Legendary Burton Union Systems to be retired soon
Burton-on-Trent | Any beer lover somehow interested in the history and legacy of beer has to remain strong these days: On 19 Jan 2024, the English Gastro-Magazine „The Morning Advertiser“ published an announcement from Marston’s Brewery (Carlsberg Marston’s Brewing Company, CMBC) in Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire, saying Marston‘s will retire their remaining four Burton Union Systems soon.
A „Burton Union System“ is a very particular method for ale fermentation and yeast harvesting, in use since the Victorian age. Already almost 200 years ago, brewers from Germany looked up to this admiringly, since the quality of English ales was unmatched and unrivaled. Bass and Marston‘s were the most famous brewers in Burton-on-Trent, achieving worldwide fame with this system. It was mainly an unusual method of producing beer using a system with up to 60 wooden barrels with up to 150 imp. gallons (approx. 7 hl), lined up, connected with pipes and equipped with inner cooling elements. The name „Union“ originates in the fact that all barrels are connected with each other, so via the pipes the beer and yeast can recirculate during the fermentation period. A swan neck pipe leads from the top of each barrel to a top trough, which is suspended over the barrels and is slightly pitched to one end. Connected to this trough, at the lower end, is the feeder trough. As the yeast ferments, it is forced out of the barrels in foamy bursts, along with some beer, through the swan necks, and into the top trough. The system allows a homogenic batch and harvesting of very viable yeast. The whole system is difficult to explain, even harder to clean, and simply impossible to automate. Probably the main reason for the brewers to switch to modern technology.
In the end, only Marston’s kept holding up the flag, for just one product („Marston’s Pedigree Ale“), a so called „bitter cask ale“ (side note: Some US craft brewers work with similar or replicated systems, but this is more a marketing ballyhoo than lived tradition). Since the recent sales of „Pedigree Ales“ have turned out to be very modest, the brewery has now decided to take this drastic step. All four exsisting systems still in use will be retired, the production of „Pedigree Ale“ will be switched to modern stainless steel plants.
The famous british „Campagne für Real Ale“, CAMRA, immediately expressed disappointment and incomprehension over this decision.
However, there is a little consolation patch: CMBC Director of brewing Emma Gilleland confirmed, „We are commited to protecting the legacy of the Union sets, both for the brewery and Burton. We will invest in preserving two Union sets, which will remain at the brewery, so they can continue to be part of its future as enduring, iconic symbols of British brewing.“