’s a lot to cherish here.