Sunday, 6 March 2016

Great stuff this Bass

The well-known Bass red triangle was famously the first trademark ever registered, and it remains a distinctive beer symbol almost 150 years later.

When CAMRA was formed in the early 1970s, Draught Bass was the only nationally-distributed cask beer. Outside its Midlands stronghold, it had a strong following in rural Wales, the West Coutnry and the North-East, and was also well-regarded from London to Edinburgh. It was always a free-trade favourite even where the owning company had no tied houses. The late Rhys Jones reported how there remained a lingering resentment in Anglesey about Stockport brewer Robinsons buying up free houses selling Bass in the 1950s.

Across large swathes of Derbyshire and Staffordshire it (along with Marston’s Pedigree, of similar strength) was often sold in pubs as the standard bitter. Bass also entered into trading agreements with a number of independent brewers that led to the beer being sold in some of their tied houses, a notable example being Higsons of Liverpool, with it being available in the George in Stockport, a once-great pub now thoroughly trashed.

In the mid-1970s, its original gravity was increased from 1039 to 1044 to make it a stronger competitor against the popular premium ales of that period. It was never an in-your-face beer, with a distinctive subtle, bittersweet palate, but was generally reckoned to be amongst the beer aristocracy. In the 1970s, the parent company controlled over half the pubs in Birmingham, but only condescended to make Bass available in six of them. Fortunately, when I was at University, one of my local pubs, the Bull’s Head in King’s Norton, was one of those six, and I enjoyed many pints of it, dispensed into oversize glasses through metered pumps.

As the number of nationally distributed beers mushroomed in the 1980s, it lost some of its status, although it remained a widely available and popular beer. At some point, Bass stopped using the distinctive Burton Union fermentation system, which was felt to rob it of some of its character. The late, great beer writer Michael Jackson certainly reckoned Pedigree, not Bass, to be the Burton classic. Ironically, Bass is now contract-brewed by Marston’s.

The upheaval in the brewing industry following the Beer Orders inevitably took its toll. The Bass brewery at Burton-upon-Trent ended up being taken over by Molson Coors, but the rights to the Bass name went to ABInBev. The cask version of Bass is now contract-brewed by Marston’s, home of its historic rival Pedigree. The bottled and canned versions are now brewed by ABInBev at Samlesbury, and are not from the same brewing stock, although they do have a slight echo of the cask original. The keg Bass widely available in Northern Ireland is a completely different product with a lower strength. Ironically, Pedigree seems in recent years to have lost a lot of ground in the free trade, and I have to say I’ve struggled to find decent examples recently.

I wouldn’t claim that the Marston’s-brewed Draught Bass is a patch on the 1970s original, but it is hard to compare things over a forty-year gap. But it does carry an echo of its essential character – complex, subtle, bitter-sweet, slightly sour and lactic, and not really drinking its strength. Its understatement makes it a classic English beer. Unlike many other 4.4% beers, you could happily sink several pints in a session. It’s one of my favourite real ales, and one I always like to see on the bar, and will go for in preference to other widely-distributed premium beers.

While its distribution is diminished compared with what it once was, it still enjoys a strong following in its traditional Midlands heartland and in other areas such as the North-East, Wales and the South-West. I read of one new pub opening in the North-East putting Bass as the core of its beer range, and visited a pub in West Wales proudly advertising it as their next guest beer. It remains the signature beer in classic pubs such as the Star in Bath and the Seven Stars in Falmouth. And, wherever I see it, I get the feeling it’s a pub that keeps in touch with its heritage and tradition.

  • The photo of multiple Bass pumps is in the Vaults in Uttoxeter, a classic Bass pub in its home territory.

  • I did consider giving this post the title All About That Bass but, on second thoughts, I really don’t want to promote one of the most annoying pop songs of all time.

13 comments:

  1. A very interesting piece. My favourite beer, partly because it's served in a fair number of my favourite pubs, like the ones you mention, the Coopers in Burton and Dead Poets in Holbrook. Landlords keep all their beers well, but Bass drinkers gravitate to those pubs and drink it in high volumes.

