For many CAMRA members, the Burton Bridge Brewery in Burton on Trent may seem to have always been around but that’s not quite true. The brewery was set up in 1982, at a time when there just two breweries left in Burton (as opposed to seven today) and when there were only a few people thinking about going into microbrewing. CAMRA’s 1982 Good Beer Guide listed just 140 independent breweries in the UK.
Recently, Geoff Mumford, who founded the brewery along with Bruce Wilkinson, sat down with me besides a comforting open fire and a pint of their Golden Delicious at the brewery tap, the Bridge, to tell me their story. They both had long experience in the brewing industry before they started their new venture. Geoff originally met Bruce at Ind Coope in Burton where Geoff was in charge of engineering for the keg plant. He then took a three year leave of absence to run a pig farm and associated butchery business owned by his father-in-law, who was recovering from an illness. Geoff said, “The sabbatical was given to me by Allied Breweries on the understanding that I accepted any role that they wanted to give me on my return. I ended up as the commissioning engineer for a new brewing and fermentation block at Romford Brewery.”
It was at Romford that Geoff ran into Bruce again, who was the technical manager there. “I didn’t want the Romford role and I soon realised that, having run my own business, I now found it hard to take orders from others. It was also hard going back to wearing shoes after three years of wearing wellies. And both Bruce and I could see the ultimate collapse of the brewing industry as it then was, as so many had closed and Romford, being in the town centre, was a prime site for development.” Geoff added, “I always thought it was possible to brew on a small scale. A few people had already done it. We both investigated doing it separately but eventually decided that it was more sensible to join forces.”
The question then was where to set up the brewery. Geoff explained, “If you were going to set up a pottery, you’d go to Stoke on Trent. So Burton was the obvious choice; we knew the skills we needed would be there. I was driving to a meeting in Burton one day and saw that the Bridge (then the Fox & Goose) was up for sale. We bought the pub and had the only topless brewery but we only found that out when it rained!” The pub’s name was changed because, as Geoff explained, “We didn’t want people asking who the Fox was and who was the Goose.” It quickly became apparent they were in the right place to get things done, which included getting everything rewired by an electrician who used to work for Bruce.
Over the years, Burton Bridge has expanded, although it has always been a 15 barrel plant. The number of fermenters has gradually increased and they have bought buildings on either side of the original site. Alongside the developments at the brewery, pubs have been purchased and sold over the years and, wherever possible, they were sold as going concerns although there were exceptions. For instance, they tried to sell the Plough at Stapenhill as a pub but, even at a knock down price, they couldn’t find a buyer. Eventually it was demolished and sold (with planning permission) for housing. In contrast, the Devonshire Arms, a short walk from Burton railway station, was sold to one of their existing tenants with great success. The pub is in the 2021 Good Beer Guide, selling guest beers alongside Burton Bridge beers.
A few years ago, Geoff and Bruce tried to sell the brewery but without success. Geoff said, “We got close but the offer fell through at the last minute. Most of the offers since have been for the value of the buildings rather than for an ongoing business.”
COVID has, of course, had an impact on their business. They operate three pubs, the Bridge (the second oldest pub in Burton and with a skittles alley), the Alfred Ale House (an 1860’s pub not far from Burton Town Hall) and the Brickmakers (a C18th building in Newton Solney), where beer sales have been down to 45% of what they were. Geoff explained, “Many of our pub users are older and they are fearful and are not coming out and our free trade outlets have cut back on their beer range, so sales there have been hit. We are fortunate that all our buildings are freehold, so that there is no rent to pay.” Consequently, brewing has been scaled back and staff are working just two days a week. “We have good workers and we wouldn’t want to lose them; many of them have been with us 25 years. We do bottling on a Friday just for something to do,” said Geoff.
Geoff has concerns for the future of the industry, “We have had no rate rebates or cash grants but the crunch time for many will be when the VAT and Excise Duty holiday is over. One of the problems is the unwitting way in which the Government has demolished pubs. Is it a sop to the anti-alcohol lobby or a throwback to the days when people thought breweries were nothing but money?”
Despite the gloom, Burton Bridge has only two years to go to reach its fortieth birthday; not bad for two ex Allied employees. I for one am looking forward to celebrating with them with a pint. Of course, it will have to be their Draught Burton Ale, a beer they started to brew in 2015 when Carlsberg decided to stop brewing DBA and that they had been involved in during their Ind Coope days. A heritage beer from a brewery with a great heritage.
Footnote: there are two stories as to the origin of the expression ‘Gone for a Burton’. The most familiar is associated with the RAF in WWII as someone being killed in action but there is another version, which is certainly older. According to Burton’s Brewery Museum, the term was used by people working in maltings who died from a lung disease caused by the dust, similar to TB.