Friday, 21 January 2011

Burton water (part three)

It was water what made Burton great. So excuse me if I explore it a little further.

The great strychnine scare of the 1850's wasn't all bad. Bass and Allsopp were so put out by the allegations that they threw their breweries and beer stores open to scientists. To prove that they'd been up to no dodgy practices. Doubtless their findings helped preserve the reputation of those two renowned Pale Ale brewers. It also means that there are numbers galore for the digitally-obsessed beer historian.

The learned men poked into every corner of the Burton enterprises. And analysed anything they could get their hands on. Their proof that no Bass or Allsopp Pale Ale contained strychnine doesn't interest me so much. I'd have been gobsmacked if they had found any. It was obviously untrue. Had their been any shred of truth in the allegations, there'd have been corpses piled up outside every pub.

It's the analyses of Pale Ale and Burton brewing water that interest me. We're going to kick off with the latter because . . . . that's the order I've started doing it in. You'll have to wait a few days for the beer analyses.

"Composition And Peculiarities Of The Burton Water.

Burton brewers have long been celebrated for the quality of their beer, and many conjectures have been made, to account for the excellence and superiority of the article brewed in that locality.

It is the general opinion, in which, we believe, the brewers themselves concur, that their success depends to a great extent upon the quality of the well-water used.

This water, repeated analyses have shown, contains a very large quantity of sulphate of lime, a good deal of the sulphates of potash and magnesia, and a considerable amount of carbonate of lime; the lime and magnesia, in the state of carbonate, being held in solution by carbonic acid, the excess of which is so great as to redden blue litmus paper.

The Burton well-water, therefore, is evidently a very hard water, remarkable for the quantity of earthy sulphates and carbonates contained in it, and, a priori, it would be considered from its chemical constitution but ill adapted for the purpose of brewing. That it is not so, however, has been shown by long experience. A rational and scientific explanation of the cause of the superiority of the Burton well-water can now be afforded.

In the course of boiling, the excess of carbonic acid in the water, by which the carbonates of lime and magnesia are dissolved, is expelled, and these salts are precipitated: again, the alkaline phosphates present in malt have the power of decomposing and precipitating sulphate of lime, phosphate of lime, and a soluble alkaline sulphate being formed, the greater part of the phosphate of lime so formed is re-dissolved in the acid generated during fermentation. The water from being at first hard thus becomes comparatively soft, and in this state is well suited for the extraction of the active properties of the malt and hops used in the manufacture of bitter beer.

The correctness of this explanation is clearly shown in the following analyses:—

Analysis of the Water used in the Brewery of Messrs. Allsopp and Sons, by Dr Henry Bottinger.

(Contents of Imperial Gallon.)

Chloride of sodium 10.12
Sulphate of potash 7.65
Sulphate of lime 18.96
Sulphate of magnesia 9.95
Carbonate of lime 15.51
Carbonate of magnesia 1.7
Carbonate of iron protoxide 0.6
Silica 0.79
Total solid contents  65.28

Besides, a varying quantity of carbonic acid, free, keeping the carbonates in solution.

The water is remarkable for its complete freedom from organic matter.

Analysis of the Water used in the Brewery of Messrs. Bass and Co., by Mr. Cooper
(Contents of Imperial Gallon.)

Uncombined carbonic acid, cubic inches 7.5

Carbonate of lime 9.93
Sulphate of lime 54.4
Muriate of lime 13.28
Sulphate of magnesia 0.83
Total solid contents 78.44

Analysis, showing the Saline and Mineral Ingredients contained in samples of beer brewed by Messrs. Allsopp and Sons. Taken from the stores at Blackwall.
(Contents of Imperial Gallon.)

Alkaline sulphates, chiefly potash 78
Alkaline chlorides 28
Alkaline carbonates and phosphates 14
Phosphate of lime and magnesia, very fusible before the blowpipe 102
Total saline and mineral ingredients 222

Analysis, showing the Saline and Mineral Ingredients contained in samples of beer brewed by Messrs. Bass and Co. Taken from the stores at Blackwall.
(Contents of Imperial Gallon.)

