A unique and historic method of beer making that seemed destined for the scrapyard has been saved and is making superb India Pale Ales in the Derbyshire Peak District.

The method is known as the Burton Unions and it takes its name from the famous brewing town of Burton-on-Trent in Staffordshire.

In the mid-19th century, commercial glass making meant pewter tankards were replaced by glass containers in pubs.

Drinkers could see what was in their glasses and they were less than impressed with murky and yeasty beer.

A number of major brewers, including Manns and Trumans in London and Boddingtons from Manchester, had opened second sites in Burton to use the mineral-rich waters of the Trent Valley to make the new and fashionable pale ales.

They were desperate to produce clear and sparkling beers. They were aided by a brewer called Peter Walker from Warrington who had also opened a second site in Burton.

He took out a patent on a system he developed that involved beer fermenting in large oak casks that were linked together or, as Victorians said, “held in union” by pipes and troughs.

The force of fermentation drives fermenting beer and yeast up swan-necked pipes into troughs above.

The troughs are held at a slight incline, allowing the beer to return to the casks via more pipes while the yeast is retained and used in further brews.

The finished beer is clear of yeast and is the sparkling pale ale demanded by drinkers. The system was adopted by other brewers in Burton and spread to brewing centres in both this country and as far afield as Australia.

The system is expensive to maintain. Resident coopers have to build and repair the casks, which have to be regularly cleaned and scraped to remove dead yeast cells and protein.

One by one, brewers abandoned the system until only Marston’s in Burton was still using it to make its famous Pedigree pale ale.

In 2022 it merged with Carlsberg to form the Carlsberg Marston’s Brewing Company, with the Danish brewer controlling 60 per cent of the business.

Since then, CMBC has gone on the rampage, closing Marston’s subsidiaries Jennings, Ringwood and Wychwood and announcing in January that it would ditch the Burton Unions on the grounds of costs.

Riding to the rescue was Garrett Oliver, the celebrated brew master at Brooklyn Brewery in New York City.

He’s a frequent visitor to this country, he’s seen the Burton Unions in operation at Marston’s and he has made beers at Thornbridge in Bakewell.

He spoke to CMBC with the result that the group agreed to donate one Union set to Thornbridge. I went to see it at close hand as a new beer, Union IPA, was going through the system.

The Thornbridge team lead by head brewer Rob Lovatt has also made a batch of its main beer, Jaipur IPA, using the Union.

I was able to taste samples of Jaipur brewed in the conventional manner and also using the Union and it was fascinating to find that the Union brew was softer, rounder and less bitter than the conventional beer.

Jaipur IPA is widely available in both cask and bottled form. When Union IPA is ready to go on sale, after brewing and conditioning, I will let readers know where it’s available.

The last word goes to Garrett Oliver who has been to see the Union set in operation at Thornbridge.

“It’s a beautiful beast and it also makes a particularly nice Jaipur!” he says.