Unlikely union to be celebrated

Unlikely union to be celebrated

Carlsberg Marston’s Brewing Company (CMBC) has found a new home for one of its historic Burton union sets, a fermentation system that has been in use at its Burton-upon-Trent brewery since the late 19th century. 

The Anglo-Danish brewing giant has said a surviving set of unions would be installed at Thornbridge brewery near Bakewell, Derbyshire, in what it described as a “momentous collaboration”. One of the systems will also remain on display in Burton-upon-Trent, with preservation work undertaken by the brewery’s master cooper, Mark Newton, before he retires later this year. 

The news follows the announcement earlier this year that CMBC would retire the historic equipment, formerly used to make its flagship Marston’s Pedigree Best Bitter, due to the cost of maintaining it. So important have the unions been to Marston’s history that they actually form part of the brewery’s logo. It makes sense then, that the decision to retire them drew a scathing response from industry commentators, with beer writer Roger Protz responding to the news by describing CMBC as having “little or no interest in either ale or Britain’s brewing heritage”.

Rob Lovatt, head brewer at Thornbridge, described the announcement as a “dream come true”. While he also admitted there will be a few challenges involved in getting the system up and running, Lovatt added that the opportunity was one that was too good to miss.

“Every process, detail and recipe change in a union system has an effect on the beer’s flavour, and I’m excited to see what we can create with the new system here in Bakewell,” Lovatt said in the statement issued by CMBC. 

In conversation with Thornbridge COO Simon Webster I learned the union will be installed in its taproom, alongside its original, smaller brewing system that launched the brewery when it was founded at nearby Thornbridge Hall in 2005. I was also delighted to hear that the first beer to grace what Walkden referred to as the “Thornbridge Union” will be its flagship IPA, Jaipur.

He also indicated that they will use the union set to produce several collaboration beers, one of which will see the brewery once again team up with Garrett Oliver. The brewmaster at Brooklyn brewery was reportedly instrumental in starting the conversation between Carlsberg and Thornbridge, and shares some of the collective responsibility in the preservation of this vital piece of brewing heritage (Brooklyn has several partnerships with Carlsberg, including the distribution of its beer in the UK, plus brewpubs in Norway and Sweden).

“It gives us a brilliant chance to shout about how important cask is,” Webster said. “It should be the most talked about beer on the bar.”

The development will come as a breath of fresh air to a British brewing industry that’s been mired in seemingly endless bad news in recent times. Rampant inflation and the cost-of-living crisis has made trading difficult for breweries and the hospitality industry at large, with several operators including North Brewing in Leeds and Warwickshire’s Purity recently calling in administrators to avoid permanent closure. London’s Fourpure brewery has filed for a Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA) so that it can continue trading while attempting to meet existing obligations to its creditors.

Carlsberg Marston’s has also been under fire after closing several of the historic British breweries that make up its portfolio of brands, including Ringwood, Wychwood and Jennings. The Danish giant owns a 60 per cent stake in the partnership and, as Roger astutely pointed out, it appears to show little regard for the history of real ale brewing within the United Kingdom, made evident by the decision to shut these brewing sites. It could easily be argued that its efforts to preserve the union systems are an attempt to save face, as the corporation comes increasingly under scrutiny for what could politely be described as cultural vandalism.

Most recently CMBC has been in the crosshairs of CAMRA, as it followed in the footsteps of Devon’s Otter Brewing by pushing a product known as Fresh Ale

Although the brewery-conditioned product is served via handpump, it is dispensed from a keg that contains little to no viable yeast, meaning it contravenes its definition of real ale. The Campaign has been actively raising awareness about this misleading dispense via its Handpump Hijack promotion, in which it has raised a complaint with West Northamptonshire Trading Standards, along with business secretary, Kemi Badenoch

However, despite CMBC’s recent efforts to both dismantle various aspects of British brewing history, and to mislead consumers at the bar, I feel it's essential to celebrate this glimmer of positivity to emerge from the gloom. As Thornbridge’s Walkden told me, it’s essential to create opportunities to talk about, and celebrate the positives of cask beer. With the Thornbridge union now in situ, there’s a golden opportunity to celebrate one of Britain’s most important gastronomic institutions. 

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