| Brewing, Brooklyn Brewery, Cask ale, Thornbridge

Thornbridge and Garrett Oliver Save the Famous Burton Unions

A Bank Holiday Monday seems an odd time for Carlsberg Marston’s to announce a major story about Britain’s brewing heritage. But we live in odd times. Whatever – it’s good news.

Sometimes there’s a happy ending.

In January, Carlsberg Marston’s Brewing Company (CMBC) announced that they were getting rid one of the last remaining pieces of Burton-on-Trent’s brewing heritage. For decades, the old Marston’s brewery insisted that you couldn’t brew proper Marston’s Pedigree unless it went through the unique, eccentric Union fermentation system. Then suddenly, the story changed, and you could brew Pedigree even better in the same kind of fermenters everyone else uses.

Anyway, now it turns out that at least one of the Union “sets” has been saved. It’s currently being installed at Thornbridge in Derbyshire (photo above). This was announced, sort of, today by CMBC, who posted the tweet below. At the time of writing, the accompanying link is broken and there’s no relevant press release currently on the CMBC website.

Happily, Thornbridge will be providing clarification over the next day or so. And I’ve had a sneak preview.

The deal seems to have been orchestrated by Garrett Oliver, legendary brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery. Oliver has had a close relationship with Thornbridge for many years. And Brooklyn Brewery has a longstanding commercial relationship with Carlsberg. (It’s complicated – Carlsberg don’t own Brooklyn, but do have international rights to sell Brooklyn beers in Europe and other parts of the world.)

Oliver said:

When I heard that the unions were slated to go silent, I immediately thought that Thornbridge would be the perfect inheritors of this beautiful piece of British brewing heritage. I’m thrilled to provide the ‘assist’ on this historic play.” 

For their part, Thornbridge are going to do some really exciting things with the Union set that kick against the narrative that contributed to CMBC’s decision to discontinue the Unions: that cask ale is supposedly in terminal decline and brewers can’t make money from it any more.

For anyone wondering what the hell a union set is and why it’s important, this would be a good point to explain. It would be perfect if this news could have waited till after my forthcoming article in Ferment magazine on this very subject. But that’s going to be a week or two. And it’s now. So let me sum up briefly.

In the nineteenth century, Burton was the most important brewing centre on the planet, home of the OG IPA. The Union system emerged in the town in the mid-nineteenth century. It was a curious – no, let’s not beat around the bush – it was downright weird and strange and brilliant and British. A bunch of wooden barrels or a “set” – sat horizontally alongside each other in a kind of scaffold. Held in union. On top of this scaffold sat a big iron trough. Swan-necked spouts stretched form each barrel into the trough. After beer had been inoculated with yeast, it would be pumped into the barrels. As it fermented, the yeast pushed up through the pipes, foamed into the trough, and sat there happily for a bit before gradually running back into the barrels. It would keep doing this until it finished fermenting. Why? Apparently, it kept the yeast really happy and healthy, and that meant better beer. You want a definition of craft beer that’s actually about, y’know, the word “CRAFT” rather than who owns what? This was it.

That’s why it’s important that at least one Union Set has been saved. This is our brewing heritage. When Burton produced a quarter of all the beer in Britain, plus a big chunk of its exports, all Burton breweries used unions. To be fair to Marston’s, they clung to the unions decades longer than everyone else did.

CMBC cited “Low volumes due to the decline of the UK cask market” as the reason why “using the Union sets is no longer viable.” So why does a brewer like Thornbridge think they are?

Starting with a brew of their flagship beer, Jaipur, they plan to follow up by brewing other well-loved beers from their armoury, some brand-new new beers specifically designed for the Union set, as well as collaborations with other brewers who are keen to see what a union-fermented version of their beers will look like. I’m told at least one of these will involve Garrett Oliver, sooner rather than later.

Every aspect of this serves to premiumise cask beer, which is what cask beer has to do if it is going to thrive.

Let’s see what else Thornbridge reveal. Let’s see if CNBC can decide if they’ve issued a press release or not before then. I’m sure there’ll be lots of hot takes on this. But Britain now has an authentic union set brewing beer again. Which it didn’t have before this deal was struck.



Mr Peter Jackson

Pete, this is fantastic news. You know how I passionately fought for the unions to be retained in my time at Marston’s. I was saddened by the announcement earlier this year.

Garret Oliver and Thornbridge are perfect partners for the unions, just a shame they are not in Burton.

We need to do more for the preservation of the history and uniqueness of Burton the modern beer environment. There are many fantastic things happening in the sector (outside the bigger breweries) and we need to promote Burton more!

David Hannaford

Great story Pete, and good news. Thank goodness for Thornbridge, they are a shining light in troubled times, and seem to really care about our beer and brewing tradition.


Great article. I am glad it isbeing saved and you are reporting it. (I think you should check spelling and grammar, tho.)


Great article. I am glad it isbeing saved and you are reporting it. (I think you should check spelling and grammar, tho.)

Cheryl Brew

So glad to hear the Union sets are being rehomed.

Such a shame that Burton has lost so much brewing history in the last 2 years

Well done Thotnbridge!!


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