Where is Bass From?

Bass Pale Ale

Making a flying visit to our local, The Drapers Arms, on Tuesday night we got drawn into a puzzle: who brews Bass, and where is it from?

This question arose because the pub has a cask of Bass ready to go live in the next day or so, in time for the weekend. Policy at the Drapers is to write the origin of each beer on both the jacket covering the cask and the blackboard in front of the bar. That’s easy when the beer is by Stroud Brewery from Stroud, or Cheddar Ales from Cheddar, but Bass is complicated.

As far as we know, the keg and bottled versions are brewed at Samlesbury in Lancashire, while the cask is brewed by Marston’s in Burton-upon-Trent. (Though there’s sometimes talk of production having moved, or overspilled, to Wolverhampton.) And the brand is owned by AB-InBev whose head office is in Leuven in Belgium.

Our instinct was to make an exception — Bass is Bass is Bass, so just write Bass. But that won’t quite do.

In the end, after wiping the chalk away a couple of times, the last version we saw before leaving was something like:

BASS
William Bass & Co
(Marston’s)
Burton-upon-Trent

The landscape of classic beers (you can read that as sarcastically if need be) has become quite muddled with brands, brand-owners and brewers moving around, being taken over, contracting and licensing all over the place. Where is Pedigree actually brewed these days? What about Young’s Ordinary, or Courage Best? Newcastle Brown is now being produced in the Netherlands, along with HP Sauce.

Of course big brewers like to keep it vague so they can shunt production here, there or anywhere, based on business need, but this shouldn’t be information consumers or retailers have to hunt around for, not least because the vacuum leaves room for conspiracy theories and bar-room gossip.

More generally, though we find a certain romance in this grand industrial jiggery-pokery, isn’t the whole real-ale-craft-beer thing of the past 50 years really about making sure we don’t have to ask this question? About insisting that, good or bad, the beer we drink should clearly, and without footnotes, be from somewhere?

25 thoughts on “Where is Bass From?”

  1. Absolutely. It was something of a mercy when Diageo Ireland did its big production consolidation in 2013. Smithwick’s was associated with Kilkenny and Harp with Dundalk, but the reality was that production moved to whichever brewery had the capacity at the time. Now at least we know it all comes from Dublin.

  2. The best one I am aware of, if truly being honest in relocation/brand ownership: Marston’s, Well’s, Young’s, Vaux Waggledance.
    Let’s not even start with the number of non-existant brewing entities that seem to be located in the Westgate Brewery.

  3. There’s also a huge amount of obfuscation of production location and brand ownership in the craft universe, of course. Yeastie Boys, anyone?

    And the question has to be asked to what extent this matters to the ordinary punter. The typical drinker of Stella is perfectly aware (and entirely relaxed) that it isn’t actually brewed in Belgium.

    1. I think it depends on the beer. Stella, Fosters and Heineken, sure, no-one cares. For stuff that sells itself at a bit of a premium because it’s imported or in some way “authentic” – Peroni, maybe, or the “foreign lager to accompany relevant foreign food” market – it probably matters a bit. For real ale and craft it probably matters to quite a lot of people, hence things like CAMRA’s Locale campaign, Camden getting flack for contract brewing and, come to that, Greene King sticking the names of fictional breweries on the Bury St Edmunds-brewed “guest ales” in their pubs.

  4. I just asked Marston’s where Pedi is brewed. They came back quickly and told me,

    “Pedigree has to be brewed through the Burton Union system, of which only exists here in the Burton brewery”

    I should have asked about Bass.

    Personally I really don’t care where beers are brewed, only how well pubs keep them and how quickly they sell them. There’s much more variety in taste from serving method.

    Cheers

    1. Didn’t Bass used to be brewed using the Union system? It didn’t take much to change the brewing method for that once iconic beer.

      1. Quite right, it did – and when I joined Bass in 1985, part of the induction process for ‘newbees’ was a trip up to the Brewery in Burton to see how the product was brewed, a visit to the museum to learn about the history, and a taste of the product in the adjoining Tap Room. What I remember about the visit was:
        a. Bass was being brewed in a white tiled ‘laboratory’ by two men in spotless white coats
        b. The old brewery which had contained the Union system had just been flattened and made into an overspill car park

  5. I always thought it a bit of a shame that more use hasn’t been made of Protection of Geographical Indication (PGI) status in beer. The trouble is that the one time it was used AFAIAA was for Newky Brown – which still worked when it moved from Newcastle to Gateshead, but was promptly abolished when S&N moved bottling to Tadcaster. Now Heineken have moved it to the Netherlands – and that’s a beer which actually has its city in the name!!

