Thursday, June 14, 2012

Burton Ale – What's in a Name?

I'm not much of a style Nazi. I'm not against categorizing beer, but I don't go in for pigeonhole-ing it into a predetermined set criteria based on gravity ranges and IBUs. Take Pale Ale for example, I tend to give Pales a good bit of leeway—especially when their edges start burring into IPA range. beer styles should be like a Venn diagram. If they're lighter in hue and top-fermented, I'm cool with calling them whatever you want. I'm even cool with the Black IPA rig-a-ma-roll—it's a tad oxymoronic, but as long as the beer tastes decent, I'm happy. I will, however, make one exception when it comes to qualifying one specific beer—Burton Ale.

Burton Ales couldn't be simpler—they are pale, bitter beers brewed with water that has a high mineral content—especially calcium sulphate. Think of them as sulphury IPAs. Burton-on-Trent, the English, West Midlands home town of Burton Ale, was known for its minerally water, so, recreate that water and add in a good bang of hops and your all set to make a historic beer, right?

Burton on Burton?
Sure, except that's not what Burton Ale is—or rather was.

A good number of modern brewers have co-opted "Burton" to reflect any number of beery iterations that claim to be historic—most, although, are just IPAs. Granted, the phrase "Burton" can be a sticky, and often confusing, concept when it comes to style, because the area around Burton-on-Trent contributed prominently to two completely different beers—Burton Ale and IPA. The later is the forefather of the pale and bitter IPA we know and love today; while the former was a stronger, chestnut-hued, bitter-sweet brew that has fallen to the ages, Somewhere along the line, Burton Pale Ale became Burton India Pale Ale and everything fell apart.

For its part true Burton Ale, was one for the most popular brews in England during the 19th-century—far more popular than IPA. It transcended Burton-on-Trent and was brewed across the U.K. Versions of it were, in fact, brewed in the U.S., and in Albany, no less! Burton, along with Mild and Bitter, was a staple in every pub and tavern in England well into the later 20th-century. As with many other beers, Burton's day would come and go, and oh how quickly would it be forgotten.

What are we left with today? In the U.S, brews like Southampton Burton IPA, is a classic example of the "neo-Burton"—minerally, pale, bitter and hoppy—and Dog Fish Head's Burton Baton, an abomination of historical accuracy on an epic level. Burton Baton is the perfect example of a brewery warping history to it's own ends. DFH's web site gives this description for Burton Baton:
This oak-aged gentle giant has been gaining popularity over the past few years and is now available year-round! For Burton Baton, we brew two "threads," or batches, of beer: an English-style old ale and an imperial IPA. 
After fermenting the beers separately in our stainless tanks, they're transferred and blended together in one of our large oak tanks. Burton Baton sits on the wood for about a month.
The beer itself—phenomenal. Truly, Burton Baton is great. It's big and malty with great citrus and vanilla notes, with a mellow bitterness on the back end. It has a subtle oak-iness, and at 10% ABV it's pretty potent, too. It, however, has about as much to do with a Burton Ale as it does grape soda. I'm not sure about that "two-threads" business, either. Burton Ale may have been parti-gyled, but it wasn't made by brewing two separate styles and then combining—at least not by the brewer. Stronger Burtons were sometime referred to as Old Ales, but not because they were aged, but rather because by the 20th-century, Burtons were considered to be a throwback to earlier times of brewing. Aging is irrelevant to the style—Burtons were typically sold young. In DFH's defense, I have read that Burton Baton was created as an homage to Ballantine Brewery's Burton Ale, brewed in Newark, New Jersey during the first half of the 20th-century. Ballantine's Burton was brewed strong and aged on oak for years—but, if Burton Baton is a reflection of Ballentine's Burton Ale, then it doesn't seem like Ballantine's version fits the bill for Burton either.

If most of the Burtons that are kicking around today are bastardizations or posers, is it even possible to get a hint of what this nearly forgotten beer was like? Luckily, yes. Two British beers, and one American, jump to mind—Theakston's Old Peculiar, Young's Winter Warmer and August Schell's Stag Series #4 Burton Ale. Schell's website offers an accurate and concise history of Burton Ale and lists its Burtons' ingredients as Maris Otter pale malt, torrified wheat, two British crystal malts, brewing sugars along with Nugget and Golding hops. At 8% ABV and 60 IBUs, it ends up balanced between bitter and malty. So, how does that fair against the Burtons of old? I asked someone who I knew would know—Martyn Cornell—and he gave me his take on the nuts and bolts of Burton Ale. I'd be remiss if I'd not mention Martyn in a post about Burton! Here is what he had to say:
...Burton Ale was a bitter-sweet, darkish beer made with dark sugars and a dash of crystal malt... I think a high IBU is definitely ahistoric for a Burton Ale. 
There you have it, that sounds like a pretty thorough description of all three—the Schell's, Young's and the Theakston's.

What puzzles me the most about Burton is it's demise, and how quickly it fell out of favor. I think it's about time that this brew step back into the lime light. Personally, I think a 8% ABV, dark, bitter-sweet brew sounds about as good as it gets—and if I can't get more breweries to get on the band wagon, I guess I'll just have to make my own! 


  1. I worked in the UK, Yorkshire, in the late 1970's. I frequently enjoyed bottles of Ind Coope-Double Diamond-Burton Pale Ale purchased at the local off-license. I was merely a 'beer camelion'; drinking whatever was locally available. I wish I remembered Double-D more clearly; but, that was long ago and far away. I also enjoyed bottles and draught pints of Theakston Old Peculier and Best Bitter.

    The distinction between British bitter, British pale ale, and British IPA is mystifying to me.

    1. Martyn was kind enough to inform me that in the late 70s, Ind Coope released a cask-conditioned version of their regular old bottled Double Diamond IPA. Guess what they re-branded it as? Yup, Burton Ale, which further clouded the waters as far as the name Burton went.

  2. Burton Ale and Burton Pale Ale aren't the same thing.