'Cathedral of brewing’ fears realised
Login here to listen to the audio description
In early 2020, Carlsberg and Marston’s announced a joint venture, with the Danish corporation taking 60 per cent of the new Carlsberg Marston’s Brewing Company (CMBC) and the British brewer holding 40 per cent and receiving a cash payment of more than £270m. At the time, I raised concerns about the future of the unique Burton union system (below) as used in Marston’s Albion brewery.
Almost four years later, these concerns have come to fruition. CMBC has announced plans to retire the historic union system, a method of brewing using an arrangement of wooden barrels and pipes which recirculates beer and yeast during fermentation. This system was developed in Burton-upon-Trent, patented in 1838, and used extensively for many years. Brewing scientists regard the system as unparalleled for the production of bright, clean, strong-tasting pale ales.
For example, Draught Bass, the best-selling cask beer in the 1970s, was brewed using the union system. Over the following decades, Bass fell into decline in both quality and sales. The turning point came in the early 1980s, when Bass decided to rip out the system that had been used to produce its flagship pale ale for over 150 years.
Across town, Marston’s established its union system in 1898 when it relocated from its Horninglow brewery (built 1834) to its current site, the Albion brewery on Shobnall Road. Described by Roger Protz as “the cathedral of brewing”, there are 10 sets of Burton unions in a single brewhouse, mostly used to produce Pedigree (4.3 per cent ABV), a beer originally introduced in 1952. In recent years, volumes of Pedigree have declined and only four of the sets were in use during 2023. Until earlier in January, the Marston’s website described Pedigree as “the only beer to come through the Burton union system. It gives Pedigree it’s one-of-a-kind taste. No Burton union. No Pedigree. End of”.
After 125 years of use, including more than 70 of Pedigree, Marston’s is now to follow the lead of Bass, leaving only one variation of this unique brewing method worldwide. The Firestone Walker Brewing Company (Paso Robles, California, USA) use a modified Burton union system with 40 65-gallon American oak barrels.
This decision will see a unique and historic part of Britain’s brewing heritage become extinct. Ideally, CMBC would reverse its decision, or at least make the union sets available to others in situ, but this is unlikely to happen. I’d hope to see it as at least a working museum piece, however, with the recent closure of the National Brewery Museum, this is also unlikely. For many years, one of the Bass union sets was on display in the museum car park.
It seems Carlsberg has no care for the heritage it has acquired in the UK – in addition to this backward step, recent years have seen the closure, or disposal of, several cask breweries: Eagle, Jennings, Ringwood and Wychwood. In its home country, Carlsberg have a reputation as a patron of the arts and a respecter of heritage and tradition. However, not in the UK, where a race to the lowest common destination seems to be the plan.
Carlsberg: probably the worst respecter of brewing tradition in the world.
Photos: Dave Pickersgill