How To Brew Burton Ale

by Steve Thanos Updated on August 31, 2021 Special Beer Brewing Recipes

Burton Ale is a dark and rather sweet strong ale that is named after the town of Burton-on-Trent. Typically these beers are cellared for months prior to serving.

It is said that in London, the term Burton ale and Old Ale are used interchangeably. Most beers in the UK at this time were dark in color, Burton ales were no different. 

The Abbots of the Monastery 

There was evidence that abbots of the monastery in Burton were brewing this beer in the 13th century. Henry VIII put an end to this with his dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century.

However, many small commercial brewers were making Burton ales in their own towns. 

Burton Ale

Interestingly, the Burton ale was not brewed with hops. Hops only came to Burton later on, probably around the 16th century.

Burton ales were brewed by collecting the first and seemingly richest wort. It was fermented separately to make a strong ale. The grain was then re-mashed with hot water two or even more times.

This diluted wort makes table and small beers. 

To Russia with Beer

In the 18th century, Burton ale had quite the reputation compared to London porters. The beer was being exported to London and Hull and then later reached cities like Manchester and Liverpool by barge.

Burton ale was also exported to the Baltic countries, including Russia. It was here in Russia that Burton ale was holding its own against the Imperial Stout that the Russian Court adored. 

Dwindling Trades

These trades began to dwindle thanks in large part to the Napoleonic Wars. India became an alternative location for such exports.

Along with developing a method to produce paler malt, the Burton brewers began to brew India Pale Ale. The city of Burton  began to see great growth and even outpaced Londen breweries. 

Style Profile for Burton Ale

Appearance

Burton ale appears as light copper to dark brown. Dark versions can be nearly opaque. Good sized cream-colored head that is quite persistent. 

Aroma

Moderately strong, rich, and sweet malty aroma. There are also deep toast aromas and caramel notes. No roasty or burnt malt, but rather bready and biscuity. Dark or died fruit (plums, figs, prunes, and raisins).

A light alcohol presence may be noticable, but should not be too sharp. Hops can be light to moderate, floral, woody, fruity, or spicy in aroma. The malt makes a huge impression in this beer.  

Flavor

SImilar to the aroma, the malt has a rich character with a sweet finish. The bitterness level is medium-high to high and helps with the strong malt flavor.

The malt flavors are bready and biscuity with substantial deep toast or dark caramel flavors. Dark or died fruit (plums, figs, prunes, and raisins) are in the flavor of the beer as well.

The light alcohol flavor might be noticable, but the sweetness in the finish masks this alcohol taste. 

Mouthfeel

Medium-full to full body with a smooth, rich character. Warming alcohol should be noticable. Moderate carbonation.

Tips for Brewing your own Burton Ale

Grain

The grist for this style starts with a good English malt, usually Maris Otter. Brewing sugars were traditionally used for color and flavor.

However, modern brewers tend to use crystal malts and chocolate malts instead. The darker crystals tend to be used, something in the 60 to 90 L range. This will help with the dark fruit and caramel flavors and aromas.

Modern versions of this beer also add continental Vienna or Munich malt. 

Hops

Sahits usually do not contain much in terms of hops. With that said, the few decent varieties for this style usually center around German Noble hops or English hops.

Those hops include: Saaz, Terrnang, Hallertauer Mittelfrüh, Fuggle, Perle, East Kent Goldings, and Challenger. 

Yeast

There is a wide selection of yeast to choose from for this style.

They include the following: 

  • White Labs: Burton Ale (WLP023), English ALe (WLP002)
  • Wyeast: London ESB Ale (1968), London Ale III (1318), British Ale II (1335) 

Burton Ale By the Numbers

  • Color Range: 14 – 22 SRM
  • Original Gravity: 1.055 – 1.175 OG
  • Final Gravity: 1.018 – 1.024 FG
  • IBU Range: 40 – 50
  • ABV Range: 5.0 – 7.5% 

Martin Keen’s Burton Ale Recipe

Grain

  • 97%              12lb             Maris Otter Malt
  •   3%               6oz             Chocolate Malt

Hops

  • 2 oz         East Kent Goldings  – Boil – 60 min
  • 1 oz         East Kent Goldings  – Boil – 10 min
  • 1 oz         East Kent Goldings  – Dry Hop

Yeast

  • 1.0 pkg   Burton Ale White Labs WLP #023

Today, I’m brewing the English beer style of a Burton Ale. And after maybe two years of brewing every week, I’m going to show you the things in my brewery that I think are the most useful for brew day.

