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OUR BREWING HERITAGE IN PERIL



Here, on the What's Brewing news website, leading UK beer writer Roger Protz highlights how British Brewing Heritage has been callously cast aside by a global brewing behemoth, while other countries nurture their beer history.


Great brewing nations celebrate the contribution beer makes to their history and heritage with museums that allow the public to appreciate that to the full. The Oxford Companion to Beer records that Germany has 10 museums and Belgium has six. The US now has seven, as a new museum opened in Milwaukee in May. There are three museums in the Netherlands and one each in Denmark, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Japan, Russia, Austria and Poland. Even France, the world’s greatest producer of wine, has a beer museum. But there is one notable exception: a famous brewing country that is without a single beer museum. That country is Britain. The nation that gave the world the first major commercial beers – porter and stout – in the 18th century followed by pale ale a century later lacks any venues that mark our singular role in world brewing. It was not always the case. In 1997, Bass, Britain’s biggest brewer, opened a museum that traced the history of beer making in its home town of Burton-upon-Trent. It was in Burton that the magical waters of the Trent Valley enabled the first pale beers to be both produced and exported to all parts of the world. What happened to the museum is a shocking story of indifference to that heritage by a global lager brewer with no roots in this country and a blank indifference to its rich brewing story. In 2000 Bass left brewing and its plants in Burton were passed to Molson Coors, a Canadian/American giant whose main product is Carling lager. It announced it planned to close the museum on the grounds the site was losing money, which was not surprising as no effort was made to promote it.


As a result of a spirited campaign led by the local MP, Molson Coors agreed to allow Planning Solutions, a company with a record of running successful visitor attractions, to take over the site, which reopened in 2010. With the new name of the National Brewery Centre (NBC), it attracted a big audience. The museum spread its wings and covered the history of brewing in the whole country, not just Burton, with audio visual displays as well as static exhibits. The NBC was also used for conferences, music events and weddings. CAMRA held its annual brewery awards lunches there for several years. The Heritage brewery, a micro plant within the centre, recreated old Bass beers, including a cask version of Worthington E. The brewers were keen to take on the famous Victorian bottle-conditioned IPA, Worthington’s White Shield, but Molson Coors refused to release it even though it did nothing to promote the beer and stopped production last year. The axe fell in 2022 when Molson Coors announced it planned to close the museum and build a new head office there. Over more than a century, Bass had acquired a large amount of land in Burton, and Molson Coors could have used another site for its head office. But with a two-fingered salute to British brewing history, it forced the NBC to quit its base. In October 2022, a demonstration of several hundred people organised by CAMRA marched through Burton condemning Molson Coors for closing the NBC. The National Brewery Heritage Trust had been formed to support not only the museum but also the archives that hold a vast amount of priceless documents.


The archive, the trust says, “chronicles the history of British brewing, providing valuable insight into the impact beer has had on the British way of life over the centuries”. As well as the documents, the NBC was also home to historic vehicles, including steam locos that carried trains with beer to Derby where they joined the main line to London and other parts of the country. Other vehicles include old brewery trucks and a famous car shaped like a bottle of White Shield. The documents, made up of half a million items, have been moved for safe keeping to an undignified location, a derelict Ryman’s stationery shop on Station Street. Volunteers have repaired and decorated the shop and carefully itemised the documents. It’s planned to open the archive to researchers in the near future. The trust has been in discussion with the local authority, East Staffs Borough Council, to create a new permanent home for the archives and the vehicles. The plans are to house the museum in two buildings on Burton High Street, Bass House and the Town House. It’s hoped the new site will open in 2025 but there’s a question mark over the plans as the council will need outside funding. Some help may come from Nottingham University. It has a School of Brewing that trains young and aspiring brewers with special courses. Some of the school’s work could be moved to the Burton High Street site if and when it opens. It may need government support and that support is not likely to be high on the agenda of an incoming administration. One piece of good news is that the Heritage brewery has been saved. Its owner, Planning Solutions, has taken over the Burton Bridge brewery in the town. Its founders, Geoff Mumford and Bruce Wilkinson, were keen to retire and had been looking for new owners for several years. Both Burton Bridge and Heritage beers will be brewed at the one site. They include – and whisper it quietly in case Molson Coors hears – Masterpiece, a draught version of the legendary White Shield. The future of the rest of the museum remains in doubt. The trust and the council are keen to go ahead but everything will depend on getting the necessary funds. The museum should have remained on its original site where it was a beacon of British brewing and its rich heritage. Molson Coors should hang its head in shame for closing this priceless contribution to our proud and unique brewing past.

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