Skip to main content

Thornbridge, Jaipur, And A Union....

News broke last week that one of the iconic and historic Burton Unions traditionally used to brew beers such as Marstons Pedigree had found a new home at Thornbridge Brewery, having recently been discarded by Marstons. Here's the story, plus an appreciation of both the brewery and the first beer that they are planning to brew using the system....

Let's just recap for a minute. 

Back in January, Marstons announced that they were ending production of their iconic Pedigree ale using the last example of the unique Burton Union brewing system still operating in this country. The decision caused uproar amongst many beer drinkers, CAMRA, and supporters of the brewing industry in general. In its defence, the brewery cited the cost of operating, cleaning, and maintenance of the equipment, and falling demand. Pedigree, an amber beer, and the only one still brewed using the system, had seen its sales volumes fall from being the pre-eminent cask beer it once was, which consequently had made the equipment's fate almost inevitable.

The Burton Union system took its name from the town of Burton-on-Trent which was historically one of the main brewing centres in England. It was here where it was developed in the 1830's, and  was soon adopted by many of the large number of brewers in and around the town. It was quirky and cumbersome and a uniquely British, Heath Robinson-esque way of doing things, but it continued to be used over the years way after many of those original brewers had long gone. However when Bass, one of the most famous names in brewing and by now part of Molson Coors, stopped using the system a few years ago, it left Marstons as the only brewer in the country maintaining this unique tradition until earlier this year.

So, question one, how does it all work and, question two, what makes it so special? In a nutshell, the system uses a series of large wooden casks each with a capacity of around 7hl (150 gallons) which are positioned on their sides on a gantry. Each of the barrels are linked by a pipe on each side which allows the beer to be dispersed evenly between them by use of a feeder vessel. As yeast is added into the liquid in the barrels it causes it to ferment vigorously, and some beer and yeast is expelled via a swan neck pipe at the top of each barrel. This flows into an angled trough where the yeast is collected for future brews as the beer flows down the trough back into the feeder vessel where it goes back into the linked barrels. The process continues for about 6 days until all the yeast has been expelled and the beer is clear and ready to be packaged. And to answer the second question, supporters of the system would say that rather than everything just remaining static in a single vessel during fermentation the extra activity and flow between barrels keeps the yeast happy and healthy which in turn produces better beer.

Burton Union system; a future beckons

All had gone quiet regarding the fate and state of the Unions until out of the blue, on the recent May Day Bank Holiday, a tweet from CMBC (Carlsberg Marston Brewing Company) announced that a new home for one of the sets had been found at Thornbridge Brewery in Derbyshire, and that they were providing assistance and guidance during the installation. Clearly Thornbridge believed they could make a go of using a system that Marstons decided was unviable, but over the years since they started brewing in 2005 Thornbridge have shown themselves to be innovators and adept at adapting to the wide-ranging changes that have occurred within the beer landscape whilst respecting the industry's heritage. Last year, for example, they stepped in to save the brands of Kelham Island with a view of bringing the iconic Sheffield brewery back to life.

According to their website, Thornbridge are looking forward to using one of the sets, not only for its historic importance, but also for the opportunities it creates by utilising it in a modern way which will enable them to continue to develop the premium quality of their cask beer range. Starting with a brew of their flagship beer, Jaipur, they plan to follow up with other much-loved beers from their catalogue, and develop new beers specifically for the Union set. Collaboration brews using the system will be an integral part of its future; the plan is to bring together breweries with a keen sense of history who would like to help innovate with the system. 

Thornbridge had been founded back in 2005 by Jim Harrison and Simon Webster. They recruited two young brewers, Martin Dickie (later a co-founder of  Brewdog) and Stefani Cossi to brew on a second hand 10-barrel kit based in the grounds of Thornbridge Hall, then a somewhat run-down pile on a 100-acre estate near Bakewell in Derbyshire, which had been acquired a year or two previously by Harrison. Both brewers had experience of the craft beer scene in the US, and started using American hops in some of the Thornbridge brews at a time when they were largely unknown to UK beer drinkers. 

Thornbridge Hall

The first Thornbridge beer was Lord Marples, a 4% traditional bitter which is still in the range today. Another early beer was Jaipur, whose success played a major part in the company's growth, and about which more in a minute. As demand continued to grow, things became too much for the small brewery at Thornbridge Hall, and a brand new state-of-the-art brewery was opened in Bakewell in 2009, although the original site is still used for small batch brews. Over the years the company has developed a wide range of beers, all labelled with a clear, distinct branding with a large number of regular beers in a wide range of styles such as, on cask, Wild Swan, a blond session ale, Astryd, a 3.8% golden ale, the 4.5% Market Porter, and Kipling, a 5.2% golden pale premium beer. Keg beers include Green Mountain, a 4.3% hazy session pale, Jamestown, a 5.9% NEIPA, and Lukas, a 4.2% Helles lager. Some such as Jaipur and Cocoa Wonderland, a 6.8% chocolate porter are available in various formats. Specials are brewed and beers are barrel-conditioned as well, and ever since they started, Thornbridge have continued to innovate and remain one of the most important brewers in the country. Over the years a dozen or so pubs have been acquired, some owned and some managed in conjunction with pubco Pivni, several in and around Sheffield, with others including the Banker's Cat in Leeds, the Market Cat in York, and the Colmore in Birmingham.

