The Burton Union

They say don't fix it if it ain't broke. I say get your spanner out and start messing with it!

(photo by Dave Pickersgill)

As far back as I can remember it's been my mission and my joy to take something that works well and tinker with it in order to make it work even better - and by better, I mean more efficiently without any loss of quality, or (preferably) to improve the quality with no loss of efficiency. I'm also a sucker for things which, to some folks, might seem unnecessarily long-winded and over-complicated and which might be a little more expensive than is ideal, but which turn out a good, perhaps unique, product. This way of doing things therefore trumps short-sighted bean counters who want to make everything as simple and bland as possible in order to keep costs down. Seriously, which do you prefer; this or this? I rest my case.

Some brewers are always looking for ways to improve the quality of their beers; some are always looking for ways to make their beers different; others are always looking for ways to improve the actual process of brewing their beer, and it's to this category of brewer that I'm turning today.

As beer ferments the yeast multiplies, and during the initial fermentation it can multiply pretty aggressively. If the beer in question is being made with open fermenters such as Yorkshire squares or  Anchor coolships, overflow from frothy yeast is very easy to clean up, but if it's a homebrew in a carboy it can clog up the airlock that stops unwanted micro-organisms from getting into the proto-beer, and even blow it off altogether if enough pressure builds up inside the fermenter. Cleaning that stuff off the walls and the ceiling of your basement is a lot less fun than hosing it down the drain in a commercial brewery.

The commercial fermenters of today are usually stainless steel with an inverted conical bottom where the yeast can be collected after the beer has been drained. In the average microbrewery they might hold anywhere from 30 to 240 barrels of beer (60 - 480 kegs), but in massive industrial breweries the sky's the limit, literally. In the past, however, a wooden barrel on its side with a bunghole (stop sniggering, you boys at the back) in the top was a more likely fermentation vessel.

Incidentally, the yeasty froth in question has a name - barm. Not only do brewers collect it for use in subsequent brews, in times gone by it was used to leaven bread and in the north of England you can still buy barm cakes (aka baps). They're not a cake at all, rather a kind of soft, flat bread roll with flour on the top (ideal for the perfect bacon sandwich, by the way), but these days they're more likely to be made with regular bakers' yeast rather than barm. Ireland too has its own barm cake - barm brack - which really is a cake. "Barm Brack keeps well, but if it does get stale it is very good toasted and served with butter, or soaked with a little ale, stout, or beer to revive it." I like that idea!

Derivatives of the word barm have entered the English language. I'm sure most of you are familiar with the word 'barmy', meaning crazy (presumably from having a head full of froth), and there are some people who use 'barmpot' to mean the same kind of thing as 'doofus'.

One problem with fermenting beer in a container such as a barrel is that you have to leave a lot of empty space in the vessel for the yeast do its frothy thing without overflowing, and if the brewer got his sums wrong the yeast could erupt from the top like Mount Vesuvius. This means you need more barrels because they're not as full as they could be, which means more expense on cooperage and more acreage needed in the fermentation room, so someone in the 1830s or 1840s had the bright idea of fixing a tube to the bunghole of the barrel, running the tube to a trough above the barrels, and then another tube to return beer from the trough to the barrel while leaving the barm behind to be collected later - a system of circulation. As if that wasn't clever enough, they set several barrels up in a long line, and thus was the Burton union born, called a union, presumably, because the barrels are all acting together. Now that the barm was ending up in the trough it didn't matter if the barrels were filled with more beer and less head space - in fact the whole point of the Burton union is that excess barm should flow out of the barrel, leaving some yeast in the beer for secondary fermentation.

Now, yeast is an interesting and adaptable little creature and if you make it do things it hasn't done before, its characteristics - including the flavour it imparts to the beer - will change. Beers brewed in Burton already had one advantage - the gypsum in the local water that's beneficial to extracting good flavours (and good clarity) from the brew and making a particularly fine pale ale. The yeast that had been forced to adapt to working in the Burton union also gave the beer a dry fruitiness not found to the same degree in beers fermented by other processes. Pretty soon just about every Burton brewery - including Bass - had their own Burton union set. And since you ask, no, I have no idea what 'cloth bungling' means.

If you haven't heard of Burton unions before it's not surprising. For all its advantages as far as improving the flavour of the beer is concerned, a full-on union set is far more expensive to install, maintain and keep clean than stainless steel fermenters, and as far as I'm aware there are only two breweries still using this steampunk process: Marston's in Burton-upon-Trent, and Firestone Walker in Paso Robles, CA. Firestone doesn't actually collect the barm that comes from the barrels, they use the system mostly to impart a woody, oaky flavour to the beer in its primary fermentation.

If you're a homebrewer and wondering if you can build your own Burton union, you absolutely can and many homebrewers have. A quick web search will throw up plenty of descriptions and how-tos.

Whenever I meet a new beer importer one of the first things I ask them is 'Would you consider bringing Marstons Pedigree into Texas?' No takers so far, alas. There are places in America where you can get it but Texas is not yet one of them. In 2007 Marstons began calling Pedigree 'The Official Beer of England'. This wasn't hubris on their part, they had just entered into a three-year sponsorship deal with the England cricket team. A few years later England were playing their arch rivals Australia. A handful of magazine and billboards ads started springing up poking fun at the Aussies' relatively thin history and the fact that so many of them come over to the UK and end up working in pubs, and a limited edition batch of Pedigree was brewed to commemorate the occasion (note the words "Burton Union Oak Barrels" on the label).

I'm very happy to report that England won the series and regained The Ashes.