Something in the Water – How Burton’s Beer Scene Boomed
The small market town of Burton Upon Trent in Staffordshire, England is world-famous among brewers, all thanks to its water.
For centuries, brewers have obtained their water from both surface and groundwater sources. As water on the surface seeps into the ground, it is exposed to more minerals. “The source of the water dictates the mineral profile of the water” John Palmer writes in How To Brew. He explains that water hardness is determined by the level of calcium and magnesium ions dissolved in the water, and that mineral profile can have a substantial impact on the pH of the beer. “Alkalinity drives the mash pH up, which can cause the extraction of unpleasant tannin flavours, a harsher bitterness from the hops, and a high beer pH that dulls the overall flavour” Palmer says.
Many famous beer styles were developed in part due to the water that was available in the region of their beginnings. Generally, softer water areas tend to work well for lagers and darker beers, whilst hard water is ideal for brewing hoppier beers. In London, where the water is moderately hard, brewing porters became popular in the 18th century. “The waters found in much of Southern England, being mostly impregnated with calcium carbonate and therefore “semi-hard”, were better for making porters and stouts: the boiled water became soft and was thus better at extracting colour from brown malts” writes beer historian Martyn Cornell. Comparatively, in Scotland, where chalk or limestone rocks are not common and most water supplies are classified as soft, the ‘Wee Heavy’, or strong scotch ale, is their classic beer style. This type of beer is higher ABV and rich in sweet malty notes. Hop flavour and aroma would not typically be perceptible. As such, the Wee Heavy is best brewed using softer waters, since very hard water (such as the water in Burton) could accentuate hop bitterness too much.
Consistency is everything in brewing. To produce a quality product, breweries must pay close attention to the composition of their water and perform water treatments as required. For example, if a brewery opens a second location in another part of the country or world, the water that is available in that location could have a vastly different mineral composition to the water in their original location. This means that without water treatments to normalise the water to the profile that they have typically been brewing with, their flagship beers will taste quite different when brewed with the new location’s water source, even if they follow the same recipe and process, with identical hops, malt, and yeast.
Today, the availability of water treatments means that location and a lack of proximity to the most optimal water source for a certain beer style need not be a barrier to brewers, and ales made with water similar to Burton’s can be sampled all over the world. But when Burton’s beer industry first boomed, the mineral-rich waters underlying the town were like liquid gold for the locals.
Burton’s water supply contains a naturally high level of gypsum, a soft sulphate mineral which is found in the sandstone subsurface. Because of this, Burton’s water is high in dissolved minerals, which is to say that the water is hard, rather than soft. Hard water is especially ideal for brewing pale styles of beer, including India Pale Ales (IPAs). This is because the minerals can have a positive effect on how the qualities of the hops used in the brewing process are showcased in the final beer. In addition to making the hop bitterness and aroma more assertive – which is a quality considered exemplary in the IPA beer style - calcium and magnesium sulphates can provide nutrients which are important for brewing yeasts, and aid in the removal of unwanted proteins from the brewing grains. The presence of sulphate ions in Burton’s natural water supply can also lead to a slight sulphur (or ‘eggy) smell in the beer; an acquired and somewhat divisive taste which has long been referred to as the 'Burton Snatch.'
The Bass Brewery was founded in Burton in 1777. A century later, it was the largest brewery in the world, with an annual output of more than a million barrels of beer. In 1876, the Bass red triangle logo was the first registered trademark issued by the government. According to The National Brewery Centre Archives, within a forty year period, the production of Burton breweries increased from 70,000 barrels to 1,759,000 barrels, and by 1890, there were 31 breweries employing a total of 8,000 people and producing three million barrels annually. As the brewing industry expanded, profit margins were substantial, and this modest town was dubbed the ‘Brewing Capital of the World’.
In addition to being an ingredient that makes up about 95% of a glass of beer, water was also important to early brewers as a means of transportation. The UK waterways were used in transporting both raw materials to the breweries and the finished product to consumers. The opening of the Trent and Mersey Canal in 1777 improved the connectivity of Burton to the rest of the country, with ease of access to Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool via the waterways. Navigability of the River Trent to the east coast port of Hull allowed Burton’s ales to be exported throughout the British Empire. “The greater level of hops was, indeed, intended to preserve the beer for long sea voyages, as hops have some antimicrobial properties” writes Kate Bernot, on the IPA origin story for The Takeout.
The suitability of Burton’s water supply for brewing this style of pale, hopped ale encouraged other brewers to move to the town from other parts of the country. Among them were Truman’s Brewery from London, and Boddington’s Brewery from Manchester, who both acquired brewery premises in Burton in the 1870s. This influx of new brewers further assisted in creating a distinct identity for the town, with brewing at the centre of its image.
The details of Burton’s water composition – and its ability to really make hop character pop in pale ales – could not remain a local secret forever. The term ‘Burtonisation’ was coined in the late nineteenth century, naming the process of adding sulphate salts to the water that is to be used to brew (known in the brewing industry as ‘liquor’). Today, brewing salts with a blend of minerals including gypsum, potassium chloride, and Epsom salts - designed to mimic Burton’s water - are readily available to professional brewers and homebrewers alike. As hop quality and variety continues to improve, and refreshing and crisp pale ales, bitter ales and IPAs remain popular with both cask ale fans in the UK and craft beer drinkers globally, many brewers continue to treat their water to make it more like Burton’s. According to the New York Times, burtonization has even made it into the White House! In 2012, the White House chefs produced a honey ale using a kit purchased by President Obama, for which they burtonized the water, and Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery helped NYT to recreate the brew.
Hollie is a freelance writer and drinks nerd. She has contributed to publications such as Ferment, Pellicle, VinePair, and more. She is originally from London and currently lives in New Mexico. @GlobeHops
Photo by Anna Sulan Masing, of the Arch Rivals beer shelf