Friday 22 April 2022

An Easter pilgrimage

The first National Bass Day was planned for Easter Saturday 2020, 11 April, but, as we all know, the Covid lockdown intervened and it never happened. There wasn’t a chance in 2021, when you couldn’t even drink outdoors, but fortunately it was at last able to go ahead this year without restrictions. There’s no Bass in my immediate area and, while it can be found closer to home, I decided that it was worth making the trip to sample it on its home ground in Burton-on-Trent.

We had previously had a day out in Burton in March 2020, a last hurrah before the lockdown, and so I was to some extent retracing our steps then. In 2020 I travelled via Sheffield, but this year services between there and Derby were disrupted, I think by engineering works, so I went via Stoke. The fare is the same, and there’s little in it time-wise. I miss out on the spectacular scenery of the Vale of Edale, but on the other hand the line from Stoke to Derby does run through some very lush East Staffordshire countryside and gives a grandstand view of Uttoxeter racecourse.

The train was unfortunately delayed by about twenty minutes, meaning that I missed my connection at Derby, but I was still in Burton not long after noon. The two-car unit was standing room only, giving weight to the widespread view that, post-Covid, the railways have seen a noticeable shift from commuting to leisure travel.

There was a group of lads heading for a pub day out in Nottingham, who were playing dance music radio on one of their mobile phones and had an open bottle of vodka on the table with a variety of cordials to dilute it. They didn’t seem threatening as such, but nobody ventured to ask them to turn the music off, and I might not have wanted to encounter them on their return journey. It is this kind of atmosphere that makes many people uncomfortable about travelling by train.

The line from Stoke joins the main line from Birmingham some way before Derby near the five impressive cooling towers of the defunct Willington power station, meaning that you have to double back along half the distance between Derby and Burton. It was a glorious sunny Spring day, although it clouded up later on. The station is some distance from the town centre, so I decided to walk out to the furthest point of my itinerary and work my way back, about three-quarters of a mile along the long, straight Station Street. In the past, this was crossed by a bridge between two sections of the town’s breweries, but on our previous visit I noticed that it had now been demolished.

My first call was at the Burton Constitutional Club, which occupies an imposing neo-classical building on the town’s High Street. It had specially opened to the public for National Bass Day, and was selling Bass at a bargain £3 a pint, the cheapest of the day. As with the other pubs serving Bass, I was asked when I ordered “Are you one of the judges?” A special competition had been organised to find the “Best Bass in Burton” where you were expected to visit six different pubs and judge the quality of the Bass on offer. The idea had its attractions, but my time in Burton was limited, and one of the pubs, the Elms, which we visited in 2020, is a good fifteen minutes’ walk further on from the town centre, and the Waterloo another fifteen minutes beyond that, so it wasn’t really feasible. I did visit the other four, so maybe if this is run in future there could be the option only to visit some of the pubs.

The interior of the Constitutional Club is basically one grand, wood-panelled, high-ceilinged single room dominated by two full-size snooker tables. The bar is at the far end on the right and there is also some rather functional seating at that end. My pint of Bass was very good, and they had provided a finger buffet including chunks of various cheeses and slices of pork pie. The pork and black pudding pie was particularly tasty.

I then walked along the High Street past the town’s Wetherspoon’s, the Lord Burton, and the Prince of Brewers, which apparently does serve Bass, but which I had been told has a somewhat boisterous atmosphere, confirmed by the loud music blasting out of the open doors. It must be said that, as with many other medium-sized and large towns, Burton’s town centre was pretty quiet, with a substantial number of vacant shops and low-rent businesses.

I then turned left into the town’s Market Place, which is closed off at the far end by the classically-styled St Modwen’s Church, built in the early 18th century. On our previous visit, we hadn’t reached the town centre proper, and this is a part of Burton that I had never seen before. On the left is a row of 18th century buildings including the Old Royal Oak. This doesn’t serve Bass, but it had been recommended to me as worth a visit. After a somewhat chequered history, it had been taken over by Fownes Brewery at the beginning of 2020, which was rather unfortunate timing, but now at last it is able to trade without restrictions.

