The “Cathedral of Brewing” is what Marston’s call their Union Room, which is home to the only remaining Burton Union System in the famous old brewing town, and it really is essential viewing for all brewery and beer geeks.
Burton-upon-Trent was built on barrels of Pale Ale. Every drop of its famous beer passed through wood at least a couple of times— fermentation, maturation, serving. Burton Unions were commonly used for fermentation in the 1800s, when Burton was an unfathomably large brewing city. It’s an ingenious system, which was eventually replaced by modern brewing practices and equipment. All the Burton brewers tore down their Unions with the exception of Marston’s, who continue to use them to brew Pedigree, their Burton Pale Ale (oddly rebranded as an Amber Ale in 2016).
Marston’s Burton Union System And The “Cathedral Of Brewing” Photo Gallery
The Burton Union System started as a way of separating the yeast and beer, but also had the effect of producing good fermentations, good flavor, and good, clean Pale Ales. It’s a double-decker iron frame with large wooden barrels lined up side by side on the bottom layer with a large trough above them. After an initial fermentation in open tanks, the beer is fed into the wooden barrels where fermentation continues. When the forces of carbonation reach their peak, yeast and beer bubble out of the top of the barrels, up through swan-neck pipes, and collect in the trough above; the yeast and beer separate, with the beer returned to the barrels below and the yeast either drawn off for the next brews or to go to the nearby Marmite factory. When fermentation is complete, the beer moves into different vessels to mature further.
Next to the Union Room is a working cooperage, with one full-time cooper who continually repairs and maintains the barrels—this extra work is one of the reasons Union Systems became defunct.
Marston’s Pedigree is the only beer that’s still brewed using the Burton Union System. The way the yeast works through the barrels and trough gives Pedigree a unique flavor profile of soft stone fruits and spicy English hops on top of toasty pale malts. It’s a classic English Pale Ale, the last remaining classic Burton ale still brewed in the city, and still a very good beer. I just hope that this incredible system isn’t lost to modern upgrades because it’s the last link to Burton’s brilliant beer past and an amazing thing to see in action.
WHAT: Marston’s Brewery
HOW: Marston’s run tours on Monday to Saturday where you’ll see the Burton Union System and get to taste three of their beers (www.marstonsbrewery.co.uk).
WHERE: Marston’s Brewery, Shobnall Road, Burton-upon-Trent DE14 2BG
The Burton Union System in action.
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