My name is Martin Keen, and I am taking the Homebrew challenge to brew 99 beers in 99 weeks. And this is week 98, and this is where things get a little bit complicated as to which style I’m going to brew.

It’s Burton Ale, so let’s get it mashed in and I’ll explain. Now the 99 nine beers part of the home brew challenge comes from the BJCP guidelines.

My idea was at the start of this to start with category 1a, which was American light lager and brew all the way through to category 27, which was the historical beer style of Sahti.

That is 99 beers. But here’s the thing. I skipped two of the styles. When I got to the sour category, I realized that some of these sour beers, well, they take a while to condition. I kettle soured where I could, so I could still have the beer, uh, ready for tasting and to put that in the video.

But some of these styles really aren’t intended for kettle souring. They need to be properly soured in a fermentor. I brewed two of those and they sat in my basement where they will sit until next Christmas ready for tasting. But I ended up skipping 23C and 23E from that, because I just didn’t want four beers sitting around that I couldn’t taste for a year.

So that brought me to 97 beers. I need two more to get to my 99. Well, it turns out in 2018, the BJCP released some provisional beer styles. These were extra styles in addition to those 99. Those are Catharina Sour, New Zealand Pilsner, New England IPA, and this one, Burton ale.

So I had to pick two from that list. And today I picked Burton Ale. And I’ll pick one more for my final beer next week.

I’m going to be mashing this beer at 150 Fahrenheit or 66 Celsius for about an hour.

So let’s now talk about what a Burton Ale actually is.

Burton ale was most popular in the 1700’s where it was really considered an export beer. It was exported out of the port of hull in the United Kingdom to various countries in Europe, to Russia and to the west Indies.

I wanted to read to you the style guidelines, the BJCP style guidelines description of this beer. They describe it as a rich, malty sweet and bitter dark ale, moderately strong alcohol, full bodied, chewy, and a hoppy finish. That sounds like a lot of characteristics to meet, but actually Burton Ale is quite a simple beer to brew.

So in terms of original gravity, I’m looking at 1.064 around a 6.5% beer. So that’s the moderately alcoholic part. And the recipe, well, it’s mainly Maris Otter. 97% of the grist is Maris Otter. And then to get the color that we’re looking for, I’m using 3% of chocolate malt.

In the course of brewing all of these beers, things have changed in my little home brewery a bit over time. Some of that stuff is obvious. Like I have a new brew kettle and new fermenters and so forth, but there’s all sorts of little process changes and bits of equipment that I’ve been using that I’ve found to be really useful and efficient for my brew days. Let’s take a look at some of those.

I bought this sink years ago on eBay, getting a sink put in the brewery here is one of the best things that I’ve done. I’ve got a space here to get water into my brew kettle and then a ton of space here to clean stuff up as well with a spray hose. It sounds like an obvious thing, but this is so much better than having to run hoses to the outside.

The other thing that I’ve done is I’ve added a quick release on to my faucet here, so I can like take off my RV filter. I could put on something else, like my bottle cleaner and there’s no screwing around. It’s just nice and easy.

Now, when I started my 99 challenge, I was adamant that I wanted my own kind of Homebrew store at home of, of grain selection. So a bunch of specialty grains and base malts. I tend not to use this so much anymore because all my ingredients are supplied for me by Atlantic brew supply.

But before that was the case it was very handy to have malts on hand. And I could just kind of get up in the morning and say, Hey, I’m going to bring this beer today and probably have the ingredients to pull it together.

I do get questions in the comments, uh, quite frequently about these little containers here, which I use for my specialty malts. Just found these at the dollar store, they fit about two or three pounds of specialty grains in them.

In addition to that, I have some larger buckets and then I have something called vittles volts, which I think is intended for pet food, but also conveniently stores, a full bag of grain, a full 50 pound bag in there.

As far as actually brewing the beer itself, there are three things that I really am pleased that I’m using as part of my every week process. Now, the first of those is this claw hammer, 240 volt system. I have put dozens of batches of beer through this thing, and it is completely held up over time. It’s really easy to use. I’m a big fan of this system.

When it comes to fermenting, I’ve really settled on these spike brewing fermenters. They are stainless steel, conical, and they just have the ability to add so many different attachments and do all sorts of different things with your fermentation. This is the spike CF5, and this is the flex plus ready to receive today’s beer.