The interior is basically a single room, with the bar on the left, in a contemporary bare-boards style, but featuring some cosy alcoves of seating at the front. I have to say that my heart slightly sank at the array of about eight Fownes ales on offer, but my Royal Oak Bitter turned out to be in very good condition, and the cheapest beer of the day in an actual pub at £3.40, although it isn’t as a strong as Bass.

The pub had a well-chosen soundtrack of 60s and early 70s pop including a fair amount of Northern Soul, such as the original 1964 version of Tainted Love by Gloria Jones. A group of blokes sitting opposite me came out with the classic line of “Well, are we having another here, or are we moving on?” but in fact they moved on to the Dog. Unfortunately, with my level of charge down to about 35%, I discovered that I had left the cord for my power bar at home, so web browsing and live-Tweeting through the rest of the day were severely curtailed. I thought of buying one (even though I have several in a drawer at home) but the only shop I passed that seemed likely to sell one, Ryman’s stationers, had closed down.

I then headed back up Station Street for the remaining three pubs, all of which were ones we had visited a couple of years ago. First, just down Cross Street on the left, was the Coopers Tavern, possibly the best-known pub in Burton. I’ve used the picture taken by Peter Allen back in 2020, while the others were all taken by myself on the day. This trip turned out to be the penultimate occasion when I shared Peter’s company before he sadly died in January of this year.

It was originally the unofficial Bass brewery tap, but was owned for a number of years by Hardys & Hansons before recently passing into the hands of Shropshire-based Joules. It has a superb unspoilt interior that earns it a full entry on CAMRA’s National Inventory. Pride of place goes to the tap room at the rear, where you can sit on a bench in the same room where the beer is actually dispensed from casks on a stillage, although a short bar counter has been added as part of recent renovations. Further forward from this are a number of other small, characterful rooms with real fires, leading to a small beer garden at the back. While I have no problem with it, it must be said that Joule’s characteristic house style does jar with some people who see it as perhaps laying on artificial character with a trowel.

The beer range comprised Bass together with a number of other beers, both Joule’s own and guests, on a mixture of gravity dispense and handpumps. I had Bass, of course, which was the most expensive of the day £3.70. It was good, and certainly had more condition than that I had drunk in 2020, but it must be said that gravity-dispensed Bass seems more at home in the West Country or West Wales than in an urban pub in Burton.

A large group of people came in, some of whom were doing the Best Bass in Burton scoring. They collectively came up with a number of choice remarks:

“Aroma? It’s a pint of beer, not a vase of flowers. Get it down your neck!”

“How lucky we are that every pub we’ve been to today believes in beer.”

“Doom Bar must be the worst beer in Britain!”

“The Constitutional Club? They’re all old men in there.” – this from a group whose average age must have been at least 65.

It was just a short walk round the corner to the Devonshire Arms back on the main road. This is an outwardly small white-painted pub set back from the road, but in fact has a somewhat Tardis-like interior going back a long way from the front section. At the front is a traditional bar with tiled floor and bench seating around three walls, while further back are a comfortable seating area on the left at a lower level, and a spacious lounge leading through to a small outside drinking area.

As well as Bass, there are six or seven other beers on the bar, majoring on local brewers Burton Bridge and Gates. The Bass here, priced at £3.50, was very good indeed, and the best beer of the day so far. Perhaps foolishly, for a contrast I decided to try some Gates Reservoir, which was much less impressive, although it was hard to determine whether that was down to poor cellarmanship or just its inherent flavour.

Next to me were a pair of blokes who sounded as though they were members of the local Labour Party having an animated although good-natured political discussion, with a third listening in but remaining largely silent. They described this as a “four-pint discussion” and recalled occasions when an “eight-pint discussion” had become more heated. I sensibly resisted the urge to butt in, but thought that in a sense it was good to hear people engaging in the traditional pub activity of setting the world to rights.

From here it was only a short walk to the final pub, the Roebuck at the foot of the bridge carrying the main road over the station platforms. Five hours earlier, I had passed a couple of gents sitting outside who obviously recognised me as a probable Bass drinker, with one asking to be remembered to his former schoolmate Ian Thurman, one of the progenitors of National Bass Day, even though it turned out they hadn’t actually seen each other for 48 years.

