Friday, 11 February 2011

Improved Burton Ale

When in 1822  Allsopp's Russian trade was scuppered by increased customs duties, he didn't just sit back and mope. No indeedy. He went looking for new markets. How did he do that? With advertising.

"In spite of grave doubts, and much serious dissuasion among people who pretended to think that it was not legitimate and respectable for a wholesale house to adopt such means of giving publicity to their wares, the following "circular" was somewhat unwillingly, but under the pressure of circumstances, issued by Wilson and Allsopp:—


"In consequence of the sudden prohibitory measures adopted by the Russian Government, affecting various exports from Great Britain,

"Wilson and Allsopp, of Burton-upon-Trent, will directly offer to the public a quantity of rich pale and fine-flavoured Ale, of uncommon strength, brewed expressly for that market, at the reduced price of 2s. 6d. per gallon, at Burton (from whence there is a water conveyance to every part of the kingdom), in casks of about forty gallons each.

"The casks will be charged twenty-one shillings each; they are new, and of the first workmanship.

"It is too well known to need comment that the Ale from this Brewery has stood pre-eminent and unrivalled in the Baltic market for the last forty years; and, without affecting to presume on the unvaried preference shown to their Ale, they do not hesitate to express their full confidence that a trial will secure general approbation. Orders addressed to them at Burton-on-Trent will be promptly attended to.

"N.B.—Noblemen and gentlemen have an opportunity of supplying themselves with this superior Ale for bottling, which, from the above circumstance, may not again occur.

"Burton-upon-Trent, March 16, 1822."

The effect of this circular was the introduction of Burton Ale to the London and English market. Hitherto its use had been confined to the few favourite haunts and London resorts of the Staffordshire people; or to such commercial men and travellers as had relished and enjoyed this ancient and much-loved beverage in its native locality. Dr. Shaw, in his "History of Staffordshire," mentions the " Peacock" in Gray's Inn Lane as one of these. But immediately after the issue of this circular, "Burton Ale houses" sprang up. Few of the present generation of Londoners but must remember their first "nip of Burton" at "Offley's," or at the Burton Ale House in the court, opposite Bow church, in Cheapside. The superior quality of the ale brewed by Wilson and Allsopp, which had been hitherto chiefly confined to the Baltic market, soon rendered it a favourite beverage; but those who admired its flavour and its purity, and wished to drink more of it, found it too heady, too sweet, and too glutinous, if not too strong. Indeed it was so rich and luscious, that if a little were spilled on a table the glass would stick to it. Old Mr. Offley, in pointing out this circumstance to Mr. Thomas Allsopp, remarked, "Why this strong ale of yours must have honey in it!" It was this that led to the wise "discovery" by Dr. Booth, in 1830, who declared that he "could not make Burton ale without honey, resin, and plaster of Paris!" that learned doctor having tried to do so with Thames, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth and Alloa water, and gone through all the Scotch thin and weak styles of brewing, without once thinking of trying the Burton water wherewith to make Burton Ale!"
"Burton and its bitter beer" by John Stevenson Bushnan, pages 96 - 98.

Not respectable for a wholesale firm to advertise? What funny ideas they had in the 19th century.  Though their copy-writing skills could have done with a little tuning: "without affecting to presume on the unvaried preference shown to their Ale, they do not hesitate to express their full confidence that a trial will secure general approbation." Not exactly punchy, is it?

It's odd now to think that, in this pre-railway age, the London market was almost as foreign and inaccessible as the Russian one. The popularity of Burton Ale is prrof that it wasn't Pale Ale that first brough Burton beery renown. It was a much older and stronger type of Ale.

Ah, Dr. Booth. He was the first to accuse Burton brewers of throwing all sorts of muck into their beer. He wouldn't be the last.

As for Burton Ale itself, it was "too heady, too sweet, and too glutinous, if not too strong". So the puinters didn't mind it being 10% ABV, but would have preferred something less treacly. Fussy bastards. But, dynamic entrpeneur that he was, Allsopp paid attention to his customers' feedback:
"This observation on the strength and sweetness of the Burton ale, as rendering it unfit for the ordinary purposes of an every-day beverage, and a closer examination of the ales in general consumption, their average nastiness, their staleness, and their almost universal impurity, consequent on the many disgusting processes of fining, and the want of long traditional knowledge and skill in their manufacture—at last brought Mr. Allsopp to the resolution of making one grand experiment towards the improvement of this old English beverage; so that, combining a less degree of sweetness with a larger admixture of the finest hop, it might preserve the essential qualities of ale, and yet, with all the fine aroma and flavour of the ancient Saxon beverage, attain to that neutral taste, in strength and quality, the possession of which had enabled the porter brewed by the great London houses to displace ales in general metropolitan consumption for nearly half a century.

In the October season of 1822 Mr. Allsopp brewed the first specimen of the improved Burton ale now so universally drank and admired; but though it came out from the tuns more bitter and less sickly, yet, from some difficulties in the new mode of manufacture, this first brewing, when drawn by the houses at Liverpool to whom it was first sold, was not thoroughly successful. A doubt arose whether it would not be necessary to take back the whole, entailing another and a second very heavy loss upon the firm, at a time when it was still struggling under the effects of the sudden blow from the total stoppage of the Russian trade. This danger, however, was happily averted by a visit paid to the Liverpool houses in person by Mr. Allsopp, who induced his customers to continue drawing the ale, and so to give it time to mend itself, relying on the well-known property of the Burton ales to fine themselves, and to ripen and improve by the natural action of the water. A promise to receive back all that was damaged or unsaleable effected this important purpose; and, on the never-failing faith of the firm of Wilson and Allsopp, the Liverpool houses continued to draw the ale with so advantageous a result, that ultimately none was returned. The experience thus attained was, however, of the highest importance to the still grander experiment which was about to be made."
"Burton and its bitter beer" by John Stevenson Bushnan, pages 98 - 99.
What was Allsopp's solution? Throw in more hops. Sounds very modern. It also seems to have worked.

Just in case you're getting confused, this improved Ale still wasn't Pale Ale. Just a hopped-up version of the super-strong Burton Ale. The stuff eventually acquired the name Barley Wine. But not for another few decades.


Arctic Alchemy said...

An incredible leap of faith for Mr. Allsopp to not call in the stock of ales in Liverpool, but rather pay a visit, and "sell" this newer Burton style of ale. One must understand that the reputation of Allsopp's was one the line a bit, good gamble for him and clearly paid off.

The Beer Wrangler said...

Am I right in thinking there was little/no difference to the 'Baltic' Porter brewed for export in Britain to the Baltic ports/Russia and the Imperial Stout destined for Russia before Russian tariffs put an end to the trade?
Baltic Porter now can seem to mean a top fermented strong Porter or a bottom fermented strong porter as brewed by the Baltic/Russian breweries after the export trade largely disappeared.

I would be grateful for your historical perspective on this confusing use of the term