And under this jungle of wires and temperature controllers is my Blichman, that glycol chiller. Before I had this chiller, I had three chest freezers here in the brewery, and those have all been replaced by this one unit.

So it’s a huge space saver, and it also means that I can now very accurately control the fermentation temperature of my brews.

So that’s where I am today. The brewery of course will keep on evolving over time. Speaking of which I’ve got a new gadget to try out today, which might just make my brew day a tiny little bit easier.

Before I end my mash, I typically take a pre boiled gravity reading to see if I’ve hit my numbers using a hydrometer. The trouble is you can’t just use a hydrometer in the mash temperature wort because it’s calibrated to 68 Fahrenheit.

So I have to take a temperature reading of the worr and then take whatever number I’m getting from the hydrometer and convert it to the correct temperature adjusted value.

A reader in the comments said to me though, Hey, you know that you can get hydrometers that are calibrated to mash temperature. That’s what I’ve got here. This is calibrated to 155 Fahrenheit. So I should just be able to take a reading directly from the wort at mash temperatures.

By golly, that seemed to actually have worked the mash calibrated hydrometer gave me a reading of around 1.052, the regular 68 degree calibrated hydrometer gave me a reading of 1.036, which when adjusted for temperature and that’s 1.051, that’s a little step less in my brew day.

Okay. So let’s get these grains out and get going with the boil.

So now let’s talk about the hoppy side of this beer. I’m going to be using EKG East Kent Golding for everything. At the start of the boil, which is right now, I’m going to be putting in two bags or two ounces of EKG. This will give me a IBU in the sort of the mid thirties, we’re going for a, for a beer total in total of about 43 IBU.

So I have these in, now with 10 minutes to go in the boil. That’s when I’ll be cracking out this first packet of EKG and adding that to in, and then I have a fourth one, which I’m going to keep for the dry hopping. So as the beer is beginning to come to an end of fermentation, I’ll be throwing this pack in as well.

Now as for yeast after much consideration, I decided to go for WLP 023 burton ale yeast, genius. I’m going to be adding this in and fermenting at 70 Fahrenheit or 21 Celsius.

And as I mentioned, as the fermentation begins to die down, so when I start to see a lack of bubbles going on here or slowing down here in this air lock, then that is when I will add my final charge of hops.

But that’s it, brewday #98 in the books.

This is the finished beer, Burton Ale. So the color of this one it’s, uh, Hmm. It’s kind of mud brown. Yeah. It’s questionable. It’s really that mid ground between light and dark and it just ends up looking. Yeah. Muddy brown. Nice. Um, there’s nice contrast between the white head.

Yeah. It’s very murky and there’s something in mine.

Is that still some of your hops or something that’s moving around? This beer is supposed to be quite complicated, all sorts going on. So let’s see what we get. Okay.

We’re going to use your favorite word. I don’t know. I don’t know what my favorite word is right now.

Complex. Ah, Complex. Yeah. Maybe.

I’m getting like bready notes, like toasty, but also kind of a little bit sweet bit, complex, a bit complex. Lots going on with that smell. It’s kind of like roasty as well. Let’s give it a try.

Initial tastes like, ah, kind of English bittery sort of style, but sweeter with a bit of roastyness to it and a little bit of sort of high alcohol taste.

Okay. Cause I was going to say it’s like, if you’ve ever had like malt beer, like malt liquor, beer, you know, like that strong taste, it has a subtle taste of that. Just like, kind of like makes you shiver a little.

Just on the back end. Yeah, yeah, yeah. You can tell us there’s a reasonable amount of alcohol.

So it reminds me of like Robin hood, like they’ll all the marry men would be drinking this they’re like little things, more wench. Yes. Like I can say that. Right?

So it was pretty good after a while, but I can’t believe next week is going to be the 99th. Beer.

It’s going to be a pretty special one, I think. And I’m not going to say any more than that, but I do have something pretty cool lined up. But until then, or thank you for trying this Burton Ale. Thank you for trying all of these beers over this last couple of years.

I know. I didn’t actually know I was going to sign up for this many. It was just fun. Then all of a sudden here I am. I don’t regret any of them though. They were very good. Even the smoke beer? Um, maybe not that one.

All right. Well thank you. And cheers.

Steve Thanos: Former President of my homebrew club, Plainfield Ale and Lager Enthusiasts (PALE) in the western suburbs of Chicago, IL. I brew on my BIAB system with my incredibly patient and understanding wife, adorable 9 year old daughter, and 12 year old brew dog.