There sometimes isn’t much in the CAMRA monthly newspaper “What’s Brewing”, which catches my interest; news of a battle to save a pub somewhere far away, an award for a long-serving licensee or yet another article about cider. This month’s edition however, contained a lengthy article by Roger Protz, about one of the first of Britain’s new wave of breweries.
Burton Bridge Brewery was founded in 1982, by two former Ind Coope employees; Bruce Wilkinson and Geoff Mumford. Disillusioned with what was happening in the world of big brewing, and seeing the writing on the wall for the Ind Coope Brewery at Romford, where they both worked, the pair decided to jump ship and start brewing themselves. They set up production behind a closed pub, called the Fox & Goose, in Burton-on-Trent. The pub was adjacent to a 17th Century Bridge into the town, over the River Trent, and had room behind it for a brewery.
Given the location of the new brewery, the name Burton Bridge was an obvious choice of name for both brewery and pub, and after installing and commissioning a 15 barrel plant, cobbled together from various sources, Burton Bridge Brewery was up and running. Bruce and Geoff worked like Trojans to get the new brewery off the ground, as not only did they have the brewing to contend with, there was also the pub to run and deliveries to be made.
Their first beer was a classic Burton bitter, called Bridge Bitter 4.2% ABV. Over the years many other beers were added, including XL Bitter, Top Dog Stout, Festival Ale and Stairway to Heaven. A bottle-conditioned IPA, called Empire Pale Ale, which weighed in at a hefty 7.5% was a further addition to their portfolio. The beer is aged in the brewery for a six month period, in order to replicate the maturation this style of beer would have undone, back in the 19th Century, on its journey to India.
The couple’s hard work paid off, and today Bridge Bitter is the second biggest selling cask ale in Burton.A further achievement was bringing back Draught Burton Ale back to the town where it was first brewed, nearly 40 years ago, when they both worked for the brand’s original; owner, Ind Coope. As well as a well-respected range of beers, Burton Bridge now owns four other pubs within Burton, beside the Bridge Inn. All are good, solid traditional pubs, which provide a good means of showcasing the company’s beers.
Although all these achievements are worthy of mention, the main point of the “What’s Brewing” article was to highlight the news that after 35 years graft, Bruce and Geoff are calling it a day, and have placed the brewery and its pubs on the market. At 67 and 74 years of age respectively, the pair are looking to retire, but rather than just take the first offer which comes along, they are determined to sell to someone who share the same ideals, and will take good care of the brewery workers, pub tenants and bar staff. They add that they feel responsible for the people they employ, and the sale will be influenced by what happens to them.
So why have I decided to feature this story, when there must be other similar breweries founded around the same time whose owners might also be contemplating retirement? The simple answer is I have a soft spot for Burton Bridge, having visited the Bridge Inn on a couple of occasions in the past, and enjoyed the beers which are brewed behind the pub. I also, on occasion, sold Burton Bridge beers when my wife and I had our off-licence.
My first visit to the Burton Bridge Inn took place in March 1987. The visit came about after a friend had noticed a trip being advertised a local coach company. It was billed as “The Burton Brewer", and consisted of a visit to the Bass Museum followed by a trip around the Bass Brewery. A number of fellow drinking buddies, including me, were interested, particularly as the trip offered the opportunity to spend some time in Britain’s brewing capital. We duly booked our places and on the allotted day boarded the coach to Burton.
After a somewhat tedious journey up the motorway, we arrived in Burton just after midday. Our driver told us to assemble at the gates to the Bass Brewery at one o'clock, so with some time to spare we decided to try some of the town’s delights. We had read about the recently formed Burton Bridge Brewery, so headed straight for the Burton Bridge Inn; the brewery tap. The pub was excellent and so was the beer, and we ended up trying the Bridge Bitter and also the rather tasty Burton Porter. However, by the time we arrived back at the Bass Brewery, we learned that not only had we missed our trip round the museum, but the tour round the brewery was about to commence. It seems that the coach driver had got his times muddled up, which was a great shame as I would really have liked to have had a proper look round the museum.
Seeing that we were late, our tour guide enquired as to where we had been, with a look of obvious annoyance on her face. One of my three companions informed her that “We had been sampling some proper beer at the Burton Bridge Inn.". “Oh”, replied our guide, "it's strange but lots of people seem to go there". “Perhaps if Bass brewed some decent beer these days, people wouldn't have to” murmured another of my friends. Our guide either did not hear, or perhaps chose to ignore that somewhat pointed but rather poignant comment, and without further ado we embarked on our tour of the brewery.
The second visit took place in November 1998, when I booked myself an Apex return to Burton-on-Trent, with the specific aim of visiting the Bass Museum. I took the Midline Mainline service from St Pancras to Derby, and then transferred to a local Cross-Country service to Burton I arrived in the town shortly after 11am, and made my way to the first stop on my planned itinerary. This was not the museum, but the Burton Bridge Inn; the same pub my companions and I had visited 11 years previously.
I was pleased to discover that little had changed in the intervening years, and that the pub was as delightfully unspoilt as ever. It was full though, almost to overflowing, with both local drinkers, and customers drawn from further afield. The latter group included a party of visitors from Germany, who were obviously appreciating the pub’s excellent ales. I managed to find a bit of elbow room at the bar, and tried a few of the beers myself; including Burton Porter, Top Dog Stout plus the tongue-in-cheek Old Expensive. These, plus a substantial bacon-roll more than satisfied the inner-man, so before yet more lunchtime drinkers arrived, I made my way towards the Bass Museum.
Reading Roger Protz’s article rekindled my memories of these two visits. I therefore wish Bruce Wilkinson and Geoff Mumford every success in finding a sympathetic for their business, and once this aim has been achieved I wish them a long and happy retirement. When I next find myself in that part of the country, I will make sure I call in at the Burton Bridge Inn, and sample a glass or two of the brewery’s finest.