Nun ‘n’ bass: Burton-on-Trent’s brewing heritage

Drinks: Beers
Location: England, Europe

Everyone knows about the drinks heritage of Bordeaux, Pilsen and Speyside. But Burton-on-Trent? From Irish nuns to IPA, Nigel Tarn takes a look at the epicentre of the British brewing industry and the beers it produces

Burton-on-Trent, smack in the heart of England, is the home of the country’s brewing industry. Some 15% of all the beer drunk in the UK comes from here. But why? Is it the central location? The proximity to our motorways? No. The answer is hundreds of years old and spans many decades.

If I asked you to name a famous Irish nun you might think of a character from Father Ted. But our story starts with one by the name of Modwen. Legend has it that whilst en route to Rome she stumbled upon a river crossing. Not one to be deterred from her mission from God, she opted to cross the River Trent in two stages, using the modern day island of Andressey as a stepping stone. She was, however, deterred from her pilgrimage and spent many years in Staffordshire, building numerous churches and monasteries.

Modwen is famed for building the abbey on Andressey, owing to the natural spring there, and the healing properties that the water possessed. Like any abbey, Burton Abbey brewed its own beer from the same spring water. Hard evidence of the fame of Burton’s monastic ales dates to 1295 (just 369 years before Kronenbourg’s 1664) where one gallon of strong ale, supplemented by one gallon of weak ale, was the daily subsistence of a monk.

The medicinal spring water as well as the now legendary Burton Ale was used to treat the sick and lame, and Modwen’s fame spread. Burton Bridge, a more sensible crossing, was built further downstream, and a path was created between the bridge and abbey, known today as Burton High Street and adorned by the likes of JD Wetherspoon.

Not surprisingly, given the widespread fame of the abbey’s healing waters and fine ales, the path was well trodden. Burton Bridge became an important crossing point in the trade routes of Britain and Burton Abbey became a regular resting place of weary travellers – soon the reputation of Burton beers spread far and wide.

By 1604, when James I came to the throne, there were 46 brewers in Burton-on-Trent, compared to a handful today, serving a population of just 1,500. Records show that the majority of these breweries were in fact the 17th century equivalent of our modern-day brewpub. (Which makes me wonder whether today’s brew scene is, in fact, coming full circle 400 years later.)

Burton-on-Trent became home to

the brewing dynasties of Allsops, Worthingtons,

Ratcliffe, Gretton and Bass

So by the 17th century, Burton ale had gained a reputation throughout the UK as being strong, reassuringly expensive and fashionable. It was on the beer lists as far afield as the Dragon in Holborn and the Peacock on Gray’s Inn Lane. But it was to be over 100 years later, thanks to an inadvertent stroke of good fortune, that the fame of Burton ale would become truly widespread and international.


It was the fortunes of the British Navy against the Spanish Armada that provided the next, albeit unlikely, great leap in Burton’s brewing prowess. British naval activities caused a shortage of quality wood, not only a requirement for warships but also an essential component of wooden ale casks. As the forests of Staffordshire and further afield were depleted, word reached Burton that there was a plethora of good quality trees available in the Baltics.

Whilst wood came one way, Burton ale went the other, opening up the first international ale trade through St Petersburg. By the opening of the Trent Canal in 1777, links to ports on either side of the country were established. It was now easier for Burton’s brewers to trade abroad than it was with London.

Across the North Sea, the beckoning Baltic markets increased demand for Burton ale, leading to an influx of British brewers to Burton-on-Trent. The first of these was Benjamin Printon who moved in, set his up brewery and was ready to export in 1708, the same year that the Navigation Act was signed and the Trent became navigable by boat.

It was this period that saw the forefathers of modern brewing set up. Burton-on-Trent became home to the brewing dynasties of Allsops, Worthingtons, Ratcliffe, Gretton and Bass, the latter of which was to provide us with another milestone in both brewing and branding as we know it today.

The rise in popularity, and higher margins generated by beers from Burton-on-Trent, gave rise to what can only be described as early day counterfeiters. The increasing demand for Burton beers caused brewers from further afield to mimic the style and ride on the back of Burton’s success. In 1875 Bass filed for the first ever recorded trade mark (that’s one for the pub quiz). Trade mark number 001 covers Bass Ale from Burton-on-Trent and the now iconic red triangle.