The Roebuck is a street-corner pub with a distinctive curved frontage, which was originally the Ind Coope brewery tap and was the scene of the launch of Ind Coope Burton Ale in 1976. The single-room interior has the bar on the left-hand side, with seating facing it on the right. It’s one of those pubs where there seems to be relatively little seating in relation to the floor area, and it was pretty busy, although I managed to squeeze in to a space next to the door. With darts and doms being played, there was a more lively and down-to-earth atmosphere than in the previous pubs, and it could be described as more of a Life After Football pub, which is fitting because this, in 2020, was the only occasion where I actually succeeded in meeting said gentleman. I spotted a journalist from the Burton Mail interviewing some of the other customers about National Bass Day.

As well as Bass, there were about six other ales on the bar, the one that I particularly noticed being Gates’ take on Draught Burton Ale. The Bass (£3.60) didn’t disappoint, and was on a par with that in the Devonshire Arms as the best of the day, with the pints in the Constitutional Club and Coopers Tavern, while still very good, not quite reaching that standard. The Devonshire Arms was probably to my personal taste the most congenial of the pubs. All told, it was a very enjoyable day out and a fitting celebration of National Bass Day.

The trains from Burton to Derby and onwards to Stoke were both on time, with the Stoke train, while not as packed as the one in morning, still being not far off full. Unfortunately, the connecting cross-country train at Stoke was delayed, meaning that I had to catch a later stopping train and arrived in Stockport about half an hour late. This service was notable for the substantial number of mostly younger people joining at each intermediate station clearly dressed up for a night out in Manchester, one group of lads “enlivening” proceedings with a rousing rendition of “Living on a Prayer”.

Both legs of the trip being delayed by at least thirty minutes isn’t really very impressive, although it didn’t result in me missing out on anything and, to be fair, the other three long train trips I have made since the end of the lockdown were all more or less on time. I have now pretty much recouped the cost of the three-year Senior Railcard I bought in November 2019, and one more trip will certainly take me over that mark.

Some people have questioned the point of National Bass Day, as it is after all promoting a (fairly) widely distributed beer produced and marketed by major breweries. However, it is one of the most notable names in the history of British brewing, and the famous red triangle was the very first registered trademark. Today, for whatever reason, the cask version especially seems sadly neglected by the brand owner, yet it retains a huge amount of residual respect and affection from drinkers. No brewery rep will ever twist a pub’s arm to put it on, so every pub that stocks it does so as a positive choice. It has been entirely a grassroots movement with little involvement or support from either the brewing industry or the great and good of the beer commentariat – with the honourable exception of Roger Protz.

And, to my palate at least, the current incarnation of Draught Bass brewed by Marston’s is a splendid beer – highly distinctive, complex, subtle, bittersweet, potent yet surprisingly drinkable. It would be invidious to single out any individual product as “my favourite beer”, but it is certainly one of the handful that makes my eyes light up when I walk into an unfamiliar pub and spot it on the bar.

Acknowledgment is due to Ian Thurman, who first came up with the concept and has produced and maintained the national listing of Draught Bass outlets, and Ian Webster who put in a great deal of the work in actually organising the day itself. Let’s hope when it come around again on 8 April next year it will be even bigger and better.

Tuesday 12 April 2022

Mountain or molehill?

I recently spotted a tap for keg Wainwright on the bar of a pub. I suppose I knew this existed (I have certainly seen keg Pedigree) but I can’t say I’d ever seen it before in the wild. What perhaps surprised me that it wasn’t in some marginal low-turnover boozer but in a prominent Good Beer Guide listed pub with several well-kept cask ales on the bar. So the question occurred as to whether this is something that lovers of cask ale should be worried about.

A significant and often under-appreciated achievement of CAMRA is that it has created a large constituency of drinkers who are loyal to cask as a category over and above individual brands. Back in the early 70s, people would probably identify first as “bitter drinkers” and then express a preference for Tetley’s, Boddington’s, Courage or whatever. But that has reversed now, and in general they will go for cask first ahead of any loyalty to a specific brand. When I mentioned this on Twitter, the general response was that people would give it a swerve purely on the grounds that it was a keg beer.

It’s not even as though they get the opportunity to switch between the different formats now anyway. Again, fifty years ago it was easy to find the same beer available in cask and keg or top pressure form, and it could be difficult to distinguish the two from the bar mountings. But now, overwhelmingly, the two are separate brands – even Tetley’s Cask is clearly distinguished from Tetley’s Smooth. The only breweries I can think of that sell keg and cask versions of the same beer in their own pubs are Felinfoel and Samuel Smith’s.

