Book review: The Story of Brewing in Burton On Trent

Burton: beer town. It's difficult to over-estimate just how important a role the town has played in the history of English brewing. The story of Burton is the story of pale ale, of industrial complex, of international trade, domestic economy and the changing face of brewing through the centuries. It's one hell of a story to tell. And that's what Roger Protz sets out to do in his latest book.

From brewing at the Benedictine abbey, through to the Baltic and India export eras and the economic politics of British brewery mergers, Protz guides a familiar course past the recognised markers of Burton's beery history. The rise of Bass and Worthington are handled with aplomb, likewise the indelible effect that the town had on the growth of pale ale and the seemingly-hard-to-pin-down style of Burton ale itself.

After a first read-through, though, I found myself wanting to know more. More about the town and how being riven by brewing shaped Burton's development. More about the characters and the coopers. There are plenty of good-quality plates with excellent photographic reproductions, but the book cries out for at least one map to put the scale of the enterprise into perspective (something that "Brewery Railways of Burton on Trent" managed to do so well some fifteen years ago).

Maybe the problem is that Burton's history is so intertwined with that of English brewing that it's difficult to tell the tale without constant reference to the bigger picture. The problem then is that whole chapters seem tangential to the town. The Babington Plot makes for good history, but the fact that a Burton brewer was involved makes it feel more like filler than thriller in this context. And some content sits uneasily; towards the end of the book there's a number of chapters that are re-writes of articles that the author has already published on his website. I was hoping for a reflective ending that brought together the town's rich and diverse history. Instead, the book ebbs away.

I have a feeling that there's two great books yet to be written about Burton and beer; one which captures the complexity of the economic history hinted at by Gourvish & Wilson, another that emphasises the importance of personality as well as water chemistry to the rise and fall of Burton's brewing. The Story of Brewing in Burton On Trent hints at a few panels in the town's rich tapestry; it will be future work that revels in the overall splendour and/or reveal the fine detail.

The Story of Brewing In Burton On Trent is published by The History Press. Many thanks to them for the review copy.