Thursday 12 May 2022

All about that Bass

To coincide with National Bass Day last month, Amberley Publishing released The Story of Bass – The Rise and Demise of a Brewing Great by Harry White. It should be made clear, though, that it isn’t a history of the famous beer itself (although that would surely make for a very interesting volume) but a survey of the complex history of the giant corporation that came to bear its name. Harry White worked for Bass and its successor companies in various senior roles until his retirement in 2007, and is now the Chairman of the National Brewery Heritage Trust, so he should have a good knowledge of his subject matter. It’s an attractive, medium-format book with lucid text copiously illustrated by both historic photos and images of old advertising material.

The core of the book is the story of the Bass company itself. Founded in Burton in 1777 by William Bass, from the outset it looked to the wider UK and export markets rather than just supplying its local area, and by the early 1800s was sending beer all round the world. The iconic red triangle became the world’s first registered trade market in 1876, and a bottle of Bass famously appeared in Manet’s picture of a barmaid at the Folies-Bergère in Paris.

However, as with many other breweries of this era, family succession was a problem, with Michael Arthur Bass, who was ennobled as Lord Burton, the last of the Bass dynasty, dying in 1909, and in 1926 a merger was concluded with local rivals Worthington, by this time controlled by the Manners family. Although Worthington was only half the size of Bass, it supplied most of the directors, so this was a kind of reverse takeover.

The merged company was one of the largest in the industry, and was widely regarded as the Rolls-Royce of British brewing. In the 1930s, it was one of the initial constituents of the FT 30 stock market index. However, more than most of its competitors, it depended on selling its beers through other companies’ pubs, and the increasing consolidation of the industry in the 1950s meant that a growing number of outlets became closed off to it.

A solution was at hand in 1961 in the form of a merger with Mitchells & Butlers of Birmingham, who had a large tied estate and were regarded as one of the soundest companies in the industry. The two companies made a good fit with each other. M&B was led by the ambitious Alan Walker, who had joined in 1955 after previously working in the sugar industry. It is interesting that Walker was appointed at the suggestion of the company’s merchant bankers, not the only example in the book of this happening. Walker became managing director of the merged group, so this was another case of a reverse takeover.

The new company still lacked truly national scale, but this was achieved in 1967 through the climactic merger with Charrington United Breweries to create the familiar behemoth of Bass Charrington, of which Alan Walker became Chairman. CUB itself was the result of Canadian entrepreneur E.P. “Eddie” Taylor having built up a chain of British breweries as an outlet for his Carling Black Label lager. This saw a frenzied campaign of acquisitions over two years from 1960, when he merged his Sheffield-based Hope & Anchor Brewery with the large Bradford-based firm of Hammonds, to 1962, when the merger with Charrington, who had a strong presence in London and the South-East, was sealed. This process is described in detail in The Brewing Industry 1950-1990 by Anthony Avis, who was an executive at Hammonds and then CUB who was responsible for acquisitions. Interestingly, while he had considerable respect for Taylor, he had little time for Walker, who he saw as arrogant and domineering.

E. P. Taylor and Alan Walker
CUB had a rather random string of pubs and breweries across most of the UK, but were weak in the Midlands, so combining with Bass, Mitchells & Butlers was a good geographical fit. The new company had over 11,000 pubs and was the largest pub and brewing group in Britain. Opportunities for further takeover were limited, but they did carry out a handful, of which the last was Joule’s of Staffordshire, which is still resented locally to this day and was the scene of one of the earliest CAMRA protest marches when the brewery was inevitably closed.

Bass Charrington – later simply “Bass” – was the biggest beast of all amongst the “Big Six” who became the pantomime villains of the brewing scene in the eyes of CAMRA. The book describes the creation of the ill-fated Runcorn brewery, which was intended to replace a string of smaller breweries across the North, but in the end lasted less than twenty years.

