Come-back for the Burtons

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.

47 thoughts on “Come-back for the Burtons

  1. I’d been hoping that you would post something about Burton. It’s an intriguing style, all the more so because of its incredibly swift demise and apparent erasure from memory.

    I’m pretty sure I’ve tracked down some examples of Burton in brewing logs. Barclay Perkins KK, for example, I’m pretty sure is a Burton.

    It all starts getting a bit hazy when you look back into the 19th century. Certainly Barclay Perkins KK was much paler before 1900.

  2. That makes so much sense, I always found the offical line on BPA odd. I was aware of Burton Ale although it was probibly your book which made me so.
    I think strong suffolk has lost considerable character in recent times, once the vintage labeling went so did the iron notes.

  3. I’ve finally come across a beer called Burton. It was a bottled beer brewed by McMullen in 1951. It had an OG of 1043.9, an FG of 1011.2 and was about 4.1% ABV. Sadly, the entry doesn’t include the colour.

  4. There you go, I never knew McMullen’s brewed a Burton … looks low on gravity, but the right sort of attenuation. Rayment’s, their fellow Hertfordshire brewer, made BBA, which stood for Best Burton Ale, but Rayment’s last head brewer admitted he had altered the recipe, cutting the sugar, to make it more like a standard bitter (and very fine in that incarnation it was, too – one of my top five Lost Beers). Greene King also sold a bottled “Burton Ale” which was, I am pretty certain, their dark mild rebadged, and therefore only about 1032OG …

    On the subject of Ks as designations for Burtons, Watney’s in the late 1930s brewed KKKK Strong Ale and KKK Burton, and in the late 1940s KKKK Burton, and Taylor Walker of Limehouse brewe KKK Burton in he 1950s, though Lovibond’s of Greenwich called their Burton XXXX.

    In the 1950s, according to Andrew Campbell, writing in 1956, Barclays made two beers that sound like Burtons: draught Winter Brew, “a dark beer of medium bitter taste with a mellowing sweetnes”, and bottled No 1 Southwarke [sic] Ale, “dark bitter sweet, of deceptive strength … rather similar in style to a Younger’s No 3 Scotch Ale” [which was in the Scottish equivalent style to Burton Ale, Edinburgh Ale].

    1. Not so much a reply as a query: You commented that Rayments last Head Brewer had changed the recipe. I am trying to establish what the recipe was and the Head Brewer sound like the perfect starting point. Is there any chance you could give me his contact details, or pass mine on to him?

      1. I was slightly wrong, Peter, it wasn’t the last head brewer, but the last-but-one, Laurie Collins, who changed the recipe for BBA: however, he left in 1983, when he must have been at least 60, and if he’s still around he’ll be in his 80s. The last brewer at Furneux Pelham was called Bill Hampton, and Greene King may know what happened to him; alternatively, Greene King carried on brewing BBA at Bury St Edmunds for a while, and must have what the recipe was in their records …

  5. re: Burton Ale in the US.

    I’ve been casually researching Ballantine Burton Ale for several decades now – only drank 3 bottles over the years, and, given the current “going rate” doubt I’ll have another. (I am still amazed at how many still turn up 40 years later, tho’.)

    For Ballantine beers, it should be noted that, tho’ many stress the Scotish origins of the founder, Peter Ballantine, the family sold the brewery on the eve of Repeal to two brothers (of German heritage), the Badenhausen’s. They, in turn, hired a German and a Scotish brewer to create their new beers and train their US brewmasters. The best known, longest-lived product being “Ballantine XXX Ale”, which was based on Canadian ales of the era and created by Archibald Ferguson MacKechnie (described in a 1938 Fortune magazine article as “one of the foremost brewery consultants in the British Isles”) at the direction of Carl Badenhausen.

    The other great Ballantine ale was their India Pale Ale, a label that did exist pre-Prohibition but one assumes that MacKechnie may have altered the recipe of that ale, as well. In the 1930’s (and after), it was unique in the US, being long aged in wood. The back label of a 1930’s bottle read:

    “IMPORTANT NOTICE – The Process used to brew Ballantine’s India Pale Ale a century ago is still employed. After bottling it continues to age and mellow. With age a slight cloudiness and precipitation develop, which in no way affect the quality of the ale. Connoisseurs know this to be a condition characteristic of India Pale Ale brewed according to old time methods.”

    Now, as for the Burton Ale. The earliest brewing date found on the various bottles than survive that I’ve seen is May 12, 1934, which is only a few months after the brewery shipped it’s first beer after Repeal (Feb., ’34- because of the change in ownership, they were later to re-enter the market than many other US brewers). I assume that that beer, too, was a creation of MacKechnie on orders from Badenhausen.

    Here’s an interesting take on the Burton from an ex-Ballantine worker:

    While the 40 year old memories of a former employee are often not the best of sources, I, too, have heard from several other ex-Ballantine workers of in-house parties featuring purloined BBA. OTOH, I’ve never heard of the Burton Ale existing after the mid-60’s, when the Badenhausen families sold the brewery to an “investment house” nor have I seen labels from that era (the brewery closed in 1972) and always assumed that the Burton Ale was long gone by the end.

