All good things come to an end, and that includes Burton’s glorious years as the frontrunners for the global brewing industry. Even though there were a few occasions when the great trade of the county was threatened and thrown into turbulences over jealousies, competitions, and sometimes just sloppy fact-checking, nothing deterred the brewers. However, it was the events following the turn of the 20th century that bore some painful perils and difficulties, causing damage to all levels of breweries in Burton.
One such example of a malicious attempt made on Burton’s beer was in 1830 by a publication ‘Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge,’ under the heading of ‘Art of Brewing.’ The published article had critiqued down to every single detail of the process that was undertaken by Allsopp and other brewers in their attempt at adulterating the drink. The author asserted that besides salt of steels, honey, and prunella, which were unlawful additions themselves, ale-brewers privately inserted jalap, sulphate of lime, and powdered black rosin.
The accusation promptly dispersed after the filing of affidavits by all Burton brewers except one – Samuel Allsopp. He was, in his words, ‘absent on a journey and had not an accurate knowledge of the subject till after the application was made to the court.’ He then felt the need of ensuring the public with his piece to the editor of The Times, explaining the circumstances of the unsigned affidavit and supporting the stance taken by other brewers that ‘in the making of this (Burton) ale no other ingredients were used other than malt, hops, and water.’
Later in 1852, a reputed French chemist, M. Payer, recklessly stated that Burton brewers stirred one of the most potent and subtle poisons, Strychnine, as an alternative to hops to enhance the bitterness in their ales. The statement was claimed before a full-room audience at the Conservatoire des Art et Metier in Paris during his course of lectures on Hygiene. The news caught fire and drew out the attention of the Medical Times and other related gazettes. Since the doctors made recommendations of Burton beer to their patients, the new information rose doubts among the medical colleagues.
If it was not for the hasty decision taken by Henry Allsopp in opening his doors to scientists and chemists from all over England, Burton breweries could have lost it all at once. Following his lead, every Burton brewer opened their vast cellars for inspection by anyone who wanted to look at their brewing process. Soon the town was buzzing with onlookers and authorities. Newspapers were running the updates daily. There was not a single speck of Strychnine found in any of the barrels in the storage. The old stocked samples taken from the pubs and stores also tested negative. Overall, the entire fiasco turned out to be a free and better advertisement of Burton beer than the brewers could have ever done themselves.
The 1880s were the golden years for Burton ale, owing to the peaked increase in the demand by the global market. Although the anti-drink notion, taken up by the temperance movement and fiercely backed by the Liberal Party, made no immediate dents to the breweries; however, in 1869, the pubs had been slapped with a stiff tax. It led to a closure of about a third of the pubs in England and Wales and eventually had detrimental effects on breweries that heavily relied on free trade. All of this opposition, combined with a fall in alcohol-drinking, steady decline in demand, and ascending costs of retail outlets, ran down most of the small to medium breweries in Burton. The number of breweries operating in the borough fell from 31 in 1888 to 17 at the start of 1914. And since then, the numbers have been projecting downwards in a steady decline.
The turbulent century started with Salt & Co. announcing voluntary liquidation in 1906, with others seeking consolidation as the most viable option. Allsopp and Bass, two titans of the brewing industry, underwent flotation, wherein the shares in the companies were opened for public purchases to raise capital for tied houses. It directly put brewers at risk of being captivated by their competitors, and eventually, in 1927, Bass merged his name with Worthington. Similarly, Allsopp was placed under receivership in 1910 and held out till 1934, when it was finally taken over by Ind Coope of London, an acquisitor of previously redundant breweries of Bindley and Robinson in 1914 and 1920 respectively.
Several of the older breweries along the lower end of High Street were demolished, including the Burton Brewery Co., T.F Salt’s former brewery, Allsopp’s Old brewery, and that of J. Nunneley’s. Another major amalgamation that gave way to the reorganization of the town’s dominant livelihood was of Sydney Evershed’s Angel brewery in 1905 with Marston and Thompson’s Albion Brewery at Shobnall – left by Mann, Crossman and Paulin after returning to London in 1896. Nunneley later joined the company as the fourth member. By the end of the Second World War, only five significant breweries were still standing: Bass Worthington, Ind Coope & Allsopp, Marston, Thompson & Evershed Limited, Truman, Hanbury and Buxton, and Everards.
During the reign of Queen Victoria, technological advances were made to increase the efficiency of the brewing process and ultimately enabled many brewers outside of Burton to achieve almost the same output and quality that of Burton ales. The competition grew heavy for town brewers who were already struggling with the destructive effects of two great wars, unsteady demands in the markets (nationally and globally), government interference over investments in new properties and maltings, and the loss of skilled labor in wars. Amidst all this, Burton had been driving towards a proper modern transformation, leaving behind the Victorian era, as we will discover in the next article.