Tag Archives: Marston’s

Blissful unions

I cannot lie, my stomach made a little flip when I walked into the union room at Marston’s brewery in Burton upon Trent on Wednesday. Here it was: the most iconic fermentation system on the planet. The only example left, out of – well, dozens, certainly, perhaps even hundreds, of unions in use in breweries from London to Edinburgh back in the 19th century, though the most famous sets of unions were in the breweries of Burton.

The union room at Marston’s brewery: the company has ten union sets in total, with 24 4½-barrel casks per set

It is not a cheap method of brewing, and accountancy-led brewing companies, combined with brewery closures, means that today Marston’s is the only place where you can still find beer being made in traditional union sets. Pictures don’t prepare for how big the union room is at Marston’s, packed from wall to wall with sets of oak fermenting casks, each double row of 12 casks mounted under a long, deep trough, there to catch the excess yeast produced in the fermentation as it spills out of the swan-neck pipes that rise up from the casks.

This being Wednesday, the unions had just been filled with fermenting beer, which had already spent 48 hours in more conventional fermenting vessels after the initial pitching of yeast into the wort. The regime followed since a man called Peter Walker invented the union system in the 1830s is that after that first fermentation has built up speed, the yeasty wort is “dropped” out of the initial vessels, leaving behind trub and other debris, and run into the troughs above the unions, before descending into the union casks, each one of which hold 162 gallons – four and a half barrels

Close-up of some of Marston’s union casks

There, in the dark, the Marston’s union yeast gets into its stride, multiplying furiously as it turns the sugars in the wort into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The yeast loves life in the unions, and it increases so fast it foams up out of the casks and into the troughs in – from some of the unions last Wednesday – a constant creamy pour. The beer the yeast carries with it then runs back into the casks, leaving the yeast behind (to be, eventually, scooped out and turned into Marmite). Fermentation is effectively finished by the Friday, but the beer sits in the unions until the Monday, when it is run off to be packaged in cask, bottle or keg. Despite the expense, Marston’s brewers firmly believe the union system produced a beer with great stability and considerably enhanced flavours, and it is the only method used to make the brewery’s flagship Pedigree pale ale, as it was the main method of brewing in the many other breweries that once filled the town’s air with the beautiful scent of mashing barley, in the glorious past when Burton sent constant trainloads of IPA out around the world

And now, for the first time, Marston’s unions have been used to make an Imperial stout, the latest in the “Horninglow” series of one-off beers, which is why I was up in Burton, to talk to the head brewer, Pat McGinty, about the new beer, and also to have my first ever look at the Marston’s union room (shameful, I know. Call myself a beer writer?)

Pat McGinty, Marston’s head brewery: as a union man he’s wise

It’s not totally unknown to use unions to make porters and stouts, and by coincidence only a few days before my trip to Burton I was reading an article in a brewers’ trade magazine from 1878 by Charles Howard Tripp of the Stogumber brewery, near Taunton, in Somerset about brewing porter in unions. But I’m not aware of anyone making an Imperial stout that way. Equally unusually, Pat McGinty has made this 7.5 per cent abv beer using straight-up Burton well-water, rammed as it is with sulphates, which, conventionally, is seen as terrific for pale beers but not so great for dark ones, where a more London-like brewing liquor, with lots of calcium carbonate in, is regarded as optimal. The reason for not altering the water chemistry, Pat says, is to ensure this stout has a proper “Burton” character, which search for a Burton character is the reason for brewing the stout in the unions, and fermenting it with the standard Marston’s union yeast as used in making Pedigree. (The yeast apparently got on fine with the dark grains and the higher OG of the stout, though the brewers had to spend twice as long as they normally do, 4½ hours, cleaning the unions used for stout brewing, to ensure no contamination of the next batch of Pedigree.)

In the brewery yard at Marston’s

To make up for the possibly unsuitable mineral profile, Pat has used malted oats in the brew, to help round out the mouthfeel: the other grains are pale ale malt, roasted barley, chocolate malt (Charles Howard Tripp was keen on chocolate malt, which had only just been invented in his time, saying: “chocolate malt [gives] a capital rich and full flavour to the porter in which it is used”) and malted wheat, while the hops are Challenger. The beer, which will, I believe, be exclusive to Waitrose, was only two weeks old when we sampled it, unfiltered and heavy on the roasty flavours, and it still had to be filtered, partially carbonated and sent to the bottling plant, where each bottle will be seeded with the same union yeast the beer was originally fermented with (the union yeast apparently happily drops to the bottom of the bottle). It will then be held on to for 14 days before being sent out for sale in stores, though Pat McGinty suggests keeping the bottles for six to eight months to be “nicely conditioned”.

