Monday, 27 September 2010
Gone For a Burton Part 1
I arrived in Burton upon Trent after my first train trip in many years (my chauffeur wasn't available due to work commitments, I prefer the luxury beer angel usually affords me but needs is must!) Stepping out of the train station there is a sense of history in the air straight away with buildings on the horizons that would have found their birth in Burton's golden era.
Although Burton has been hit as hard as anywhere in the country for pub closures you still don't have to walk more than 100 yards to find a boozer in the centre of town. Beer is in the soul of this town.
A 15 minute walk took me to the Martson's Albion brewery on Shobnall rd. This Victorian brick building built originally by Mann Crossman and Paulin dominates the skyline and gives you a vision of days gone by. After exiting Shobnall rd on to the site I was welcomed by a friendly if somewhat rough round the edges security guard. Till this point I was unsure if I had come to the correct point as signage was limited. Directed to the visitors entrance I was greeted by the lovely Lesley Sweeney. A Burtonian herself Lesley is fiercely proud of the towns brewing history and the Albion brewery's place in that history. I was expecting a guided tour with a group of six others. I was informed that they had cancelled at the last minute. I felt slightly uncomfortable but very privileged that the tour would continue for me solely. I was given a more in-depth tour than Lesley usually has time to give and benefited greatly from the personal treatment.
The name of Marstons is rooted deeply in the history of the brewery if not in the current ownership. John Marston started brewing in 1834 but Marston's (& Thompson) acquired the Albion brewery in 1890 fromMann Crossman and Paulin. Marston's are not the most popular brewing company amongst beer aficionado's largely due to their takeovers of Wychwood and Ringwood. The company is what was once Wolverhampton and Dudley breweries but the Albion brewery is very Marston's, a brewery steeped in history. A brewery that was thankfully kept alive after the take over by W&D. The irony is the buyout was prompted by moves by Marston's to buy out W&D!
Wolverhampton & Dudley had the good sense to to change their trading name to Marston's and use the provenance that the Burton link brought. The site in Burton is piece of living history has fortunately been kept alive. This is no sterile 21st entity. The equipment being used comes from a natural progression through better brewing processes and advancements that meets the demand. Oak edged mash tuns and decades old coppers have been replaced with stainless steel but these date back to the 1960's from another acquisition. The truth is the Marston's brewery wouldn't survive if it didn't improve and advance and these stainless steel monsters are a beautiful creation of our time. My only criticism is the Mash tuns and coppers that are no longer being used have been neglected when they should be pampered and polished as a proud reminder of their part in the history of Marston's.
I was very fortunate to have my visit on a Wednesday as I got to see the Burton union in it's full bubbling frothy glory. This system of fermentation was widely used in Burton and was a major advancement in brewing at it's birth in 1830. Pedigree is the only ale left to be fermented in this manner and it is important factor in creating the character of the beer. The rows of vats with the frothy barm were a compelling sight with a strong temptation to go for a dip, that would be my kind of foam party!
The tour concluded at the bottling line. This segment of the tour didn't create the magic that the other processes created but it was still a sight to be marvelled. Long lengths of track carried thousands of bottles as they were filled, capped, sterilised, labelled and boxed. Millions of bottles run along these tracks every week and there was surprisingly few staff needed to run it. This sort of efficient production would have blown the minds of John Marston and his colleagues. Bottles not making the weight were discarded in to containers. It was heart breaking to see such waste but the percentage of loss was a small fraction of the volume that flowed out successfully.
Once the tour had come to an end I was taken to the mock bar which is decked out in Marston's breweriana. I was given the obligatory sampling of Marston beers that all good tours should end with. On the menu was obviously Pedigree along with Oyster stout and their guest ale for the month Royal Ryder. Oyster stout is a very smooth easy drinking stout with a good balance of sweetness against the bitterness of the roasted malts. Royal Ryder is a pale session ale with creamy texture and a light hoppiness which suited the lovely summery day we was having.
Lots of bodies started milling around as a conference was being held in the function room. Lesley was successfully balancing being the hostess to the exec's looking for a bit of lubrication and talking to me by including me in conversations. She was having a conversation with a gentleman about oak aged beers and I piped in with how I had a new love for such beers, what a great innovation they were and how I liked the beers from Innis & Gunn. Lesley then informed me that the gentleman was actually Crawford Sinclair DIrector of sales at Innis & Gunn. You can imagine I was glad that I had been praising his beers and not the opposite!
All in all I had a great time and left with a positive image of Marston's in Burton which was in small measure down to Lesley and I am sure I will return agin one day in the future to see how the Albion brewery changes if at all.