A Theory: From Brimstone Alehouse To Burton Ale


Early this January just past I posted that image above and told you all that it was my new favorite quote about sulfurous brewing waters from around Burton in Staffordshire, England. It’s from The Natural History of Staffordshire from 1686 by Robert Plot. The beer was brewed as a local health tonic but – now as then – I love that it was available especially at theBrimstone Alehouse. Why this particular penny did not drop connecting this post to one that I posted one month before is now beyond me. I posted in my own comments about the first mention of Staffordshire’s sulfurous Burton ale in a high society establishment, the Vauxhall Garden aka Spring Garden, in the nation’s capital of London as described in an issue of The Spectator from 1712. Just 26 years after the reference to the Brimstone Alehouse in the book by Robert Plot. Hmm.

This hit me like a slap on the back of my head as I watched an episode of a Michael Portillo train show Great Continental Railway Journeys on TV. He was at a central European spa, having a steam bath one moment and a mud bath the next. Then he drinks the water. He appears to almost gag. It was full of sulfur. Like the water in Staffordshire 330 years ago. Horrible stuff taken for only medicinal reasons. Made palatable by brewing with it. Double Hmm.

Now, Martyn checked my story about the arrival of Burton ale in the greater marketplace around 1712 and gave it a good hard shake and it appears to be pretty solid, a real myth buster. Which leads to a quandary and a theory. Here’s the quandary. How does this gak water beer from Staffordshire get just one rustic small mention in an agricultural and industrial guide to the county from 1686 and then show up on a very expensive table before the finest of society no earlier and also no later than 26 years later. As you can see above, in each case it is sought out for a quality. But not the same quality.

That leads to the theory. It appears to me to be a bit of a longer distance from the Brimstone Tavern of 1686 to the Spring Garden of 1712 than just the intervening years. What was in the beer itself? Did the brewer of the Brimstone Tavern in 1686 bang in an incredibly high volume of hops to overcome the stated vomit inducing taste of the water? There is no mention that the experience in 1712 was at all unpleasant. Could it be in those 24 years that the hopping technique became refined and the sulfurous waters diluted? Were the waters calmed? I don’t know how I might go figuring out, how to determine if that was the case. But it’s an interesting theory. Somehow, it went from horrible to haute in 26 year.

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