    I think the destruction of the Bass brand is one of the most incredible achievements in recent beer history, unfortunately that iconic nature means that it’s almost inevitable that it ends up in the “wrong” hands. At least Marstons if anybody have Burton running through their veins, even if their are just a front for the Brummies.

    I wonder if we’re going to see more clones of “classics” from small breweries, but done right – the DBA from Burton Bridge is a cracking pint, well worth seeking out and is based on the bottle version of Double Diamond. http://protzonbeer.co.uk/news/2015/03/29/revived-dba-takes-burton-by-storm

    1. I agree with your comment about the destruction of the Bass brand – the first registered trademark was the red triangle of Bass & Co. which had already been in use for twenty years when The Department of Registration of Trademarks opened in London on January 1, 1876. And the red Bass triangle appears in Manet’s painting of the Bar at the Folies Begere. So it was particularly galling in the mid 90’s to see in the financial pages of the broadsheets, the Bass chairman and his Finance Director at annual results time, standing in front of an elaborate Bass antique mirror, raising a pint in celebration of record profits.
      You may recall this was the era of the Beer Orders when Bass as the largest (and most profitable) integrated brewery company would be required to divest some of its pub estate. It had also made its first tentative steps into being a hotelier by purchasing some of the Holiday Inn chain.
      So despite raising a pint of Bass and extolling the tradition behind it, these two were secretly planning to break up the company which happened shortly after, one went off to run the hotels, the other the pubs, and the brewing interests were sold off – hypocrisy at its best! So much for all that tradition, history and branding strength. Not surprised that that one of the correspondents has seen it labelled as ‘Williams Bass’ – probably trying a tenuous Formula 1 racing link!

  6. Wolverhampton and Dudley “Brummies”, eh? Watch out for Black Country Death Squads for that one. 😉

    Does the place of production matter? After all, people have been Butonising water for a very long time. But the production method does; Burton Unions and Yorkshire Squares do seem to impart certain characteristics that you don’t get in conicals. And obviously lambics and similar beers are entirely dependent on locale.

    As to the decline of the Bass brand, it’s staggering. I would’ve thought it far too valuable a brand to dump this way, but then the big brewers have always been a bit short-sighted.

    1. > Does the place of production matter?

      Practically, probably not. But I think that quite a lot of punters for some sorts of beer will have an emotional attachment to a beer based on where it’s brewed – the local beer that’s been brewed for 150 years in the splendid Victorian brewery that you see as you come into town on the train or whatever. (And the question of who the brand is owned by does make a practical difference, because people might quite reasonably want to make an informed choice about who their money goes to…)

      1. Dave, completely agree with that.
        I’m from Leeds originally, and I can never forgive Carlsberg for closing and demolishing the Tetley brewery. Cultural vandalism, for all that it was far from the greatest beer. It’s left me with the insane dream of buying Carlsberg and demolishing their Copenhagen brewery. 😉 And I haven’t drunk any Carlsberg product since.
        But does it matter in terms of taste or beer quality? I honestly don’t know.

        1. It could make a difference, I guess? Just like a change of personnel or equipment could make a difference. Although presumably a big brewer will have quite a lot of resources dedicated to smoothing over any bumps.

          I suppose you might also worry that it’s indicative of the brand becoming less valued and more of a commodity and hence that it could also be a sign that the owners will be willing cut other corners to keep the costs down as well.

    2. Bass actually seems to be market positioned better in the US, so presumably they are looking carefully at the relative margins for the effort of maintaining a brand.

    3. Wolverhampton and Dudley “Brummies”, eh?

      Trust me, the insult was intentional! 🙂

      Does the place of production matter?
      Thing is, that matching the taste seems to involve a whole lot more than just chucking some gypsum in the mash, so it’s a rare beer where regular drinkers _can’t_ taste the difference. However, one could equally argue that no beer tastes exactly the same thanks to variations in eg hop vintages, and the constant shifting of barley varieties on the malting list. If Blue King using Propino barley take over Norland who use (obsolescent) Optic, and then the new owners move Norland over to Propino then regulars may notice and blame the change on the takeover. But Norland would have made the move from Optic even if they had stayed independent.