The Colmore, Birmingham

And what of the beer, a version of, that Thornbridge have chosen to be the first to be produced using their newly-acquired Union system? As referred to previously, Jaipur was one of the first beers brewed by the company, and remains the company's flagship brew. It was first brewed in response to a request from the guys in charge and it was here that the brewers' US experience really came into its own. Beers in the US at that time generally had stronger ABVs than their UK counterparts, and they came up with this IPA hopped with Cascade, Chinook, Ahtanum, and Simcoe hops from the US, none of which were used in many - if any - British beers at the time. The beer concerned rocked up with a swaggering 5.9% ABV despite which, with its underlying sweetness, aroma of orange peel and pine underpinned with a base of low colour Maris Otter malt from Norfolk, was highly drinkable. It was christened Jaipur after the Indian city where Jim Harrison, had got married.

Jaipur was a ground-breaking ale for the UK market. As a cask beer it had had no precedents, but this strong IPA brewed with American hops took off, and it was only when Martin Dickie left Thornbridge to form Brewdog where he developed Punk IPA that Jaipur had a serious rival, although it was rarely seen on cask. At that time there were few craft bars as we know them today and sales were into traditional pubs selling cask beer. But gradually, with bars such as North in Leeds and Port Street in Manchester opening up a new market sector, opportunities for Jaipur grew, and along with Punk, it led the way as an explosion of interest in American-style IPA's swept the country during the early 2010's, and provided the benchmark against which they were judged. Most though went into keg where the slight petillance and cooler serving temperature worked well with the generally higher ABV's, and when canning became a viable option, that was swiftly adopted too. Jaipur, whilst readily available in keg, bottle, and can, has always maintained a strong presence in its original cask format, and is regularly found on bars up and down the country.

Jaipur mixing it up on the bar in the Left Luggage Room, Monkseaton

And then, all of a sudden, hazy New England IPA's came to the fore and Jaipur, which was and is as clear as a bell in appearance, became old-fashioned, behind the curve, and seemingly out of touch with where the market was in the view of the hipsters that had embraced it so eagerly only a year or two before. To their credit, Thornbridge's view was to believe in their product and stick to their guns, carry on supporting what remains their flagship brand and in doing so it has continued to be a massive seller. You can buy it in the pub, the local offie, the supermarket, or the 35 countries or so where it is sold in the export market. And it remains a quality beer. Other versions have appeared over the years such as a Double IPA and Jaipur X, which have gone down well. 

And I have to say that I am really looking forward to trying a new version of Jaipur infused with the brewer's imagination and the nuances in flavour derived from creating it using what is essentially an old-fashioned piece of Victorian whimsy....

Follow me on twitter/X: @realalemusic


  1. Excellent read as always, Chris.

    Mrs RM's favourite, Jaipur. It was very good the other week at the Thornbridge tap.

    NB. I have no recollection at all of Punk IPA in cask, though I do recall their brief cask revival a decade ago.

  2. Yes a great read and well researched as always.

    I remember seeing a BBC TV programme by James May and Oz Clarke where Oz was talking up Jaipur and I thought I really must try that beer. That was probably 15 years ago. Its been a favourite ever since.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

A Calder Valley Ale Trail - UPDATED December 2023

The essential guide to the pubs and bars that line the railways in the towns and villages of the beautiful Calder Valley in West Yorkshire, an area which has a lot to offer and captivate the visitor. Here's the latest, updated version.... The original Rail Ale Trail heads through the Pennines from Dewsbury through Huddersfield to Stalybridge, or vice versa, depending on your starting point. Made famous by Oz Clarke and James May on a TV drinking trip around Britain several years ago, it reached saturation point on weekends to such an extent that lager and shorts were banned by some pubs and plastic glasses introduced to the hordes of stag dos, hen parties, and fancy-dressed revellers that invaded the trans-Pennine towns and villages. There are some great pubs en route and whilst things have calmed down from a few years ago, they can still get very busy on a summer Saturday in particular. However, only a few miles away to the north, there is another trail possible which takes in s

1872 And All That....

News has broken over the past few days that Elland Brewery, famous for their 1872 Porter which was voted the Champion Beer Of Britain in 2023 have ceased trading. And with other breweries also struggling, the upheavals I wrote about last month are showing no signs of letting up.... I was out with some friends last Saturday afternoon, celebrating one of our number's birthday. With the drinks and conversation flowing as we enjoyed a most enjoyable catch up, we were joined by another friend who mentioned that he'd been out a little earlier and had heard a story from a good source in one of the local pubs that Elland Brewery who, a mere 6 months ago had won Champion Beer of Britain at the Great British Beer Festival for their flagship 1872 Porter, had gone bust. During a break in the conversation, I scoured Google for news about Elland Brewery. Nothing, apart from that win at the GBBF last year. I mentioned it to a couple of people when I was working at the Meandering Bear in Halif

There Used To Be A Bar There....

Last weekend a little bar in Wesley Court in Halifax, closed its doors for the last time. But unlike the sad fate that has befallen so many pubs and bars in recent times, The Grayston Unity will be re-opening in a few weeks' time in a brand new home on the other side of town. And so this weekend was a chance for a final drink and catch-up at its original home.... It was emotional, it was fun, it was inevitable. The final weekend at the original home of the Grayston Unity occurred this weekend, the last pints being poured around 9pm on Sunday evening with the price of a pint dropping first to £2 and then they were free. The little bar had attracted large numbers over the previous few days; Grayston stalwarts, regulars on the Halifax drinking scene, a host of old faces from over the years, and plenty of bemused first-timers, many here from out of town to see the likes of Orbital, the Charlatans, and Johnny Marr playing down the road at the Piece Hall.  Michael enjoying a quiet chat w