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:

William Bass & Co

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.


    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. It’s OK, they’eve already demol­ished their Copen­hagen brew­ery them­selves …

    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)

      1. All good points.
        And I would also sug­gest that peo­ple can be any­wheres on some issues, and some­wheres on oth­ers, beer often being a good exam­ple.

  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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