      There’s also issues connected to quality like freshness and the length of the logistics chain.

      But there are other factors. One is the desire to keep money in the local economy – if the money going across the bar ends up with a multinational whose shareholders are disproportionately outside the local area, then ultimately the local area becomes poorer at the expense of wherever the shareholders are based.

      And there’s the wider emotional and cultural thing. Sociologists at the moment have a bit of an obsession with “somewheres” (people rooted in a particular location, typically in rural areas and small towns) and the “anywheres” (both the “jetset” and the rootless people in many big cities). The anywheres who typically make the decisions about where multinationals brew their beer just don’t quite understand why the somewheres would care so much about where beer comes from. That lack of mutual understanding exacerbates the terms of this debate as it does others (Brexit is the archetypal anywheres vs somewheres debate)

  7. I know I always feel rather deceived when I see a bottle of Japanese beer for sale here in the US with a big bold “IMPORTED” on the label, then find on closer inspection that it was brewed in Canada. Can’t claim false advertising, though, can I? 😉

  8. I’m not too sure where Young’s beers are brewed at the moment. I assume it’s Bedford, though it could be anywhere from Ringwood to Cockermouth.

  9. People may sneer but I was heartbroken to find Banks’s/Marston’s/Whoever had their hands on Courage. I totally appreciate the brand played pass the parcel back in S&N days, but they were Westcountry beers, albeit somewhat tenuous (Bristol being the frozen north in my opinion). Courage Best was based on Plymouth Best Bitter, I believe? Directors has always been one of my favourite ales too, but where the hell is it from now?!

  10. My first taste of beer would have been my dad topping my lemonade up with bass at the dolphin in Robin hoods Bay, I was prob four. By time I was old enough to have a pint it had lost its iconic status. Might still be cracking in right bar on good day but honestly can’t remember last seeing it. Definitely a lesson there in how to lose a reputation. The location thing does bug me, but less than beer quality does, happy to drink a UK brewed yeastie boys (whilst mumbling to myself that it needs clearer labeling and we need distinguish between UK and nz on untappd),

  11. I bought some bottles of Jennings Cumberland ale recently. On the label it claimed to be “pure Cumberland”. In the small print it said that it was brewed in Cockermouth “or at our other breweries in the UK”. Misleading and completely uninformative.

  12. In the Chesterfield Arms (https://www.pubsgalore.co.uk/pubs/6834/) last weekend the Bass was listed on the blackboard as “Williams Bass” but this was just a misreading of the pump clip by the staff – it does say “William Bass” after all. I had to reassure my friends that it was not being brewed in Alloa by Williams Brothers. (Not sure if they were actually worried about this, but I felt compelled to tell them anyway.)

  13. Your tweet the other day regarding the lack of marketing for iconic brands such as Bass and Boddingtons had a definite resonance with me.

    I’m not sure whether Bass is currently seeing a gentle resurgence or whether in the area that I’ve lived in for the last couple of years they’ve always just got on with quietly promoting it: Around the Macclesfield area I can think of three pubs off the top of my head where Bass is a permanent feature, and in two of those it’s always top notch (In the third, it always seems slightly insipid, despite them generally keeping their ales well and having good turnover in what is admittedly a dining orientated Brunning & Price place) – one of them advertises it as their house ale, though I don’t believe it was a Bass house historically. Meanwhile Boddies, once the staple go-to beer around these parts, seems to be slowly and quietly disappearing off bar tops.

    I do feel that we should have greater clarity in where beers are brewed, especially when it comes to the well known, iconic brands – The various interests that are now all churned out indiscriminately by the company known as Marston’s are an excellent case in point. Ask me where Bass is brewed and I will instantaneously answer “Burton”, as much with regard to its heritage and association with the Burton Union System as anything current, but ask me where one-time local tipple Boddies is brewed and I’m afraid you’ll be met with a shrug of the shoulders and an “Ummm…”

    It’s astonishing that these once renowned ales keep going at all, given the lack of care and attention given to them by their owners.

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