— BURTON-UPON-TRENT, England - Beer is no longer king in this English city — and it's just as well.
The air around Britain's historic beer-making capital remains sticky sweet with the scent of barley and hops billowing from the smoke stacks of Molson-Coors, Marston's and a handful of independent brewers.
But unlike its sister city of Elkhart, Ind., Burton-upon-Trent has diversified its industrial base, cushioning the blow from the global economic downturn as well as the decline in its dominant economic engine.
The twins each have around 53,000 residents and rely heavily on manufacturing, but their experiences have varied greatly.
The last two years have seen Elkhart’s lifeblood, the recreational vehicle industry, sucked out of it, leading unemployment levels to soar above 18 percent.
Meanwhile, although the malt silos and holding tanks still loom large over Burton, the town's unemployment rate stands at less than 4 percent.
“We’ve seen an influx of other industries,” said Geoff Mumford, the co-owner of the Burton Bridge Brewery. “We now have Toyota … and quite a lot of supply industry and small businesses.”
Secret’s in the water
Burton’s 500-year-plus association with beer grew up around the town’s abbey, where the monks of Saint Modwen brewed up mead and other beverages. A newer incarnation of the church can still be found near the grassy Washlands, where a stream passes through fields. Also nearby are Market Square, which has seen traders come and go since medieval times, and the modern buildings of Burton College, a career-oriented hybrid between a junior college and a university.
“Around 1750, the first commercial brewer set up across the road,” said Mumford as he sipped a traditional bitter ale from a silvery tankard. “It was around this time that Burton’s beers were first really noted for their quality.
“This was due to the water,” he explained. “Essential salts give very good hop utilization — very clear, crisp flavors — and are unique to Burton water.”
The minerals meant more hops, a natural preservative, could be added to the beer. Very soon, casks of Burton beer were on ships headed as far as Russia (from where they would return full of timber) and in the late 19th century, a special pale ale (IPA) was made specifically for the months-long voyage to then-colony India. By 1880, the town had more than 30 breweries and at its height a quarter of all beers consumed in Britain came from the town.
At the turn of the 20th century, however, chemists cracked the secret of Burton’s water. Once the trademark minerals could be added to other cities’ waters, several brewers left Burton.
The industry, though, remained the dominant force in the town’s economy until the 1970s when automation and modern brewery practices such as improved refrigeration, pasteurization and the use of metal kegs led to redundancies.
“The drink consumption for beer peaked in about 1977 and has been on the decline since then and it’s going to decline even further,” said brewer Mumford, citing the smoking ban in pubs and the rise of health awareness as the latest hardships for the industry. In Burton, “it’s gone down over a hundred years from 39 breweries to six.”
The industry also has been rocked by a series of worldwide mergers and takeovers. In 2000, the largest local brewer, Bass, was purchased by Belgium’s brewer Interbrew, which makes Stella Artois and is now called InBev. Subsequently, due to anti-monopoly laws, the brewery was sold on to Coors (now the Molson Coors Brewing Company after a merger with Canada’s largest beer producer).
With its beer-filled pipes flowing throughout the town and across a bridge over Station Street, Molson Coors’ Burton factory is the second largest brewery in the world (Coors also owns the largest, which is in Colorado) and brews mostly American and European-style lagers as well as a few brands of English bitter.
However, the Bass logo now belongs to competitor Marston's, which also turns out a variety of traditional British brews under its own brand and others.
“Thirty years ago there were 5,000 people employed in the breweries, now there are probably closer to 1,000 — there’s been a significant reduction over those years,” Mumford said.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in Indiana, travel trailers and motor homes exploded onto the scene after World War II, bringing boom times to Elkhart.
Demand for RVs was particularly strong at the beginning of the 21st century, brought on by relatively cheap gas prices and a booming economy. And 2005 was an especially busy year as the city focused on building thousands of temporary homes for Hurricane Katrina victims.
In 2006, 23,515 Elkhart County residents — out of a total 118,929 employed people — worked in motorhome, travel trailer and camper manufacturing industries, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The figure equates to about 20 percent of the county's workforce. But, because it does not include all of the people who worked for companies that provided parts and supplies to the industry, the actual number reliant on the industry was much higher.
In 2008, 17,878 people were employed in the RV industry out of 105,491 working in all industries, according to preliminary figures.
Back in Burton, many breweries have been leveled, replaced by shopping centers, housing and restaurants.
“The U.K. brewing industry is very tough — six or seven pubs are closing a day,” said Paul Hegarty, head of communications for Molson Coors’ Burton brewery. He also blamed above-inflation rate taxes targeting alcohol for turning the knife in the already wounded industry.
Over the years, however, Burton has found it relatively easy to expand into other industries.
“We have quite a large work force with a traditional manufacturing base,” said Dean Piper, economic regeneration manager for the local East Staffordshire Borough Council. (Burton is at the heart of East Staffordshire.) “Over time, they’ve been able to reskill and respond to the changing needs of employers.