With further expansion by acquisition now impossible, and the overall beer market at best stagnant, Bass increasingly saw itself as involved not so much in brewing as the wider leisure industry, and became a substantial owner of hotels. This was confirmed by the ill-judged Beer Orders of 1989 which, by requiring the big brewers to divest large swathes of their tied estates, turned the industry on its head. The pubs were progressively sold off to pubcos, while the breweries were acquired by the international lager brewing giants.

In the case of Bass, most of the brands and brewing assets, including the flagship Carling, passed to Molson Coors, leaving the eponymous Bass brand as something of an orphan of the storm in the hands of AB InBev, with production of the cask version now contracted out to Marston’s. The Bass company still exists, but has metamorphosed into Intercontinental Hotels and now has no connection with British brewing. Indeed, none of the infamous Big Six survive in anything remotely resembling their original form.

At the back of the book is a listing of the most important beers that defined the Bass Charrington empire during its existence. Pride of place has to go to Carling lager, which was the first beer in Britain to sell a million barrels a year, became the country’s best-selling beer in the late 1970s and retains that position to this day.

While it includes the classics of Draught Bass, Worthington White Shield and No. 1 Barley Wine, many of the beers included are cooking bitters such as Springfield and Charrington IPA which were popular in their areas but never approached being considered best in class. It even includes the weak keg bitter Allbright, which was promoted as “The Beer of Wales” and for a time was the best-selling beer in the Principality.

One notable omission is M&B Brew XI, which I believe at one time was the best-selling cask beer in Britain. I never thought much of it when I was at university in Birmingham in the late 70s, but surely it deserves a place in the company’s history. Interestingly, the name was invented by Alan Walker in the late 1950s as a deliberate attempt to copy automotive branding, although Bass Charrington did not enjoy similar success with Brew Ten, intended for their northern estate, which after a few years was largely replaced by Stones.

One thing that is missing from this book, and indeed from that of Anthony Avis too, is any impression of what beers were produced during the wave of merger mania, and how the pubs were branded. For example, in 1965 Charrington United took over the substantial Offiler’s brewery of Derby, which was promptly closed, with beer being supplied from the former Hammond’s plant at Tadcaster. But were these beers sold as Offiler’s, or Hammond’s, or something else? And did they put new branding on the pubs? My drinking years began after the merger mania had worked itself out, but I do remember as a child seeing Bent’s branded pubs dotted around the North-West, a company bought in the 1960s by Bass, Mitchells & Butlers.

In conclusion, it’s a fascinating and very readable book that manages to make sense of a complex and entangled corporate history. It deserves a place on the bookshelf of anyone interested in the development of the brewing industry in Britain. However, at 96 pages, it’s a fairly slight volume, and even in these inflationary times the cover price of £15.99 seems a little steep, although it can be obtained more cheaply from various online retailers. I should state that I paid for my copy (although not £15.99) – I wasn’t sent a free one to review.

Monday 2 May 2022

Drinking under the radar

In the early 1970s, whether or not a pub sold real ale was largely due to the policies of the owning brewery, and many busy, high-profile pubs didn’t. However, over the following two decades, the growing influence of CAMRA meant that real ale became seen as something desirable to have on the bar, and its absence was likely to deter potential customers. So numerous brewers started to make it much more widely available in their estates, and some started brewing it again after a lengthy gap. So-called beer deserts where it was previously very thin on the ground, such as London, Norfolk and Cornwall, were watered. In many areas, over 80% of pubs stocked it, and the remaining keg-only pubs were often a long tail of run-down, unprepossessing establishments catering only for diehard locals.

However, a key change took place in the 1990s. The transfer of pubs from breweries to pub companies took away a lot of the kudos of being able to say “85% of our pubs serve real ale”, and the pubcos found that stripping it out made life easier for licensees without any loss of trade. So a lot of the smaller, less prominent locals lost their real ale and remain without it to this day, if indeed they are still open. I wrote about these trends here. It’s easy to go round the country following the recommendations of pub and beer guides and find virtually no pubs apart from a few craft bars, without real ale, and conclude that the battle for cask has been won. But, outside the town and village centres, and off the main roads, there are still plenty of unabashed keg-only boozers to be found.

