How the National Brewery Centre has become one of the area's most popular attractions
PUBLISHED: 09:49 17 May 2016 | UPDATED: 09:49 17 May 2016
Nearly lost to us, The National Brewery Centre in Burton upon Trent has turned its fortunes around and become one of the area's most popular places to visit. Derbyshire Life takes a look around
IT seems only right and proper that a museum celebrating the grand traditions and heritage of brewing should be based in Burton – the town that is world famous for its beer.
Yet it wasn’t until 2010 that the National Brewery Centre, as we now know it, opened to the public bringing back to life the historic Bass Museum collection, which had been mothballed for more than two years.
Now the centre is thriving, with visitor numbers rising year-on-year, a full programme of events and festivals and a growing recognition locally, nationally and internationally.
General manager David Edwards is delighted with the venue’s success story and the fact that it has embraced Burton’s rich heritage and used it to put the town on the map as a visitor destination.
He says: ‘We have had consistent growth since 2013-14. The start of this year has been bigger than it’s ever been before with more people coming from further afield.’
And yet it’s not so long ago that it all could have been lost.
As the Bass Museum, the venue was much loved by former employees of the brewery which had a long and proud history in the town but when Molson-Coors took over there was an upswell of feeling that something had been lost.
The museum was re-branded the Coors Visitor Centre and the town turned its back on the attraction. In March 2008, and being subsidised by the brewing giant to the tune of £1 million a year, the centre was closed and faced an uncertain future.
It took two years to find a solution and it wasn’t until May 2010 that the site re-opened, this time as the National Brewery Centre.
The rebranding has proved a masterstroke, enabling Burton to take its position right at the heart of the brewing industry in this country.
David says: ‘People born and bred in Burton were proud of Bass and there was a slight resentment when Molson Coors came in, like when something local gets knocked down to make way for a new supermarket. Yet Molson-Coors has been good for Burton in terms of the jobs and economy – it was just the apprehension about that big brand coming in and taking over the Bass Museum site. They eventually had to make a difficult business decision to close it and the town was in danger of losing what was the old Bass Museum that people remembered visiting as children and loved.
‘Rebranding it the National Brewery Centre was the right thing to do as we are a national centre. We celebrate everything related to the history of brewing, the social life of beer, the steam industry – all sorts of things that developed from the industry, such as transportation. You can come here and find out how it was more than 200 years ago right up to how it is now and celebrate all that heritage and the impact it had on people’s lives.
‘We became not just a local museum celebrating a local company but a national celebration of the industry.’
Planning Solutions Limited, which also looks after the National Forest visitor centre Conkers, is now responsible for the attraction, bringing a wealth of leisure and tourist industry experience to the venue.
Even so, it has taken time to generate the interest and attention the centre deserves.
David says: ‘After being closed for so long it did fall off people’s radars a little bit and it has taken a lot of hard work to get it to where it is today. It was recognised that the first step was to get back into the hearts and minds of local people as they then tell everyone else how great it is.
‘What we do is make sure the facilities and service we offer are the best that they can be, so when people do come on site they have a great experience and that prompts them to recommend us.
‘We also put on an array events, from things for the children to vintage festivals that tick all the boxes.
‘Now we are seeing that all come to fruition in terms of footfall and in the reactions on places like TripAdvisor where we are No 1 in Burton in terms of things to do. Our first three events this year all sold out weeks ahead. We are selling tickets for things more than six months ahead.
‘I think we are now encouraging more visitors to come to Burton, which means they are using other bars, restaurants and hotels as well, so we strongly believe that by bringing 20,000 visitors a year to the museum, 10,000 to our festivals, we are having a big impact on the town.
‘We like to think that with the National Forest, National Arboretum, Adventure Farm, Claymills Pumping Station and so on we have a knock on effect on them and we benefit in return.’
David and his team are determined to tell the world about the National Brewery Centre and to capitalise on Burton’s position at the heart of brewing.
He says: ‘The people of Burton have always been proud of their brewing heritage but when you have something great on your doorstep the tendency is not to think you have to shout about it because people automatically know. You still have to market things, be confident about what you have got and talk about it. We go to travel shows, societies and clubs and tell people what we do.
‘Often people come to the site knowing it’s about beer but not sure what they will actually see and going away surprised by how much they get out of it and what a wide range of events we have going on. That means that Burton can be proud of its heritage and that people do want to know about it.’
The centre is also now back brewing its own beers and reviving ales from yesteryear.
David says: ‘People can now physically see a working brewery and sample ales brewed here. So you have the history of Bass and Worthington, the evolution of brewing to how it is now and our master brewer creating ales that are available at our bar.
‘When people drink those ales in places like Sheffield it also encourages them to come along and see where they were brewed.’
David isn’t from Burton and hasn’t grown up surrounded by brewing heritage.
He says: ‘I’m from Wales and worked in the hotel industry in the south but I fully enjoy the museum and the experience I get out of it. I have always thought that if it works for me it will work for all our customers as well. They might have no knowledge of beer but they still get a great fun and informative day out.
‘If they do know about beer that just enhances their experience.’
It seems that Burton is now making the most of its brewing traditions and celebrating what has made the town’s reputation.
David says: ‘We are the National Brewery Centre – Burton-on-Trent. Burton is very much an important part of our branding. Anyone who enjoys their beer, has been in the industry or knows about their history, thinks about Burton being associated with beer. That really is important.
‘We all feel the responsibility of preserving that heritage here.’
The National Brewery Centre Museum incorporates large elements of the original Bass Collection. You can learn about the legendary Bass family and their role in the development of brewing. The museum also celebrates the social history of the development of brewing – the real life experiences and stories of the people who helped to build Burton’s world-renowned brewing reputation.
Tours start with a holographic-style presentation of the history of brewing, then guides take visitors through each step of the brewing process and explain the roles that the steam engines and vintage vehicles on show played in the development of the industry
Among the prestigious events held at the venue have been the English leg of the World Quizzing Championships and the International Brewing Awards, which will be back in early 2017.
David says: ‘These international events which have a lot of kudos in the beer world let people know that we are the place where everything about the industry is celebrated. To get beer from more than 50 countries here and to go through a really detailed judging process is great for us and Burton. We are able to give our customers a chance to sample those beers and there’s nowhere else in the UK that does anything quite like it.
‘We are being approached more and more by competitive events linked to beer and food and we have a couple of exciting things in the pipeline for next year.’
The centre has also thought about how to use the site to attract more visitors, including the introduction of Hallowe’en Ghost Tours.
David says: ‘Space is an asset and we sit down and plan a whole year’s events including Easter, Mother’s Day, the school summer holidays (because children love our Shire horses and vintage vehicles) and Christmas. We are doing more tribute events, comedy and music festivals. We have a toy collectors’ fair and some one-off themed events.
‘Hallowe’en is a great example of how we have taken the history of the site and put a twist on it. Last year’s story saw us dig into the archives, find the accident book from 100 years ago and build a story around that with the ghosts of the people who had passed away.’
The micro-brewery at the National Brewery Centre is reviving historic ales. General manager David Edwards says: ‘We have an archive we can dip into and find things like a 1957 recipe for Charrington’s IPA that people haven’t seen for maybe 20 or 30 years but remember very fondly.
‘That means the older generation can re-experience something from their youth and we can bring something new to younger enthusiasts. We do feel a responsibility to preserve, look after and celebrate all that we have here and this is part of that.’