“Toyota came in the 1990s, and Pirelli [a tire company] has been in the area for a long time,” he said, adding that “a large number of companies have relocated here to be in the supply chain for Toyota.”
While no tax breaks or financial incentives were offered, “the government has put a lot of support into place through business support programs.”
Being situated less than a day’s drive from anywhere in the country also has been a huge advantage.
“It’s centrally located, with good highway networks and two international airports in the proximity,” Piper said.
Prosperity is relative
Unlike Burton, which had become accustomed to reinventing itself, Elkhart’s RV industry — despite some peaks and valleys along the way due to varying gas prices and ongoing economic conditions — was more resilient, allowing the city to remain a virtual one-horse town.
That is until mid-2008, when the Midwest city saw an unprecedented nosedive in its fortunes due to the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Tightening credit, rising gas prices and falling consumer confidence — the latter particularly impactful on discretionary items such as recreational vehicles — put the local economy in a tailspin.
Suddenly many of Elkhart’s residents were forced into foreclosure, and the demand for free meals and rental assistance skyrocketed.
Elkhart went from “America’s RV capital” to a symbol of U.S. economic suffering.
Burton not unscathed
Meanwhile, though Burton’s situation is certainly rosier than Elkhart’s, the town had not been left untouched by the downturn. Work hours have been reduced and unemployment, albeit lower than the national average, has more than doubled since the crisis began.
“I’m earning half of what I was last year, maybe less,” Shane Williams, a 36-year-old painter and decorator who has been self-employed for 18 years, said on a recent afternoon.
“It’s been really bad and I think it’s going to get worse; I just don’t know when it’s going to get any better,” the father of two said.
Indeed, it doesn’t look like it’s going to improve any time soon. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the United Kingdom is expected to be the last major economy to recover from the global crisis, behind the United States, Japan and Germany, among others.
In Burton’s town center, “for sale” signs and empty storefronts are a common sight. Failed national chain stores Woolworths and Zaavi are joined by locally based stores and the town’s original cinema. Real estate agents and law firms, including Goodger Auden Notaries, which had been in business since 1852, have also closed down largely due to the plummet in property transactions.
However, the town is a relative island of prosperity compared to others in the region.
“There have been quite a few redundancies (in Burton), but because the area had been growing with new industries, the job losses haven’t been as high as in other areas,” said Piper, the economic development official.
In part this is because individuals and companies are finding new economic niches and reinventing themselves.
Poundland, a U.K. equivalent of a dollar store, which was first started in Burton, is booming. “Some of the Poundland stores are making absolutely terrific profits,” said Michael Rodgers, an elected representative to the Burton-area government.
Some employees who were made redundant “have decided to do new enterprises; they have become entrepreneurs,” he said, adding that the centuries-old town market has seen a three-fold rise in individuals renting stalls to sell their wares over the last year.
Meanwhile, in a move similar to Elkhart’s unveiling of a electric-hybrid truck plant, some of Burton’s industries are going green to make themselves more attractive in the post-recession market. Toyota was already making hybrid cars here, but now the Midland Pig Producers organization plans to build a self-sustained unit of farms and mills that run on biogas from manure.
“We will produce three megawatts — that’s nearly enough to run a small town,” said enthusiastic spokesman Martin Baker.
With the town situated on the edge of a national forest and along the River Trent, tourism is another industry Councilor Rodgers would like to explore.
For years, the town’s largest tourist attraction was the Bass Museum, which documented the history of brewing in Burton. It was renamed the Coors Visitor Center after the takeover, but was shut in July 2008 due to the high cost of running it, a decision which riled many local residents.
But, while Burton’s economy is faring better than that of its sister city, some here wish that they had more control over their own destiny.
“The mayor and people in charge of local government in Elkhart have certainly got a lot more power than the council here,” said Rodgers, noting England’s greater central government control, which means that Burton’s local leaders could never choose to issue a bond as Elkhart hopes to do.
Fears over Coors
Rodgers voiced residents’ fears that after closing its museum and shrinking its structure, Molson Coors could pull out of Burton.
But, all in all, he said, “I think we’ll come out of the recession slightly shaken, but I think we’ll get back to normal.”
“My hope is that we do, and that Burton is still placed firmly on the map for brewing.”
A former Burton College principal, Keith Norris, who visited Elkhart as part of a sister city delegation a dozen years ago, is chairing a group whose goal is to get the Coors museum reopened using lottery funds.
“It’s about more than brewing,” Norris said. “It tracks the social development across the years.”
“It tracks a time when Burton was 99 percent reliant on one industry to a position now where its maybe 20 or 10 percent reliant on employment in the breweries,” he said.
As for Elkhart, Norris added, “it would be really good to get together and study what measures they’re taking to combat the recession and for them to see what measures we’re taking.”