If you’re a beer enthusiast and haven’t heard of Burton upon Trent, that’s a bit like being a wine enthusiast who hasn’t heard of Bordeaux. Good news: in Fort Collins you can get a taste of Burton without the hassle of international travel.
Located inconspicuously just south of Elizabeth and Taft, McClellan’s Brewery holds aloft the centuries-old craft of British brewing. McClellan’s differentiates itself among Fort Collins’s unique breweries as the only one regularly (if ever) serving Celtic cask ale. Plus, they shanghaied a head brewer who—honest-to-God—just moved here from Scotland a few days ago.
“Burton water is famous for its mineral content, whereas the water in Fort Collins is wonderful—very soft, very low mineral content. Actually very similar to Scottish water,” explains head brewer Graham Hirstwood of Edenborough.
The mineral content in Burton’s water has always lent to its uniquely-appealing taste. Hirstwood is replicating every aspect of Burton Ale, down to the mineral profile in a process called Burtonization.
“So to get that, what we call the Burton snatch, to get that special taste to the Burton ale, we treat it to turn it into Burton water basically. We add Epsom salt, gypsum, calcium chloride to get that beautiful, minerally water that gives Burton a special, famous aromic flavor.
“It’s almost a dry, bouncing off the palate kind of water profile. I think it makes awfully special when you do that.”
Hirstwood’s features light up when he talks about his craft. You don’t have to be a language analyst to figure out he’s from Scotland, and between his brogue and personality he’ll probably get along okay here. “I love all beers. I’m absolutely passionate about beers, so much so that my poor wife suffers terribly from my obsession.”
What’s so unique about this cask ale? Stored in traditional 10.8 gallon wood firkins, it has a more subdued effervescence, giving it a richer, somewhat creamy texture. The secondary fermentation that occurs in the cask gives the beer a mouth feel comparable to nitro beers.
“It’s a lot less fizzy than your keg stuff,” Hirstwood elaborates. “But you can always compare it in smoothness to nitro beers. But it’s just because it’s a natural carbonation—it’s not as fizzy. It gives a smoother, nicer feel, and its live product as well. It’s still developing as it’s in the cask. …gets the yeast going again and adds a different dimension to the beer.”
McClellan’s beer isn’t served through a pressurized CO2 system like most, so the only carbonation that happens is during fermentation.
“’Flat’ should never be an adjective to describe this beer,” says co-founder Josh Landi. “Of course we didn’t forget to carbonate our beer, man!”
Sassenach Burton Ale is a good beer to begin with. It belongs to one of Britain’s most noteworthy genres and makes a nice segue into a broader discussion about how cool this whole firkin thing is. It would require a refined palate to recognize the nuances of mineral content, but not to enjoy it.
With cask ale, the malt selection is exceptionally important. Even a relatively unrefined beer drinker will notice its complexity.
“With cask beer, it’s a lot more difficult to mask off flavors because you don’t have that effervescence and it’s not super, super cold,” Landi tells me. The malt selection requires an artist’s judgement.
“My British patrons love my beer and they find it to be true to style.”
On the Horizon
With Hirstwood now a permanent resident, McClellan’s will be doing more seasonal and experimental beers. “I was at the Scottish beer archives and I found an old recipe for an IPA from 1885. That’s coming up very soon, and you’d be surprised how modern it tastes from being a recipe from over 130 years ago.”
Also on the horizon is an old-style barleywine called Stingo. It will be released twice, first as a “virginal” barleywine and a subsequent, bourbon barrel aged release. Hirstwood is enthusiastic to showcase and compare the two.
McClellen’s has broken with one tradition only: They “Americanize” the beer by serving it cold.
That’s right, those Brits like their ale almost room temperature—although given that they’ve been doing this longer than we have, it would almost be fair to say we’re the weirdo’s. Naw.