For brewing heritage, hop on the Eurostar

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For brewing heritage, hop on the Eurostar

Belgium and Britain are two countries united by a love of fine beer. The Belgians treat beer with the respect given to wine and the pride in its brews is underscored by a deep knowledge and appreciation of its history.

It’s a different story in this country where we have a throwaway attitude to the things we do well and scant regard for the long and fascinating history of brewing.

Last month Belgian Beer World opened in Brussels, a museum and visitor centre in the heart of the city in the palatial former Bourse or Stock Exchange. It houses interactive displays that enable visitors to follow the brewing process.

It showcases the vast range of beer styles available, including ales brewed by Trappist monks, beers aged in wood and beers made by wild or spontaneous fermentation, using yeasts from the atmosphere.

The centre has cost an astonishing 90m euros, paid for by the 430 brewers in Belgium and by local and national government. The government hopes the centre will become a major visitor attraction similar to the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin.

Britain can also boast of a long history of brewing that has produced some of the world’s great styles, including porter and stout in the 18th century and pale ale and IPA a 100 years or so later. Where will you find this history on display?

The answer is nowhere since the National Brewery Centre (NBC) in Burton-on-Trent closed last year. The centre started life as the Bass Museum in 1977 and changed its name when the company left brewing in 2000. It traced the history of brewing in a town that became the capital of beer-making in Britain and whose ales were not only exported worldwide but also inspired brewers in other countries to make pale beers, including the first golden lagers.

The centre, which included the Heritage brewery that created old Bass beers, was based on land owned by Molson Coors, a Canadian-American conglomerate that took over the former Bass plants and whose main activity is brewing Carling lager.

It gave the brewery centre notice to quit as it planned to move its headquarters staff there. It owns a number of other sites in the town but, with scant regard for the history of Burton, it forced the NBC to close.

The National Brewing Heritage Trust has worked tirelessly since the closure to protect the vast number of priceless archives and artefacts and find a new home for them. The trust is supported by CAMRA and its national chairman Nik Antona is one of the trustees.

At present there are some 3,000 boxes of material stored in a former Ryman’s stationery shop on Burton High Street.

But now there are hopes a new centre will rise from the ashes. Last month East Staffordshire Borough Council approved plans to open a centre in the Old Bass House and Town House. The centre will include a beer hall and microbrewing plant. Nottingham University’s School of Brewing is interested in becoming involved and using the kit to train brewers. Some of the old and priceless brewing artefacts from the NBC will be on display on the ground floor.

But don’t rush to Burton just yet. The new centre needs funding and the council may seek support from commercial firms. It will also see if funds are available from the government’s levelling-up programme.

This will take time with protracted talks, meetings and negotiations. In the meantime, the archives suffer the indignity of being housed in a boarded-up Ryman’s shop while the biggest of the artefacts, such as 19th-century locomotives and old brewery vehicles, remain at the old NBC site.

It seems likely that if the new centre at Old Bass House does eventually open, some material will be on display elsewhere in Burton. This would detract from the appeal of the centre, as not all visitors would want to have to go from one site to another.

But let’s be positive and hope a new centre will eventually open in Old Bass House and the Town House. In the meantime, if you want to visit a centre that, under one roof, proclaims the history and heritage of brewing you will have to hop on the Eurostar to Brussels.

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