As well as a look at the union room we were also given the chance to meet Marston’s last remaining cooper, Mark Newton, who spends most of his time maintaining and repairing the union casks. That was fascinating, too, and rather sad: Mark has trained up an apprentice, who now works elsewhere in the brewery, but he is currently the last man in the town doing a job that once was carried out by hundreds. Here’s a little photo-essay.

Mark Newton, Marston’s (and Burton’s) last working cooper, leans on a union cask taken out from one of the sets for some maintenance
Mark Newton uses a cooper’s axe to trim a stave
Getting your head together … Mark Newton demonstrates two stages in the making of a head for a cask, with the staves dowelled together and then the shape of the head marked on. Heads are cut slightly oval, because when fitted they will squeeze a little in the direction of the grain
Cutting in a bevel on a cask head with a cooper’s double-handled heading knife
Mark Newton shaves the edge of a firkin with a topping plane. The dark stripes on the wood are the acids coming out of the oak as it is squeezed in the making of the cask.

Why the clear glass bottle question means I’m not bothered Marston’s is buying Charles Wells

Estrella believes in the power of the brown bottle: it’s a pity a few more British breweries don’t

Yesterday’s announcement that Marston’s is acquiring the Charles Wells Brewing and Beer Business for £55 million and loose change (or “working capital adjustments”), at a pretty conservative 5.5 times ebitda, adds another five historic old brewery names, Courage, McEwans, Young’s, William Younger’s and Wells, to a portfolio that already reads like the line-up at a quite good small beer festival circa 1990: Marston’s itself, Banks’s, Jennings, Thwaites, Ringwood, Wychwood, Brakspear, Mansfield, Mitchells (with Lancaster Bomber) and, if you include beers Marston’s brews under licence, Bass and Tetley.

It will give the company six working breweries, and more than 50 “ale” brands, from Bank’s mild to McEwan’s Champion. That’s around twice as many as its closest rival, Greene King, which runs just two breweries, its own original home in Suffolk and Belhaven in Scotland, and continues brewing under the names of just five vanished brewers: Morlands, Ruddles, Ridleys, Hardy’s & Hansons and Tolly Cobbold. On the retail side, however, Greene King owns around 3,100 pubs and bars, making it the third biggest operator in the country, Marston’s “just” 1,750 or so, meaning it vies with Mitchells & Butlers for fourth place.

So what’s with Marston’s policy of adding ever more seemingly pretty similar “twiggy brown bitters” to its line-up? I interviewed the company’s chief executive, Ralph Findlay, two years ago, right after Marston’s had acquired Thwaites’s beer portfolio and made those beers available to all its pubs, and he was pretty specific about the desire to increase further his already considerable ale offer: “Choice is where the market is at,” Findlay said. “Range is something you simply have to have, both for licensees and their customers.” Even after the Thwaites acquisition, he said. Marston’s would continue to look for “opportunistic” purchases if they came up: “We look at potential acquisitions that are consistent with our strategy and which can contribute to our return on capital. We have had a strategy over the past five years that’s not been reliant on acquisitions, though we’ve made them when it’s been opportunistic to do so, such as the acquisition of the Thwaites brewing business. I think we’re in the fortunate position of having an incredibly strong beer range from the various breweries that we’ve got. It’s a strategy that is undoubtedly working.”

Why not, like others, just buy in beers, rather than buy breweries? Because, as Findlay says, it’s a strategy that is working. Marston’s also revealed its half-year figures yesterday. Own-brewed beer volumes were up two per cent, in a declining market. Sales were up three per cent, to £440.8m. Average profit per pub was up three per cent. Like-for-like sales were up between 1.6 and 1.7 per cent. More City analysts than not continue to have the company as a “buy”.

Should we mourn the capture of more beer brands by one large company? Not in this case, I believe, and the reason is something you probably don’t know, because Marston’s has never, curiously, made a big parade about it. Five or so years ago, Marston’s brewers made a mighty oath that they would not let any of their beers continue to go on sale in clear glass bottles, believing that the dangers of the product they poured their hearts into being light-struck and skunky through not using brown bottles was too great. The company’s marketeers accepted the brewers’ ruling, something that brewers at no other large UK ale brewery, apart from Fuller’s have been able to achieve: Greene King, Shepherd Neame, Hall & Woodhouse, all sell some or several of their beers in clear bottles, and even Charles Wells has at least one several of its brands, includingWaggle Dance (originally, history fans, made by Wards of Sheffield Vaux of Sunderland, then Vaux, then Young’s, and thus about to be on its fourth fifth owner) and the Burning Gold iteration of Bombardier (as the Beer Nut reminded me) in flint glass. The commitment by Marston’s to beer quality ahead of spurious marketing arguments about how consumers are supposedly encouraged to buy beers that they can see the colour of makes me more confident that Wells’s brand are in relatively safe hands under the boys from Wolverhampton.