    Another Burton Ale in the US pre-Prohibition that I’ve come across is Burton Ale from the Continental Brewing Co., of Philadelphia, PA. (which closed upon Prohibition and did not reopen). A copy of the label can be found here:

  6. Many thanks indeed for that, Jess, absolutely fascinating stuff: I’m sure I’m not alone in having Ballantine Burton Ale high on my list of “time travel ales”, beers I’d love to go back in time to try.

  7. I am looking for information on a Ballantine’s Burton Ale. I bought a bottle at a garage sale for 25 cents (unopened in good condition). I’m wondering if there is a market for such a bottle? The one I have says Ballantine’s Burton Ale, Brewed Especially for Kenneth P. Hooper, On May 12, 1934, Bottled December 1955. The bottle has Christmas decorations and says Christmas Greetings from “some first name I can’t make out” Badenhausen, President, and Otto A. Badenhausen, Vice President”. This seems like some kind of gift bottle and says “Special Brew – Not For Sale”. Does anyone know if this is worth anything to a beer/ale collector? If so, where would I sell it?

  8. If you have indeed bought the real thing for just 25 cents, Mark, I’d say you’ve got the beer bargain of the century so far, and a large number of people would be very interested in buying it from you. I’d say try putting it on eBay but if anybody’s got a better idea …

  9. I, too, have a full bottle of one of the “Ballantine’s Burton Ale” Christmas Brews, though mine is for a Charles Tufts and was brewed 5/12/1946 and bottled December 1957. I had a conversation with Michael Jackson about this bottle several years ago and he believed they did them for employees and good customers for many years. He was at that time the only person I’d encountered who’d ever heard of them. Mine is only in fair condition. The ullage is pretty low and there’s some corrosion on the crown, but the liquid is surprisingly clear. I’ve kept it under cellar conditions since acquiring it, but it was out of my control for its first 35 or so years of its existence (I’ve had it maybe 15 or so years) and also bought it for a song. Over the years I’ve been tempted to open it with a group of brewers and beer people to see what it tastes like now, but I always chicken out in the end. Maybe some day …

    If you’re interest I’d be happy to send a picture. I took a few for the book on Christmas beers that Don “Joe Sixpack” Russell is working on (and which will be published later this year).

  10. I was lucky enough to have some of the 1869 Ratcliffe Ale, a fascinating experience, and my advice is – drink it, Jay! Drink it! …. and then let us know how it was … yes, I’d be very interested to see a picture of the bottle …

  11. just happened to read this directly after reading the wikipedia tale of the history of brewing in Edinburgh…

    In that account the author(s) refute the idea that hoppy beers were not made in Scotland, and assert that they were in competition with Burton-on-Trent in the India trade. Then they created Scotch Wee Heavy as an export beer, evidently to compete with malty Burton beers.

    Gotta wonder whether Scotch Ale is historically inspired by Burton ales, or was it vice versa, even?

  12. There’s no evidence the Burton brewers took any notice of what the Scots were up to, but the Scots were certainly imitating Burton IPA, and keen to try to get in on Burton brewers’ export markets. The similarity between Scotch Ale and Burton Ale is, I think, a reflection of the widespread tradition of fruity stronger ales. I don’t think Wee Heavy was an export beer particularly, just a strong pale ale – I can’t see brewers giving a beer meant primnarily for export such a “Scots” name.

  13. Hi, I am trying to track down a pub/brwery that still makes and serves the Burton Ales, could you please tell me if one actually still exists? I’ve been told that the last time this beer was seen was in Northampton – does anyone know if there is still anywhere that serves this please?

    1. i have sampled one bottle, and my best friend has had the distinct privilage of drinking five of these beers, and i can tell you of a certainty, that they are amazing.

  14. My grandfather was an employee of the administration of Ind Coope Brewery in Burton-on-Trent in the 1930s. Ind Coope bought out Benskins in Watford where I was brought up in the 1950s and 60s.

    I remember Burton Pale Ales and I can say that today the nearest you can find to the flavour of a Burton Pale Ale is in bottled Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery Pale Ale brewed in Tadcaster. It’s not the same water as you’d have got from Burton where so many breweries made so much fine beer but it’s not far short of it. It’s a darker colour than modern pale or light ales and a very rich almost Newcastle Brown colour. It has a fine flavour and and is one I regularly buy.

    I agree with all those posting here who lament the passing of the old Burton Breweries. Progress I suppose and the pursuit of profit is the reason.

    Ind Coope Arctic Ale I really miss, that was the strong one. Also I used to really enjoy the early cans of Ind Coope’s Long Life beer. Wonderful stuff.

    I’m told that Benskins best bitter lives on in a copy of the recipe coming out of a micro brewery in Devon Branscombe Vale’s Best Bitter which I intend to try soon as it’s available in Topsham near Exeter. A spot of Nostalgia in a pint glass I hope!

    1. Did you ever get to try this Benskins copy? I’d be keen to know if it lived up to expectations and was it as billed?

      Also I’m told Vale Brewery’s (Haddenham, now Brill) Best Bitter is copy of the old Benskins Best recipe, but again yet to try.