    Besides the stalwarts in areas where Bass is still strong, I've been to a number of pubs with Bass leading a more "modern" range, notably the Black Lion in Leighton Buzzard and Hop Inn in Newcastle-U-L.

    I understand how it would disappoint if served below par, a slightly warm pint without a tight head or dead flat is pretty dull.


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  2. The best pint of Bass I've had was, unsurprisingly, in the former brewery tap, the Coopers' Tavern, in Burton-on-Trent a couple of years ago. The Unicorn in Manchester city centre, where I drink regularly, also has it as its permanent cask beer which I think goes back to it being the headquarters of the Honourable Order of Bass Drinkers.

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    1. The Unicorn is the only pub I can think of in the local area that regularly stocks it.

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    2. Hi Matt - totally agree with your comment about The Coopers. Sad to report, however, that the Honourable Order of Bass Drinkers (HOBD, founded in 1967 in M/cr) no longer meets at The Unicorn in M/cr having had some unfortunate experiences there. We're rather more peripatetic now, but Briton's Protection in M/cr is one we frequent for a number of HOBD meets. Oh - Burton beware - HOBD descend on that delightful town tomorrow and Monday (3rd and 4th April) for our annual pilgrimage to Burton. Billy's, Coopers and Roebuck are amongst the hostelries we'll be enjoying. Hope to see you!

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  3. Bottled Bass in the U.S. brewed by Ab Inbev at a Budweiser plant in New York state. https://flic.kr/p/bddjwM

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  4. Professor Pie-TinPie-Tin7 March 2016 at 14:35

    When I was a working stiff in that there London cans of Bass were the only thing that kept me going insane on the late-night long train commute home to the sticks.
    Half of one carriage of the train was the only smoking compartment and over the years and it and the four-pack of Bass purchased at Waterloo Station helped produce a local pub feel for us regulars who always arrived at our destination after closing time.
    I also recall a cold pint of draught Bass in the Ear Inn on Spring and Washington in New York on a blisteringly hot summer's day as being one of the most refreshing pints I've ever had.Decades later I can still taste it.
    For these and many other great pints of Bass consumed over the years I retain huge affection for the brand.

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  5. Lovely post that reflects the feelings of many I'm sure. For me Bass is my favourite for taste, hometown nostalgia and a no doubt misguided desire to support the brand. What still amazes me is the commercial failure of the owners to make the most of what was probably the most iconic English beer brand. I see that Bass and Boddingtons are listed on the InBev website as 'local champions'. That suggests to me that they are now the beer equivalent of putting awkward squad players in the reserves.

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    1. At least Bass is still going, unlike Boddingtons (at least as a cask beer). The way the international brewers have comprehensively trashed the brand equity of all the classic ale brands they inherited is appalling, and surely terrible business too.

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    2. AB Inbev has been absolutely terrible, Carlsberg poor, Heineken and Molson Coors have been ok.

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  6. I’m still rather partial to a pint of Draught Bass, but it’s rarely seen in this neck of the woods. There was a time when it was quite a common sight, as many local Charrington’s pubs stocked it.

    Charrrington’s, of course, have long disappeared, and so have parent company, Bass. For a short time during the 1970’s, Bass was Britain’s largest brewer, until the machinations of corporate takeovers, and government interference saw the company quitting brewing altogether, and going into hotel management.

    My first laboratory job was with Bass; at their wine & spirits subsidiary, Hedges & Butler, in London’s East End. A colleague and I wangled a trip up to the Burton Brewery, and saw the Union system in all its glory. We also spent more time than was wise, in the sampling room with a couple of our Burton QC colleagues, enjoying Draught Bass, straight from the cask!

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  7. I remember fondly drinking in Higson's pubs in Liverpool and Wirral. The choice of Higson's Mild and Bitter plus Draught Bass was a veritable beer festival in the 70's.

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  8. Very good article. For aficionados, The Honorable Order of Bass Drinkers Facebook page is a good resource for locations that still stock Bass and snippets of news.

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