One of the particularly interesting facts to emerge from the papers prepared for last week’s BGBW seminar on wood-aged beers was that Greene King has been giving everyone, including our leading beer writers entirely the wrong tale about the name of BPA, the beer that is blended with two-year-old 5X to make Strong Suffolk.
The initials BPA do not, in fact, stand for Best Pale Ale, as writers from Michael Jackson to Roger Protz have been misled by the brewery into saying. They stand for Burton Pale Ale – and if you read the recipe for BPA, which included dark sugars and crystal malt, this makes perfect sense.
The trouble is that nobody today can remember what Burton Pale Ale used to be, and everybody now thinks it’s a synonym for India Pale Ale. It isn’t, at all – they are two totally different beers, in colour and flavour, and united only in being associated with the same brewing town.
Burton Pale Ale, also known as Burton Ale is the original dark, rather sweet beer the brewers of Burton upon Trent made and exported to Russia before they started brewing even paler, bitterer India Pale Ales in the 1820s.
The recipe for Greene King Burton Pale Ale is absolutely typical of the Burton Ale style: pale ale and crystal malts, brewing sugar for additional extract, caramel, and Special Brewing Sugar, a dark molasses-type sugar, for colour and extra flavour. The result is a sweet, dark, fruity warming beer, just like its few surviving brother beers in the Burton Ale style, which include Young’s Winter Warmer, Marston’s Owd Roger and Theakston’s Old Peculier.
John Bexon, head brewer at Greene King, comments that “pale ale is a peculiar name” for a dark, sweet beer. Not at all, John – this is a Burton Pale Ale, not the IPAs you’re used to, and it was called “pale ale” in contrast with the brown beers and porters of the 18th century. It’s a huge pity that, like 5X, BPA isn’t available on its own – like 5X it’s a rare survivor of an old brewing tradition.
Sixty years ago nobody would have had any difficulty recognising the style. In 1948 one book on British beer described Burton as one of the four main types of British draught beer, alongside pale ale, mild and stout, and said:
“Burton is a strong ale of the pale ale type, but made with a proportion of highly dried or slightly roasted malts; it is consequently darker in colour and with a fuller flavour than the pale ales. Essentially a draught beer, it is usually given a prolonged cellar treatment, in the course of which those special flavours develop which are associated with maturity in beer.”
Another writer, Maurice Gorham, a year later said Burton was:
“a draught beer darker and sweeter than bitter, named originally after the great brewing town of Burton-on-Trent but now common to all breweries wherever they are.”
Gorham was correct in saying that, although the Burton brewers were the first brewers of Burton ale, and it remained a Burton speciality (many old pub mirrors from companies such as Bass and Allsopp advertise “pale and Burton ales”), other brewers soon made their own versions, just as they did with IPA. By the 1890s Burton Ale was being brewed from Newcastle upon Tyne to Dorchester. There was also a Scottish version, Edinburgh Ale, again dark, sweet and warming.
Burton Ale also found a home across the Atlantic, in New England, where at least three pre-Prohibition brewers in New York state, Amsdell Brothers of Albany and CH Evans & Sons and Grainger & Gregg, both of Hudson, advertised a Burton ale among their beers. In Newark, New Jersey, P Ballantine & Sons’ brewery (founded in 1840 by a Scot, Peter Ballantine, who had originally been a brewer in Albany) also brewed a Burton Ale, with an ABV of 10 or 11 per cent.
In its last incarnation in the mid-20th century, Ballantine’s Burton Ale was aged for up to 20 years in oak vats before bottling, and not sold to the public but given to valued customers every autumn. Ballantine’s Burton Ale was said by Michael Jackson to be one of the inspirations in the creation of Old Foghorn Barley Wine at the Anchor brewery, in San Francisco. Burton Ale also seems to have antipodean incarnations, in Toohey’s Old and Tooth’s Old (now Kent Old Brown), two dark, sweetish, fruity top-fermented beers brewed in Sydney, Australia.
In London, where Burton became a winter favourite with many drinkers (who often called it “Old”, and drank it mixed with mild or bitter), the Chiswick brewer Fuller Smith and Turner sold Old Burton Extra, or OBE. George Izzard, landlord of the Dove at Hammersmith, in West London, described its pre-Second World War manifestation in his memoirs as
“a strong Burton … a very strong beer which … didn’t strike you as powerful at first sip. It had a winey, rather sweet taste. All the same, three pints of it were enough for the heaviest drinker, if he wanted to go out of the pub on his feet.”
The disappearance of Burton Ale was astonishingly swift. By the end of the 1950s is was mostly a winter-only brew. As demand for bitter, and lager, grew in the 1960s, sales of dark beers, including mild and Burton, plummeted like shot ducks. Fuller’s dropped its Old Burton Extra because of poor sales in 1969 and replaced it with a beer that eventually became ESB. Young’s of Wandsworth changed the name of its draught Burton to Winter Warmer in 1971, probably because even then the name was felt to be confusing.
The cruellest blow came in 1976 when Ind Coope launched a new cask beer called Burton Ale, which was actually an IPA-style brew (cask-conditioned Double Diamond in fact) rather than a real Burton Ale as drinkers a generation or two earlier would have understood the term (my father, for one, a London-born drinker of Burton Ale, was furious at this betrayal of tradition, insisting that a beer called Burton had to be dark). Ind Coope had brewed a “proper” Burton Ale (described by Andrew Campbell as “rather light, not sweet at all”) at Burton upon Trent until at least the mid-1950s, and the pump clips for the new draught pale ale copied the typeface and general style of the Edwardian Ind Coope Burton Ale bottle labels.
A small revival has taken place in the brewing of proper Burton Ale-style beers in recent times. Smiles brewery in Bristol, founded in 1977 but closed in 2004, made a beer it called Heritage with a recognisably Burton Ale profile: red-brown, bitter-sweet, fruity and full-bodied, with a roast malt aroma. Heritage is still, happily, being brewed under the Smiles name by the Highgate Brewery. Scottish & Newcastle also began producing a couple of bottled beers that fit the style, in McEwan’s Champion, a version of a beer brewed for the Belgian market, Gordon Highland Scotch (strictly this is a Scotch Ale or Edinburgh Ale) and Newcastle Star: sadly, the latter seems to have disappeared.
In October 2005, as part of its seasonal beer range, Young’s brewed a version of Burton Pale Ale under the Burton name, slightly lighter in colour than its Winter Warmer (but still dark), slightly stronger at 5.5% ABV, and using “YSM”, Young’s special, proprietorial mixture of brewing sugars, as Winter Warmer does. The flavour was deeper than Winter Warmer, with caramelly baked apples apparent, and it went particularly well mixed half and half with Young’s bitter – the traditional “mother-in-law”.
It may be too late to rescue the term Burton Pale Ale from being used incorrectly as a synonym for IPA, as many American brewers seem to do. Even the Campaign for Real Ale, in its information page on pale ales, says
“Marston’s Pedigree is an example of Burton Pale Ale”
which, as I’ve just demonstrated, is rubbish. But as Camra follows the Protzist line that pale ale and bitter are two different drinks, such historical revisionism is to be expected.