Old Burton Extra

History by the Glass by | Sep 2012 | Issue #68

Now that Burton is finally being recognized as one of Britain’s seminal beer styles, it’s time to shine a torch into the dark corners of brewing to see if we can spot its big brother: Old Burton Extra.

British brewers preferred codes for their beers rather than names. Things with X’s and K’s mostly. X’s for Mild Ales, K’s for Keeping or Stock Ales. There was a practical reason: They were stenciled onto the barrel ends so publicans knew what was inside. It was far easier to stencil a code of a few letters than a full name—for example, “X” instead of “Mild Ale,” or “PA” instead of “Bitter.” Where did you think IPA came from? “Pale Ale prepared for India” was way too long to fit on a barrel end.

In the 19th-century, Stock K Ales were essentially the equivalent of Mild X Ale (KK = XX, KKK = XXX, etc.), but with one significant difference: K Ales had around 50 percent more hops to help keep them in shape during a long maturation period. In the 20th century, the grists of X Ales and K Ales diverged in the large London breweries, though Fuller’s continued to parti-gyle their Burtons with their Mild Ales.

In London, ironically a center for brewing the style, Burton was usually called “KK” within the brewery. And what was one step up in strength from KK? The rather unfortunately named KKK and KKKK. Barclay Perkins, one of London’s largest breweries since the 18th century, was still brewing two Burtons, KK and KKKK, in the 1940s, called, as you can see in the price list [pictured above], “Burton” and “Old Burton” respectively.

In the table, you can see how the strength of Barclay Perkins KK and KKKK fell from their frighteningly high levels in the mid-19th century, but still remained powerful beers. In the 1930s, KKKK was the strongest beer they brewed, apart from the legendary Russian Stout. It was by far their strongest draft beer, appearing only in the winter months in a pin on the bar.

Fuller’s also brewed two Burtons in the 1930s, with the even weirder brewhouse names of “BO” and “OBE” (Burton Old and Old Burton Extra). OBE didn’t quite have the gravity of Barclay’s KKKK, but it was still a very potent 7.4 percent alcohol by volume.

68FermentedCulture2There’s a story about how the OBE’s strength was used to trap unwary newcomers in The Dove in Hammersmith, just along the river from Fuller’s brewery. If they didn’t pay attention, they’d be served up pints of OBE rather than standard-strength beer (much to the amusement of the regulars when the unfortunate victim’s legs stopped working). George Izzard, landlord of The Dove in the 1930s, described OBE thus:

“A very strong beer which . . . didn’t strike you as powerful at first sip. It had a winey, rather sweet taste. All the same, three pints of it were enough for the heaviest drinker, if he wanted to go out of the pub on his feet.”

Burton’s popularity quickly dropped off after World War II, but OBE struggled on until 1969 when it was replaced by a new beer, called Winter Bitter. After becoming a year-round brew, the name was changed to ESB.

Soon, there will be a chance to try a genuine Old Burton Extra; Fuller’s brewed one in May, based on an OBE recipe from 1931. It’s the third beer in their Past Masters series. When John Keeling asked me what should be the next beer in the series, I replied OBE without hesitation. I’ve heard so much about the beer. I can’t wait to drink it.