Museum Brewery

Masters Table 1998

By Adrian Tierney-Jones

Burton upon Trent is one of the great historic centres of British brewing. Local monks started making ale back in the 13th century, but it was during the Victorian age that the town became a hive of brewing industry. Nowadays, things are quieter: brewing giant Bass have their HQ here, while Marston’s, makers of the prizewinning Pedigree Bitter, and the equally excellent Burton Bridge microbrewery also call Burton home. However, there’s another, rather unique, brewery based here: the Museum Brewery which can be found in the grounds of the Bass Museum.

Run by former Bass employee Steve Wellington since 1994, yet completely independent of Bass, the Museum Brewery is dedicated to resurrecting the classic beer styles of yesteryear. Using a combination of early 20th century and 19th century equipment, the brewery produces a fantastic range of historic cask and bottle-conditioned ales — tasty beers brought back to life from the last 200 years. Some of the creations are long-gone ales such as Worthington ‘E’, Bass No 1 Barley Wine, Offilers Best Bitter and Joules Bitter. Others are classic styles, such as Masterpiece Pale Ale and Quaffing Ale, created using 18th and 19th century recipes. Ironically some of the beers produced by the Museum Brewery come from concerns swallowed up by Bass in the Sixties. At least there’s a positive side to this: Steve, because of the micro’s excellent relationship with Bass, has access to the recipes of these onetime breweries, which enables him to produce a stunning range of beers.

‘I always try and keep as faithful as I can to the old recipes,’ he says, ‘and it helps a lot to have local people around to advise me on what they tasted like. It’s even more beneficial when the former head brewer is still around, as happened with one beer I made.’

Even though the brewery was originally meant to be part of the museum’s attractions and Steve planned only to brew part of the week, demand has been such that the business has become a full-time job. When he began brewing the weekly output was only 10 barrels (in brewing terms a barrel is 36 gallons); output has now shot up to between 30/40 barrels.

‘This is very much a traditional brewery,’ says Steve, ‘when we brew a traditional beer we try and match the raw materials from the old days. As the hops were usually fuggles and goldings (which remain popular today) that presents no problem. We can’t afford the malt that was used then but there’s still plenty of good stuff around. The yeast comes from Bass and the water (the famous Burton water) from a well 600 feet under the surface. Sometimes we add a bit of sugar. It’s all natural ingredients.’

Steve is passionate about brewing beer, a state of mind which is equalled by his enthusiasm for fixing up beer with food. Unlike other beer-drinking countries such as Germany, Belgium and America, matching beer with food in Britain seems to cause all sorts of problems. It’s slowly changing though as top chefs discover the cuisine à la bière of Belgium and beer itself gets a makeover. As restaurants such as Mash & Air in Manchester and Alfred and Belgo in London demonstrate, it doesn’t seem so strange to add a bottle of beer into the pan or suggest an ale instead of wine to go with the meal.

Part of Steve’s evangelical approach to beer and food was to invite renowned chef Andre Roux to oversee a three-course meal in which beer was both used in the cooking and accompanied the final result. Roux has long been an apostle of food and beer, believing that ‘food retains the flavours of the beer more than wine because it is less alcoholic than wine’.

The meal itself started with a choice of scallops, Dublin Bay Prawns or Welsh Rarebit accompanied by the old-style P2 Imperial Stout, based on a recipe for a beverage shipped to the Czarist court at the end of the last century. For the main meal, braised rump steak enhanced with pale ale, endives and parsley potatoes were served; Steve’s suggestion here was the stupendous Masterpiece Pale Ale. Diners finished off with apple fritters coated in a beer batter, with the dessert beer provided by the mighty No 1 Barley Wine. The evening was a complete success and Steve hopes it will happen again.
Until then though, if you want to take a trip back into Britain’s brewing history and taste Steve’s beers it’s worth checking out Burton where the beers are served at the Good Beer Guide-listed Museum bar, attached to the museum. Or order a case of bottles through our special order. You won’t regret it.

Tasting Notes:
Joules Bitter (4.1%):
Brewed at Stone in Staffordshire until Joules was bought out by Bass Charrington in the late Sixties — it was shut a couple of years later. This is a clear amber-coloured ale with a beautifully floral nose of hops leading to hops on the palate; a gentle pleasing bitterness follows with an excellent clean finish and lingering malt offsetting any tendency to overbitterness. It’s a well-rounded ‘session’ beer and very moreish. Available on draught only.

Masterpiece Pale Ale (5.4%):
A strong and sturdy amber-coloured beer and a close cousin of the India Pale Ales (IPA) which were sent to India during the days of the Empire; the high alcohol strength and amount of hops helped preserve the ales on their journey. A delicate but forthright hoppy nose leads to a refreshing attack on the palate; hops dominate leading to a smooth, hoppy finish with a subtle maltiness. Goes down very well with steak and kidney pie and similarly sturdy dishes and is also an excellent summer thirst-quencher. Available in bottle and on draught.

Bass No 1 Barley Wine (10.5%):
Discontinued in the 1970s when it was a winter favourite. A blockbuster of a drink with madeira and fortified wine hints in the taste; rich and smooth but any tendency to oversweetness is balanced by the hops, which are English fuggles and goldings. It is made in the early part of the year and allowed to ferment in the cask for a few months. Serve this with dessert. It’s particularly recommended with rich fruit cake and cheese. Available in bottles and on draught but only in the winter.

P2 Imperial Stout (8%):
The seductively mellow aromas of treacle and toffee appear on the nose, to be followed by roast, coffee and rich fruit cake notes on the palate, leaving the impression of a warming, chewy, well-balanced complex stout which lingers on the palate. A must with seafood. Available in limited supplies of bottles and on draught.

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Adrian Tierney-Jones