A week ago last Sunday, our friend Cooking Lager boldly set out to try a few of them on Castle Street, the main shopping street of the Stockport district of Edgeley. Edgeley is an area to the west of the town centre that has retained most of its traditional terraced housing and is now showing the odd green shoot of gentrification. The half-mile strip of Castle Street, along what was the main road to Cheadle and Altrincham before it was bypassed by Mercian Way, developed a surprisingly extensive local shopping centre, perhaps helped by being on the other side of the main railway line and up a steep hill from the main town centre.

It used to have a Woolworth’s and branches of most of the main clearing banks. These are gone now, but it still has a supermarket, a post office, a Boots, a furniture store and a branch of Home Bargains where I am a regular visitor. Most of the shop units are still occupied, although nowadays they are more likely to be convenience stores, takeaways, cafés, nail parlours, phone repairers and bookies.

Perhaps surprisingly, it has retained most of its pubs, with five of the seven that were trading in the mid-80s still being open, although rather more pubs in the surrounding back streets have closed. The two casualties were the Grapes, a plain, traditional local that didn’t fit Robinson’s increasingly upmarket aspirations, and the Windsor Castle, a large 1930s pub that in the 1980s was converted to “Windsor Sports”, but was then allowed to go steadily downhill, and ended up being utterly squalid. On one occasion, a regular died in his seat, but nobody noticed until chucking-out time. It has now been demolished and replaced by a row of shops with flats above. Probably a factor in the pubs’ survival is that, on landlocked sites on a low-rent shopping street, the potential for redevelopment is limited.

I have certainly visited all of these pubs on various CAMRA pub crawls over the years, although only two of the five now stock cask beer of any kind. I suspect I may not have been in the Jolly Crofter and the Pineapple this century. My most recent visits were to the Prince Albert, the only pub to have cask on a CAMRA crawl, and to the “Bobby Peel” (properly the Sir Robert Peel) to redeem a voucher for a free pint of Stella issued by Punch Taverns.

Cookie’s verdict was in general fairly positive, although it was on a Sunday lunchtime, and the pubs are likely to get considerably livelier on a Friday night. The Jolly Crofter and the Bobby Peel have both fairly recently been refurbished, although in the case of the latter it seems to have been an exercise in providing an interior of posing tables for a clientele of old blokes. He was also pretty happy with all the lager he drank, although as long as you keep it cool and turn it over quickly enough it’s hard to go wrong. He doesn’t really comment on the wider beer ranges, but it would have been interesting to hear which smooth bitters these pubs sold, and whether any offered any throwback keg milds.

The one exception was the Pineapple, of which he says “A shithole is the only description required of the pub.” This is the pub that has a handwritten sign on the door saying “Strictly no shoplifters”. On my forays to Home Bargains I notice that it seems to be open from 10 am, and there’s often a mobility scooter parked outside. Many years ago, I remember writing up a CAMRA pub crawl and describing, on a very hot Friday night, how the grossly fat barman was serving with his shirt unbuttoned, “exposing a vast expanse of wobbling flesh.” But enough people seem to be happy to give it their custom and keep it going.

Cask now only accounts for about a seventh of all beer sold in pubs, so in many cases you won’t do your business much harm by not stocking it. In general it isn’t done as a deliberate statement, but it’s a declaration of intent that you’re happy just to serve your own customer base and aren’t really bothered what the wider world thinks of you. Yet, to my mind, much of the interest of pubgoing stems not just from the beer itself, but from the atmosphere and the characters you encounter. And you will certainly find much more of both in a keg boozer than the monoculture of the typical micropub or taproom.

You will find very little about these places in most writing about beer and pubs, and nor are they likely to appear in any pub guides. Now that Alan Winfield is no longer with us, the only person who still seems to write about them is Life After Football. Yet they remain a significant part of the British pub scene that in a sense flies under the radar of fashionable commentary.