Drinks Atlas: Burton-on-Trent, England - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Drinks Atlas: Burton-on-Trent, England

In the geographic history of beer, few may think of the small English town of Burton-on-Trent as a major player in the development of iconic styles. However, unlike other brewing regions, Burton-on-Trent became known for not just one groundbreaking beer style but several, notably the eponymous Burton ale. Once widely favored, the style then vanished almost entirely before finally serving as inspiration for popular modern styles.

Martyn Cornell, a beer historian, educator, and author of Amber, Gold, and Black: The History of Britain’s Great Beers, explains the complicated history of the Burton ale’s evolution. “Burton’s famous, but it’s not just famous for IPAs! It’s famous for this other beer, which has just almost vanished,” he says. A “warming, slightly sweet, fruity, and dark beer,” Burton ale was famous in the 19th century before it fell out of popularity to IPAs and pale ales, both of which were also made early on in Burton-on-Trent.

The muddled history of the Burton ale begins in the 1800s, a time in which ale styles in the U.K. were attributed to the regions in which they were brewed, although, “they were all quite similar, and not that heavily hopped compared to bitters and porters,” Cornell explains. “They were quite dark and had an underlying sweetness, and often very strong, 7 to 9 percent [alcohol].” Because ales from Burton-on-Trent proved to have the most fame and prestige, other brewers began to create their own versions of the Burton style for the weight behind its name.

Burton-on-Trent ales experienced the greatest success as a Russian export. However, when Russia imposed a prohibitive tariff on beer, major brewer Allsopp was forced to create a version that would be more appealing to a local audience, who’d already begun to favor a lighter profile. As a result, Burton ales gradually evolved, and breweries like Bass and Truman offered multiple-strength versions of their Burton ale throughout the 20th century. Eventually, however, it became considered “a drink for old men,” according to Cornell, as even London’s iconic Fuller, Smith, & Turner replaced their own Old Burton Ale with a winter bitter in the 1960s, which then became their iconic Extra Special Bitter in 1971.

Today the legacy of Burton ales lives on, as brewers in the U.K, the U.S., and beyond produce beers typically found in bottles labeled as Old Ales, barley wine, and winter warmers—descriptors for what is otherwise the iconic fruity and dark profile of the forgotten ale.

5 to Try

Fuller’s Vintage Ale

A longtime brewer of Burton ale, Fuller’s has been a staple of London’s beer culture since the early 1800s. While their 1845 anniversary ale, firmly rooted in the classic Burton style, has on-and-off availability, the 8.5 percent ABV Vintage Ale boasts similar bottle conditioning and fruit-and-spice flavors. $10.99/16.9 oz., totalwine.com

Maldita English Barleywine

Today’s English-style barley wines are reminiscent of Burton ales, with much less hoppy bitterness than American versions. An English-inspired craft brew from Portugal, Maldita’srendition is well balanced, with a full body and enough caramel sweetness to match the bitter. $4.01/11 oz., portugalvineyards.com

North Coast Brewing Old Stock Ale

Burton-inspired ales today are often called Old Ales, such as this Old Stock from North Coast Brewing, in Fort Bragg, California, which exhibits a high ABV above 10 percent. Brewed with classic Maris Otter malt and Fuggles and East Kent Golding shops imported from England, this one is meant to be mellowed through aging. $14.99/12 oz. 4-pack, totalwine.com

Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine

First brewed in 1983, Sierra Nevada’s take on a barleywine is bursting with bittersweet malt and whole-cone Pacific Northwest hops and has become a cult favorite. Expect a more robust profile with the intensity of a fine wine—aging is recommended and embraced with this beer. $5.99/12 oz., sierranevada.com

Ardenne Spirit Old Ale

Brasserie Minne takes a Belgian spin on an Old Ale, describing their version as a hoppy barleywine, fermented with the same yeast strain as the classic Orval Trappist ale and three hop varieties. Expect notes of raisins, jammy fruit, and bitter citrus. $9.75/11.2 oz., belgianmart.com

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