By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter
For the vast majority of human history, long-distance travel was something only experienced by a tiny minority. Most people lived and died without ever traveling more than a day’s walk from where they were born. This sort of isolation produces dialects in languages, regional cuisines in food and unique styles of beer.
While this regionalism had begun to slowly break down in the 18th century with the advent of long-distance oceanic trade, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century, due to the combination of railroads, steamship travel and the mass migration of people that they made possible, that we really see a significant shift in beer-drinking tastes.
From 1842 when it was created through the next century and a half, the story of beer is the story of one particular style — the pilsner and its evolutionary descendants, coming to dominate the brewing world.
Like a new and better-adapted species, pilsners over this time period slowly killed off their older rivals. Of course, some old beer styles manage to survive in isolated pockets, like a flightless bird on a Pacific island, but their very exceptional nature shows just how dominant this beer monoculture became, at least until the American craft beer renaissance. Then porters and IPAs, dubbels and tripels, wit beers and weizens could emerge from their sanctuaries to again grapple with their golden lager nemesis on the world stage.
But there are some beer styles that did not survive, even in the smallest enclave. Like the dinosaurs, they went extinct. The roll of such obscure brews is long and — at least to a beer geek — fascinating. There’s the white beer of Devon and Cornwall, a sour British wheat beer. Or the Leipziger Gose, an ancient sour and salty wheat beer from Germany. The list goes on and on. One of the most interesting names on it is Burton ale.
Burton ale takes its name from Burton-upon-Trent, the most famous center of brewing in Britain. Today, it is best known for having produced another style of beer, the ubiquitous and increasingly popular India pale ale. However, long before IPAs became the rage, this town was put on the map as a brewing center by another kind of beer, one that took its very name from the town. Even when brewed elsewhere, beers of this style were called simply Burtons.
The roots of Burton ale lie in beers brewed in its namesake for export to Russia in the late 18th and early 19th century. These beers were brewed dark, slightly sweet and strong to suit the tastes of their intended drinkers. Then in 1822, the Russian government suddenly imposed a prohibitive tariff on beer imports, forcing the brewers to look for a new market closer to home. To conform to British tastes, they increased the amount of hops used to produce a less sweet, more balanced beer. This brew also needed a good 18 months aging in wooden casks to reach its full potential. In their final form, Burton ales were darker and slightly sweeter than IPAs, though they were almost as well-hopped. They were also stronger than the typical IPA, with an alcohol by volume above 7 percent.
For almost a century and a half, until just after World War II, this was a tremendously popular style of beer in Britain, to the point of insinuating itself into popular culture. In the children’s classic, “The Wind in the Willows” by Kenneth Grahame, written in 1908, the rat compliments the mole on having bottles of Burton ale in his pantry. During the Battle of Britain, when an RAF pilot went down, his comrades would say he was “gone for a Burton,” preferring to leave the impression that the lost man had simply stepped out for a drink.
As popular and commonplace as they were, Burton ales were not immune to changes in culture and popular taste. After World War II, British tastes swung dramatically toward the lighter, golden pale ales and bitters, and away from the stronger, darker and sweeter Burtons. So dramatic was the style’s fall from grace that by 1970 there was not one beer on offer that called itself a Burton ale. As a style, Burton ales had gone extinct.
Still, as with dinosaurs in the movie “Jurassic Park,” it is possible to resurrect an extinct beer style in our modern world. Recently, Zach Henry of St. Elias Brewing and I undertook just such a project. Together, we designed and brewed a proper Burton ale, using traditional ingredients, like Maris Otter barley, East Kent Golding hops and a British ale yeast. As I write this, the end result of our efforts is aging at the brewery for a December release. So if this discussion of Burton ales has piqued your curiosity, you will have a chance to actually taste one very soon.
Until next month, cheers!
Bill Howell is a home brewer, teaches a beer appreciation class at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus and was named the 2010 Beerdrinker of the Year by Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver. He and his wife, Elaine, have released a book, “Beer on the Last Frontier: The Craft Breweries of Alaska — Volume I: Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island Breweries,” via Amazon.