Yet it was to be another stroke of good fortune that was to see Burton-on-Trent go truly global. The East India Trading Company saw demand for Burton’s finest escalate to unprecedented levels. At its height, the company controlled half of the world trade and a tenth of Britain’s income. Trade with India and the Far East, coupled with British expatriates colonising India, created the demand for a beer that could travel. Entrepreneurs had attempted to brew the nation’s favourite tipple in India, but the climate wouldn’t allow it. To supply this demand, up stepped Allsop and Son, who became famed as producers of IPA.


The story of IPA, or India Pale Ale, is well known. It’s now the biggest selling cask ale in the country, with Greene King IPA the UK’s number one cask ale brand and a recent winner of the Champion Beer of Britain at the Great British Beer Festival. It is commonly agreed that it is a style of beer created especially for the British Raj in India, and was made in that style to survive the arduous journey around the world by boat over several months in stifling heat.

And yet its origins aren’t too precise. There are records of pale ales that predate British trade with India, and these were only pale by comparison as most ales were the colour of treacle, and the majority of ales exported to India, according to records, were known simply as Burton ale.

It seems that IPA was a title created many years later. Burton ale destined for the Raj spent upwards of six months at a time rolling around on the lower decks, secondary fermenting in the heat of the southern hemisphere, slowly developing flavour and aroma through the high levels of hops and high abv, until ready to tap and serve as a refreshing accompaniment to a lavish banquet in India.

Throughout the last century we have seen consolidation of the British brewing scene, and with that the amalgamation of the Bass Breweries and Worthington Breweries into the global giant of Coors. And yet, it seems that the legend is living on. Worthingtons has seen a renewed cask focus, available in both White Shield (one of the oldest surviving IPAs now in existence) and Red Shield. The credibility of Burton’s waters and brewing heritage is creating a raft of microbreweries in the town following in the footsteps of Modwen and her monastic medieval medicinal ales; Titanic, Tower and Burton Bridge all showing positive growth and distribution.

And another glimmer comes from Coors, a relatively new resident in the town that recently announced it will be investing to keep the Burton Brewery Museum open. So it seems that Modwen can rest peacefully. Despite making it (eventually) to Rome she returned and is buried at Andressey.

Brews from Burton


Founded in 1985 and named after the ill-fated and famous passenger ship, whose captain lived near Burton-on-Trent. Winner of three awards at the 2009 CAMRA regional awards, this is an impressive microbrewery that produces in excess of 1.7 million pints every year, and is destined for more success. Titanic Anchor bitter, at 4.1% abv, is an impressive cask ale, with a great russet gold colouring and rich fruity aroma. 

Established in 2001 in a converted derelict water tower, one of many buildings preserving part of Burton’s brewing history, the Thomas Salts Malting, where many of the malts used to brew in Burton originated. The conversion and restoration of the tower was commended with a Civic Society award. Flagship brand is Tower Bitter with classic gold colouring and fresh malty aroma. Well balanced hop flavour gives way to a fruity lingering finish. 

A microbrewery with credible brewing heritage. Established in 1982 by two brewing industry veterans, Burton Bridge regularly impresses. Golden Delicious (3.8% abv) does exactly as it says on the pump clip. An exquisite gold beer with a fine hoppy aroma. Sweet flavours and full hops are followed by a mouthwatering finish.


A curious company with a wealth of history. Now part of the Coors portfolio, White Shield is brewed in the Museum brewery and remains virtually unchanged since 1829. A full-flavoured and richly aromatic IPA, that’s now making a welcome return to cask. At 5.6% abv it’s a British classic and well worth a try.

Founded by John Marston in 1834 and still a resident brewer in Burton-on-Trent today. Famous for its flagship Pedigree and its sponsorship of English cricket. Pedigree uses only natural Burton spring water and traditional varieties of barley and hops, for a truly traditional taste. Unique, as it is still brewed in the oak casks of the Burton Union to preserve its unique character, consistent quality and taste.  A rich and full bodied 4.5 % abv ale that sells 41m pints every year.

The legendary status of Bass is symbolised by its iconic red triangle, recognised as the first registered trademark in the United Kingdom. Bass is the most famous English ale in the world and has been brewed in Burton-on-Trent since 1777. It is a full-flavoured 4.4% abv ale that is still brewed to an original recipe, using only the finest ingredients. It is brewed with two strains of yeast to produce a complex, nutty, malty taste with subtle hop undertones. A true Burton classic.

About Author

Leave A Reply