Beer School

There must be something in the water

Burton's brewing fame

Staffordshire’s town of Burton, not far from both Nottingham and Leicester, has been famous for its brewing for centuries. It once accounted for a quarter of all Britain’s beer production and exported it all over the world. Brewers everywhere envied them and, in an attempt to emulate the beers, would tinker with the composition of their water. It resulted in the term ‘Burtonisation’ – meaning to adapt water to mimic that of this famous brewing town.

Burton-on-Trent – what’s so special about its water?

This middle-of-England town lies in a broad river valley that has been carved over millennia through ancient rock. It’s covered with layers of sand and gravel up to 60 feet deep. Water has trickled through these beds for longer than you could possibly imagine, depositing minerals in the gravel and sandstone. Its water has the highest natural sulphate content of any brewing town in the world (hence the eggy smell during brewing, known locally as the ‘Burton snatch’), the same for calcium and magnesium, plus low levels of sodium and bicarbonate. The brewers would, and in fact Marston’s still do, obtain their water from an artesian well, sunk deep into gypsum-rich (that’s calcium sulphate) limestone soil. What does that do for the beer? This makes it very hard water, which brings out the sharpness in the hops and makes it ideal for crisp, clear pale ale with a mineral edge – the style it would eventually adopt. London, by the way, also has hard water, but a high content of calcium carbonate, which has a natural affinity with the production of dark Porter beers.

Burton’s brewing history

Wind back the centuries to the start of beer in this town and there’s evidence of monks brewing since 1295 – they needed sustenance for their visiting pilgrims and themselves. By 1630 Burton’s beer was so sought after, some was trekked the 130-plus miles to London. A long way in those days, when the state of the roads was at best dire and beer didn’t travel well either.

Water’s second gift to Burton

That all changed very early in the 1700s when the Trent river became navigable, and even more so in the late 1700s, when the Trent and Mersey canals were opened. And so water benefitted Burton for the second time – giving the town the means to transport its first gift – beer. With the navigable river and a network of canals, Burton’s brewers had access to huge swathes of the UK – firstly to transport the beer, but also to obtain the finest barley (mostly from Suffolk and Norfolk). Importantly, they also had easy access to ports Bristol, Hull and Liverpool. So, Burton’s ales gained a keen following worldwide.

A growing fan club for Burton’s beer – first Russia

Russian consumers were some of the earliest to develop a love for it – both Peter the Great and Catherine the Great developed a fondness for Burton’s ‘nut-brown ale’, with its high alcohol and sweetness. It was a trading arrangement that blossomed – England didn’t have sufficient trees to supply brewers’ demand for barrels, so merchants discovered a source of wood in Russia and took beer with them to barter. Exports of Burton’s liquid treasure to Russia increased from 740 barrels in 1750 to 11,025 barrels in 1775. That all dwindled to nothing when Russia decided to brew the stuff itself and imposed excessive tariffs on imports.

The birth of IPA – today’s much-loved style

So what to do with all Burton’s brewing capacity and the ready means to export? A London brewer known as Hodgson had developed a market in India, shipping a style he called Indian Ale. It was much more refreshing than the brown ale Burton had supplied Russia with and better suited to the hot climate. A certain gent called Chapman wanted to give Hodgson’s ale competition so suggested to Burton’s brewers that they devise a beer, big on hops and with high alcohol to survive the sea voyage, to send out there. It proved highly popular and a style perfectly suited to the hard water of Burton. It didn’t take long for Burton’s India Pale Ale to take top spot in the subcontinent and so IPA was born. And IPA took a hold in Britain too, first when a stray couple of casks (rescued after a shipwreck in 1827) reached jubilant Liverpuddlians. Then shortly after when the railways reached Burton in 1839 and transport of the barrels became even easier. Burton’s brewing heyday may now have passed, but it’s still a mecca for brewers worldwide and still home to Marstons.

Did you like this article? Share it with your friends!

Don't miss our monthly updates

Keep up to date on the latest from our new brewer-friends, beer discoveries and be the first to hear our special offers.