Tag: Marstons

| 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.

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EXCLUSIVE: Marston’s redefines Cask Ale

Full Disclosure: I was paid a consultancy fee by Marston’s to help them look at how to talk about this. That was three months ago and I haven’t been privy to developments since. Despite my previous involvement I have not been paid to write this post – I’m writing it because I believe in the product. But I’m flagging it because I do have an on/off strategic relationship with Marston’s and you should know that before reading this piece.

Marston’s are today announcing the launch of a new initiative called Fast Cask, which the brewer believes will revolutionise the availability and quality of cask ale.

Without going into too much technical detail, Fast Cask is still cask ale because it has live yeast working in the barrel, conditioning the beer. But that yeast has been put through an innovative process that makes it form beads which do not dissolve into the beer. These beads act like sponges, drawing beer through them to create the secondary fermentation.

What this means is that Fast Cask ale casks can stand a lot rougher treatment than a standard ale cask. They don’t need time to settle, which means they can be delivered to festivals and events that don’t normally have cellaring facilities. If a tapped cask is knocked, moved or even upended, the beer inside will still be clear. When not in use, a cask can be stored on its end, making it much more practical in small, cramped cellars.

The process means the beer no longer requires finings, so cask ale becomes acceptable to vegans.

Casks must still be tapped and vented to allow them to breathe.

Doubtless some ale aficionados will reject this as somehow being not ‘real’ ale because it’s not ‘traditional’.

The conversation I had with Marston’s was about taking a longer term historical view of the development of real ale. People who say traditional cask conditioned real ale as we know it today is ‘beer as it’s always been brewed’ are wrong. Traditional ‘running ales’ have only been around since the late nineteenth century, and were themselves one result of the scientific analysis of the behaviour and properties of yeast – an analysis which was decried by many at the time because it wasn’t ‘traditional’. If that process bore fruit a hundred years ago, it’s difficult to argue why we somehow should stop researching yeast now.

If people would simply rather have traditional cask ale that’s fine – Marston’s have no plans to phase it out, and will be offering Fast Cask alongside traditional cask.

We often talk about how cask ale is a living, breathing thing. Well living, breathing things evolve and grow and develop. Fast Cask is simply the next stage in cask ale’s evolution.

Hopefully it will be accepted as such rather than decried in a rerun of the whole cask breathers debate. Because like cask breathers, it makes no difference whatsoever to the quality or character of the beer. It’s still living, breathing real ale.

And it’s a move that helps spread the appreciation of that ale to people and places it can’t currently reach. Anyone who thinks that’s a bad thing really needs to have a word with themselves.

If you want to try it out, look out for Pedigree and Hobgoblin during Cask Ale Week (29th March to 5th April).

So what do you think? Is this good? Bad? Significant or not? Do you want to taste the beer first and then decide, or have you already made up your mind?

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Marston’s: the second-best press advertising of 2009

The year’s final deadlines mean I don’t really have time today to add my own comments to this so, rather shamefully, I’m just going to cut and paste the press release. But I think this is fantastic news (and a nice addition to Let’s Be Nice Month):

MARSTON’S PEDIGREE AUSSIE ADS TRIUMPH Marston’s Pedigree Ashes cricket series advertising campaign has been awarded second place in Campaign magazine’s top ten press ads for 2009. The campaign ran throughout the Ashes and used traditional banter to poke fun at Australians with strap lines such as ‘we have beer in our blood, Australians have lemon juice in their hair’ and ‘England has history, Australia has previous.’ Marston’s Pedigree was only beaten to the top spot by The Guardian with their classic comics promotion and was the only beer brand to appear in the top ten. The article praised the ad for ‘lovingly recreating British pub iconography to ridicule Australians.’ Des Gallagher, marketing manager for Pedigree said: “To be placed second out of all of this year’s ads is fantastic news. The campaign was designed to reflect the pub goers view of Ashes banter, good humoured and witty – and judging by the fans reaction we certainly achieved that.” Throughout the summer Marston’s achieved record sales, selling an additional million pints in clubs, pubs and sports grounds across the country.