However, while a lot of drinkers do have a strong loyalty to cask as a category, many others who drink it occasionally will be “repertoire drinkers” who switch between lager, Guinness, keg ales and cask depending on mood and occasion. The growth of “craft keg” has in a sense rehabilitated the keg category. If people are routinely seeing the likes of Punk IPA and Camden Pale on the bar, then what’s to stop them trying keg Wainwright as well? Or indeed keg London Pride or Landlord?

So, while I don’t see the existence of keg versions of Wainwright and other top-selling ales is in itself a threat to cask in well-established outlets, there must be a possibility that it could damage cask by blurring its distinctiveness in more marginal venues.

And I have to say it comes across as a touch hypocritical that many beer enthusiasts are happy to embrace craft keg ales, including those that don’t qualify as “keg-conditioned”, but will turn their noses up at keg versions of ales that in cask form would be sufficient to get a pub into the Good Beer Guide.

It should, of course, go without saying, that the best way to promote cask ale is to ensure that it is served fresh, cool and full of condition. Cask’s worst enemy is not keg, it’s poor cask.

Friday 8 April 2022

It all stacks up

Earlier this week, it became a legal requirement in England for all restaurants, pubs and takeaways employing over 250 people to display calorie figures for food and soft drinks on menus, websites and ordering apps. This has been widely criticised for being an unreasonable Nanny State intrusion, for potentially causing problems for people with eating disorders, and for being a pointless gesture that will make no difference in combating obesity. But do these arguments really stack up, as it were?

Yes, it is another imposition on businesses at a time when many are struggling, but on the other hand chains such as Wetherspoon’s and McDonald’s have been doing it for years. Anywhere with below 250 employees is excluded, as are one-off specials and dishes of the day. I am not an expert in this field, but I would assume that calorie counts can be assembled in a relatively straightforward manner as the figures per unit of weight for various ingredients are already established. It doesn’t require laboratory analysis.

It is true that it may cause problems for a relatively small number of people with eating disorders, but to use that as an excuse to abandon the whole idea is letting the tail wag the dog. Calorie figures have been shown on all packaged foods for many years, and that is now seen as uncontroversial. And, in a typical week, how many meals does a person with an eating disorder buy from chain dining or takeaway outlets anyway?

Similarly, displaying alcoholic strength on drinks was claimed to be problematical for alcoholics, but it has long been accepted as normal and something consumers expect to see. Indeed, if anything it has tended to lead to a reduction in strengths – the idea that most drinkers are attracted by “bangs per buck” has been disproved.

It probably won’t make much difference to obesity, but then the entire government anti-obesity strategy is misconceived anyway. And of course calories are only one figure in the overall mix of nutrition. But what it will do is to give consumers the facts to make informed decisions – it is treating them as adults.

It is hard to believe now that, going back forty years, the strength of alcoholic drinks was never declared. When CAMRA first published figures of original gravity – which is a rough approximation to alcoholic strength – in the 1970s, there was an outcry from the brewers, but it is now accepted is routine. I would expect that, in twenty years’ time, we will look back with surprise that calorie figures were ever not stated.

While there are legitimate concerns about practicality, I really don’t see that there should be any objection in principle. Hopefully a means will be found to extend it to smaller businesses without creating too much extra bureaucracy, possibly by the use of indicative figures rather than any detailed analysis. Surely it’s known approximately how many calories there are in a 4 oz burger or a portion of pilau rice.

What it may do is to shine a spotlight on the issue of portion size. As I argued here, surely a significant contributory factor in rising obesity rates is that most out-of-home catering outlets now serve up standard portions that are far more than the average person wants or needs. Yet there remains a social stigma against not clearing your plate, and if you fail to do so it contributes to food waste, which is seen as a major issue. As I said, if the catering industry fails to act on this they are likely to be faced with mandatory calorie caps in the future.

If you’re concerned about bureaucratic overreach, surely you should be far more exercised about the incredible tangle of restrictions on the placement and promotion of “HFSS” foods (i.e. the vast majority of processed food items) that are going to be introduced from 1 October this year.