    2. I have spoken to the Branscombe Vale chap who started this micro brewery. He informs me that they did not use any Benskins recipe. However, he did mention the relatively nearby Mighty Hop brewery who do brew heritage beers from old recipes. But alas, they didn’t brew a Benskins one!
      However, they do have an association with the Dead Brewers Society which seems to be run by a chap who is a retired head brewer and who, apparently, source old beer recipes.
      My interest is in obtaining a Pryor Reid & Co recipe that was brewed at their Hatfield Brewery up until 1920 when Benskins bought the company and its 105 pubs. I presume that the Pryor Reid recipe would have formed part of the sale (although not used).
      Any advice out there?

      1. “when Benskins bought the company and its 105 pubs”

        Hmmm – up to a point. At least 11 Pryor Reid pubs were sold in July 1919, as part of the break-up of the concern, which also included Glover’s brewery, Harpenden, and the 105 pubs Benskin’s bought in January 1920 included 11 belonging to Glovers. In 1907 Pryor Reid had 150 pubs.

        I’d be surprised if any Pryor Reid brewing records survived the Benskin’s takeover – indeed, I’d be surprised if any Benskin’s brewing records survived the Ind Coope takeover. I assume you’ve tried HCRO and the Awtford Museum …

  15. Thanks for this… a bloody good read that I will come back to again. Very nice blog, excellent comments.

    Kieran Haslett-Moore ( got me searching for Burton Ale after using the term (prefixed with ‘new world’) to describe our latest release “Hud-a-wa’ Strong”. I’ve been thinking it lies between an ESB and a Barleywine, at 6.8% and judicious hopping levels of 9g/L.

    Your description “red-brown, bitter-sweet, fruity and full-bodied, with a roast malt aroma” sums up the beer pretty nicely… He may well be right. And it wouoldn’t be the first time!

    It’s good to have a history buff around, to help us name the things that we create without really knowing where the idea came from… and to help us realise that it has all been done before!

    The beer is named after my great-great grandfather, who may well have drunk similar , less hoppy beers in Edinburgh around 1900. My dad drunk a lot of Youngers in the 50’s/60’s, so it will be interesting to see if it invokes any memories…

    Stu McKinlay
    Yeastie Boys

  16. to Jim re: Who is he?
    Ballantine usually gave out their Christmas Bottles in sealed boxes to dignitaries or people of special merit(in their eyes) Here is the answer for which you seek:

    The reason allot of these have been coming to ebay in the last 15 or so years is that these folks, most times, put the beer away for posterity or perhaps forgotten them through the sands of time. Of course upon their deaths, their effects are scoured for the estate sale by surviving relatives and such and low and behold! You are bidding on them. I’ve been lucky enough to have had two bottles of the ’34 vintage that were still sound and the last ’46 I drank was right up to par with a perfect example of a modern day Stock/Old/Burton Ale. I have two more bottles in the fridge of the ’46. Apparently every year they would brew a “special batch” of the IPA and top off the Oak Tuns “Solera Style” to keep the headspace up. There are only two documented brewings of the actual BBA. Both were brewed on May 12th 1934 and 1946. I, being a homebrewer, strive to celebrate those great ales by throwing a “Ballantines Day” party at my house every year.

  17. Is the now popular winter warmer or winter ale “style” that is a popular seasonal really a Burton Ale or do (unspiced) winter specialty beers deserve a seperate monicker? Many Winter ales that i have tasted from British and North American brewers seem to fit the profile of a Burton Ale. As I have never tasted a ‘true’ BA please let me know if this assumption (although broad!) is on the right track?

    1. I suspect – though I have no evidence for this – that most ales in the 19th century and before (using the term to describe something different from bitter/pale ale and porter/stout) had the fruity, slightly sweet character of a Burton Ale, and Burton Ale was simply the “brand leader” whose name was nicked by others, especially in London, to apply to their own local versions of ale: yes, I think Burton ales, and old ales (but not the soured ones like Gale’s POA) and (unspiced) winter warmers are all pretty much the same beer, but that’s not to say you can’t call something “winter warmer” if you want, even though it’s the same recipe as a Burton … that’s what Young’s did, after all …

  18. […] Una birra che ha anche suscitato anche polemiche più o meno a distanza fra esperti del settore (Martyn  Cornell e Roger Protz, ad esempio, non la pensano alla stessa maniera sull’ aderenza storica di […]

  19. […] As the sun takes half days and the wind turns from refreshing to painful, mans’s tastes change. Warm, thick, comfort foods like stews and chowders, mulled ciders, and roasts reappear in our kitchens as we gather indoors with friends. Brewers have always followed the seasons, losing access to fresh hops, the cold months are historically celebrated with a malty, higher ABV style known as winter ale or winter warmers. The English brewed these sans hops at times, to be heated and spiced. Later Burton Ales, a stronger dark beer, became a consistent winter tradition from the early 1900′s through the 1950′s (thankfully, they are now making a return). […]

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