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Other countries are copying ideas we discard

In his weekly The Bar Man column, Jeff Hoyle discusses old brewing methods...

I think that most people are aware that after the ingredients are boiled up in a copper, beer needs several days to ferment in order to become the finished product.

The fermentation vessels can take several forms. Some craft breweries ferment their beers in wooden barrels which once contained whisky, sherry, wine or rum to add maturity and character to the beer.

Jeff Hoyle
Jeff Hoyle

Others such as Timothy Taylor used the Yorkshire Square method which is a two-level system which allows the yeast to either be mixed into the fermenting wort during the early stages or to be left behind when the beer is drained from the vessels.

You can see examples at the Black Sheep brewery, but might be slightly confused as they are circular. Another two-level system pioneered at Brakspear’s in Henley on Thames, is the double drop system which helps to separate the inactive yeast from the wort, but perhaps the most interesting niche method is the Burton Union system.

Invented in the 1830s, this involves recirculating the fermenting beer through a row of wooden cask connected by pipes. Troughs collect excess yeast which is either retained for the next brew or used for making Marmite. These casks are suspended off the floor on a frame and are 150 gallons in capacity.

There are four union sets left in this country with the number of barrels per set ranging from 24 to 60 and all are at Marston’s in Burton. In 2020 Marston’s merged with Carlsberg UK and began a review of their business which has resulted in the closure of Jennings brewery in Cockermouth, Ringwood in Hampshire and Wychwood in Oxfordshire.

The latest cost cutting measure is to discontinue brewing Pedigree with the Burton Union system. A spokesman for CMBC said that ““The four union sets in the Alpin room are a storied part of the brewery’s heritage which we are committed to preserving” and revealed that “two of the union sets in the Alpin Room will remain at the brewery so they can continue to be part of its future and to preserve these iconic symbols of British brewing for posterity”.

Nearby was once the National Brewery Centre, formerly the Bass Museum of Brewing, which closed its doors for the final time in October 2022 when brewing giant Coors decided to move their headquarters to the site after previously deciding that they could not afford the expense or running the centre.

Perhaps I am pessimistic, but I wonder how long the Union Systems will be preserved and how much public access there will be to see them. There was a popular outcry at the destruction of the Crooked House pub which has resulted in calls for it to be rebuilt and people to be prosecuted for destroying our heritage.

This closure of the Union System is not illegal and will not result in more than a couple of minutes on a local news programme and a few articles in specialist magazines, but could be seen as a greater loss to our industrial and social history than a wonky pub.

A Facebook campaign has been launched, but seems to be more interested in berating CAMRA than organising any meaningful action. Still, you can go and see a simplified version of this great invention which has been producing top class ale for almost 200 years, if you visit the Firestone Walker Brewing Company in Paso Robles, California where it is used for porter and pale ales. While we discard ideas that have made us world leaders, other countries are copying them.

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