A Drop of the Past
The National Brewery Centre is a place every beer lover should visit at least once. I’ve been lucky, I’ve been there numerous times, in each of its various guises.
First it was the Bass Museum, then the Coors Visitor Centre. Since 2010, it has traded under its current name and enjoyed a new lease of life. I called in again recently and can report that it’s just as much fun as ever.
A visit to the museum offers a welcome opportunity to worship at the shrine of pale ale production.
Burton-on-Trent really ought to be a place of national pilgrimage for the way it put British beer production on the map during the 19th century, but sadly the Staffordshire town seems little inspired by its illustrious past.
There are still breweries in the town, most of them very big by British standards, but, with the exception of Marston’s and a handful of micros, they belong to the international giants and major on lager production.
Against this backdrop, it was alarming to hear that Coors had closed the Visitor Centre in 2008. Burton’s glory days looked to be even further forgotten.
The outcry and campaign that followed, however, saw the American brewer have a change of heart and, while not committing to running the site itself, it at least allowed a third party to take over the complex, even chipping in to its running cost.
Today, the National Brewery Centre is established as a trust, which means it can explore new ways of funding.
The venue provides a brilliant introduction to the making of beer and its place within British culture.
The first step on the tour takes in a holographic-style presentation called Pepper’s Ghost, featuring a brewery worker who struggles to get to grips with changing times as the history of beer unfolds around him.
From here, visitors can unravel the mysteries of malt, explore the wonders of hops and investigate the ins and outs of the brewing process by examining well written display boards, studying static displays and pushing buttons to set the wheels a-whirring on some ancient pieces of brewing equipment.
Alongside the reception area and gift shop is stabling for the dray horses that make occasional guest appearances at the Centre. Horsey families will enjoy inspecting the polished tack and the well-maintained, painted-up carts.
Equally historic motorized brewery vehicles stand on show in the yard as you make your way over to the Joiners Room, a large warehouse-type building where displays, static and interactive, continue.
Here you can find mock-ups of pubs from the Edwardian era and from the 1960s (check out the Morecambe and Wise advert for Tennent’s Lager). There is also a virtual tour of Burton in 1881, through which you can quiz inhabitants of the era about their everyday lives.
Oversized Train Set
My favourite feature, however, has always been the oversized train set that shows the layout of Burton in 1921 and, in particular, how the railway lines served the major breweries. Press a button and the engines start running.
But the Centre is not all about the past. On the ground floor stands the brand new William Worthington brewery, the stainless steel successor to the old Museum Brewery (later White Shield Brewery) across the yard.
Here brewers Jim Appelbee and Jo White turn out beers both old and new, from recreations of old Burton ales found in the archives to the latest range of seasonal beers that can be tasted in the on-site pub and occasionally further afield.
And the National Brewing Centre is not just an adult attraction, either. Children’s activities, from colouring and jigsaws to dressing up, ensure it’s a fine day out for all the family. You can spend many happy hours here.
So, take the kids, have fun, learn about beer’s great heritage and, in doing so, say thanks to all those hard-working people who have fought to save this national treasure for the benefit of all.