Ironically, or at least I think it’s ironic, one of the brands Marston’s is acquiring distribution rights to via the Wells purchase, the Spanish lager Estrella, has just been running an ad campaign un the UK under the slogan “Darker bottle, better beer”, explaining to consumers that “research has shown that exposure to light damages beer and affects its flavour”, and for that reason it was darkening its bottles by 30 per cent.

I’m slightly puzzled that Charles Wells has said that, while it will now be concentrating on its pub estate, it will also be building a new small brewery in Bedford to brew the Charlie Wells “craft beers” and John Bull range, which it is not selling to Marston’s. Is this continued toehold in the brewing world a way of appeasing the family shareholders (many of them formidable elderly females who, Paul Wells once told me, all had his phone number and would ring him up when they felt the company’s figures weren’t good enough) who might try to vote down the sale of the main brewing operation if they felt the company was cutting off its roots after 141 years of supplying beer to the people of Bedford?

Charles Wells currently brews several beers I’m very fond of, including Courage Imperial Russian Stout, Young’s Winter Warmer and McEwan’s Champion, that will now be brewed under Marston’s control. For probably the only time ever, I’m going to let Tim Page, chief executive of Camra, speak for me: giving a cautious one thumb up to the takeover, he said yesterday: “Marston’s has a positive track record of keeping the breweries it acquires open, in situ, and in many cases investing in the sites to increase capacity, and we urge them to continue that policy. We’d also encourage them to protect the brands that they have acquired and increase the range available to beer drinkers, by continuing to supply them alongside the existing beers produced by Marston’s owned breweries.”

Is it morally wrong to drink an 89p bottle of good beer?

Bank's Amber bitterMy local little Tesco supermarket – and probably your local Tesco as well – is currently selling for 89p a 50cl bottle of 3.8 per cent abv amber ale made with Fuggles and Goldings hops at a 140-year-old Midlands brewery. What is worse, or better, depending on which direction you wish to drive in from, is that it’s an excellent beer, a very fine example of a classic English session bitter, only lightly carbonated, balancing with calm skill on the  knife’s edge between mouth-filling bitter and delicate sunny malt sweetness, a long afternote bringing a reminder of oranges and a touch of currant cake, as moreish as any brewer could wish. If every bottled beer were as good, Britain’s drift towards much more drinking at home would become a stampede. But the price! Beer hasn’t been that cheap in a pub for nearly 30 years. It’s a crime against economics, and a threat to every other brewer, great and small, trying to scrabble a living selling good beer on thin margins. How and where is anyone making a profit? The duty alone has to be 35p a bottle, and the VAT 18p. I cannot believe the manufacturing and distribution are less than 20p a pop, leaving 16p for the retailer: a GP of 18%. A normal business would go bust pretty swiftly on that kind of mark-up. Dear reader, how do I match the exceeding, and exceedingly cheap, pleasure I get from this beer with the guilt I wrestle to suppress, fearing that every bottle I buy pushes a Heriot-Watt graduate working for a small brewer utterly unable to compete on price with an 89p cracker closer to redundancy?

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Why the man from Firestone was deservedly tired

My life is far too deadline-driven. Fortunately the unexpected is always to be expected. On Saturday Jay Brooks, one of California’s top beer writers and beer bloggers, booted my schedule off course with an email saying he was flying in to London, arriving early Monday morning, and catching a train up to the Midlands in the afternoon – any chance of a meet-up?

Jay is accompanying Matt Brynildson, brewmaster at the Firestone Walker brewery in Paso Robles, California, who has been invited to brew a Californian-style pale ale at Marston’s brewery in Burton upon Trent, which will then be one of the beer available at this year’s Wetherspoon’s International Beer Festival, running at ‘spoons pubs from October 30 to November 16 (other brewers coming to the UK to brew for the festival are from Japan, Australia and Denmark, apparently).

The wrinkle or link is that Firestone is the only other brewer apart from Marston’s to use the union fermentation system, where the beer is run after primary fermentation begins into oak casks to finish fermenting. It’s an expensive set-up to construct and maintain, which is why everybody else who once used it apart from Marston’s has abandoned it. But in the many years that all the other brewers of Burton upon Trent used the union system it was reckoned, along with their gypsum-impregnated water, to be one of the prime reasons for the excellence of their pale ales. Firestone, which was founded by one of the members of the family that owns the tyre makers Firestone, is also a pale ale specialist, with a string of awards for its beers.

The union room at Allsopp's brewery in Burton upon Trent circa 1889
The union room at Allsopp's brewery, Burton upon Trent circa 1889

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