Alkaline sulphates, chiefly potash 62
Alkaline chlorides 25
Alkaline carbonates and phosphates 19
Phosphate of lime and magnesia, very fusible before the blowpipe 91
Total saline and mineral ingredients 197

The two last analyses include, of course, not merely the saline constituents of the water used in making the beers, but also those of the malt and hops employed, consisting principally of phosphates.

It will be observed that the earthy salts, the carbonates and sulphates of lime and magnesia, which impart the quality of hardness to water, have disappeared, and that the Burton water, though hard at first, really becomes a soft -water, as contained in the beer.

But the chemical constitution of the Burton water explains also another circumstance connected with Burton ales. It is known that these ales speedily become bright and clear, that they never require "finings" to be employed, and are fit for use almost as soon as brewed.

Now the depurating power of lime is well known, insomuch so, that it has long been employed in the clarification of cane and other vegetable juices, and it is no doubt to the presence and precipitation of this substance that the action of the Burton water in rendering the beer transparent and bright is attributable."
"The Lancet 1852, vol.1", 1852, pages 473 - 479.

Sulphate of lime, of gypsum, was the most important constituent of Burton water. That this was chiefly responsible for the excellent brewing properties of the water was already known by the 1850's. Quite a while before anyone thought to put this to practical use by adding gypsum to recreate Burton water.

I'm not quite sure I understand how this really hard water magically turns soft during the brewing process. How I wish now that I'd done A-level chemistry. It would come in dead handy.

The ease with which Burton Pale Ales became bright was one of the reasons for their renown. Interesting that Burton brewers didn't use finings. In the 1970's I was surprised to learn from a landlord that Scottish & Newcastle didn't fine their Edinburgh-brewed cask beers. Doesn't Edinburgh have similar water to Burton? That could explain why they didn't need to use finings.


Ryan said...

It's my understanding that when you boil water it precipitates out the carbonate, this is done in a pre-boil and the resulting softer water siphoned off. Calcium is required for yeast flocculation, an abundance would allow high floc yeast to do it's business just fine without finings.

Barbarrick said...

Beer analysis involving 19th century Bass in a few days - superb, bring it on! Seriously Ron, in recent months for bringing us the inside track on so many aspects of my beloved Bass & Co and Worthington, well, put it like this, if Bruno Tonioli of Strictly Come Danciong fame was judging you, he'd be leaning forwards, pointing at you and exclaiming with much rolling of R's..."R-R-R-R-Ron! You are on fire!!". I only hope you haven't a clue who I'm talking about.. Top stuff.

mistion said...

I hope this question isn't regarded as too off point, but is Bass Draugh Bitter still available? If so, where in London can you find it, I mean of course cask Bass?


beerchemist said...

Carbonic acid is just Carbon Dioxide dissolved in water. By boiling, you lose all the CO2 and thus raise the pH. So high carbonate hardness and low pH will cause the excess carbonic acid to decompose during the boil:

H2CO3 --> H2O(l) + CO2(g)

Excess calcium and magnesium making the carbonate salts will likely precipitate as a salt of something else, such as sulfate, when the carbonate is gone. Magnesium Hydroxide and Calcium Sulfate are both insoluble, for example.

Gary Gillman said...

If anyone can Burtonize water, why are finings still used largely for real ale production?


Gary Gillman said...

I can't follow the chemistry either but one key role of Burton water is not mentioned in this 19th century account. Burton water, due to its carbonate salts, or their transformed form after boiling, neutralized incipient acidity in beer. This was the great thing about Burton beer in addition apparently to speeding clarity. Other brewers used oyster or egg shells or other sources of calcium to do this. One downside of the Burton method in my opinion was the sulfurous odour of the brews, I don't know if modern beer brewed in Burton has it but 20 years ago I recall Bass cask beer having that taste in England. I believe this trait was/is not in the raw water but develops somehow in the brewing. I suspect it was a trade-off for consumers, better to have this taste than a sour one.


Graham Wheeler said...

Quite a while before anyone thought to put this to practical use by adding gypsum to recreate Burton water.

That is not really true. Booth's book of 1829 mentions adding gypsum to beer to produce Burton-style beers. In 1830 the Burton brewers sued Booth for suggesting that the Burton brewers adulterated their beers, and the Bass representative, when giving evidence, was quite aware that gypsum was the reason for the success of Burton beers.

Tizard, in 1846, suggested that brewers consult some able chemist to advise on artificially impregnating their water with the desired qualities, and even goes as far as to give sources of gypsum.

This then brings into question the often made assumption that some brewers buggered off to Burton in the 1870s to take advantage of the water. It is clear that this was unnecessary for any brewer who kept on top of developments.

A more likely scenario is that the trade-mark act panicked some brewers into moving. By the late 1860s it was clear that a trade mark act was going to happen, but nobody knew what form it would take. If the term "Burton Ale" was trade marked such that only Burton brewers could use the term, then there would be problems for other brewers who did good business in "Burton Ale". The Burton brewers were pushing for this.

So some brewers set up breweries in Burton from about 1870. In 1875 the trade mark act was passed and there was no appellation-type provision, so the alien brewers began closing their Burton outposts and by 1880 many had returned to London.

Adrian Avgerinos said...

"One downside of the Burton method in my opinion was the sulfurous odour of the brews, I don't know if modern beer brewed in Burton has it but 20 years ago I recall Bass cask beer having that taste in England."

I don't know about commercial beer, but down here in San Diego we have fairly hard water and I've added gypsum to my pale ale recipe to pump up the sulfate concentration from about 150 ppm to about 300 ppm (~2 tsp). I use While Labs Burton Ale strain (originally sourced from Brakespear Bitter according to Mr. England. Noted to produce sulphur notes according to the Internets), and I get strong sulphur notes during fermentation and lighter ones when the beer is fresh. I've noticed the sulphur notes are higher if I rack to a keg early before the beer completely finishes fermentation (say, 80-90% fermented. 3-4 days after pitching). Aging for a few weeks tends to reduce the sulphur notes. After about a month they are completely gone.

Ron Pattinson said...

Gary, "Burton snatch": the farty smell of Bass and others. It's what I like about cask Marston's Pedigree.

Draught is, I believe, currrently brewed at Marston's.

Kristen England said...

Carbonate hardness is temporary and sulfate hardness is permanent. HCO3 can be boiled out, Sulfate can not.

Also, don't get 'sulfate' and 'sulfur' confused. Basically sulfate just enhances the tongues perception of bitterness and doesn't really have anything to do with the 'fermented' sulfur compounds like sulfur dioxide, thiols, etc etc. They come from sulfur-containing amino acids mostly. Most of the Burton Snatch comes from the yeast and fermentation regime in my experience (practical and theoretical).

Gary Gillman said...

I thought sulphur in Burton beer was from sulphate ions deriving from calcium sulphate in the brewing water.


Kristen England said...


Yes and no. Its much more strain specific than 'sulfate' specific.

Much more detail than needed here:

For examle, if you took the Fullers strain and fermented it in Burtno water you'd get no real 'snatch'. On the other hand if you use the Marstons strain and ferment using Fullers water, you'd get 'snatch'.

I performed an experiment where I made a simple beer using RO water, soft tap water and then Burton water. Fermented with numerous strains. The ones that were 'snatchy' were so for all three sets of water and it was not Burton specific for the other strains. All the tastings were done double blind.

Craig said...

Am I the only one who thinks Burton snatch is hilarious?

Gary Gillman said...

Okay I see now what it is: it is the way some yeasts use the sulphates in the gypsum that will determine if hydrogen sulphide reduction will result, I think I understand now.


Barbarrick said...

Mistion - Draught Bass is permanently available in central London at: The Ship, New Cavendish St and at Simpson's Tavern, Bear Ct, off Cornhill - and nowhere else I know of. Slightly further afield it's at The Pineapple, Leverton St, Kentish town and The Express Tavern just north of Kew Bridge.
Simpson's only opens weekday lunchtimes. The Ship is a free house but a spiritual "Bass house". I recently organised an evening there where we served cask Worthington 'E' and Bass "P2" Czar's Imperial Stout (both brewed by Steve Wellington at White Shield) alongside Bass. All the above 4 pubs sell lots of Bass and are very special in their own ways.

Gary Gillman said...

It was me (Gary) who asked about Bass Draught. Many thanks for that. I will be in London at end February. The Ship, New Cavendish Street will be a must, thanks again.


Joel F said...

An interesting article in Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal also attends to the notion of strychnine in beer:

Some conclusions: It costs too much and the draymen would protest (probably with their boots.)