What do we really know about how to brew Bass?

A perfect pint of Bass in Plymouth.

This week, someone got in touch to ask if we happened to have any historic recipes for Bass in our collection.

Though we have copies of a few old logs, notably from Starkey Knight & Ford and St Austell, this isn’t really our turf, and we certainly don’t have access to what, it turns out, are log books jealously guarded by Molson Coors.*

But it did get us thinking… What do we know about the recipe for Bass?

What information of any provenance is in the public domain?

And by getting it wrong on the internet, can we encourage others to share what they know?

We’re certain there must be notebooks, photocopies, photographs and scraps knocking about in attics and filing cabinets up and down the country. Bass has been in production for 200 years or so – surely the odd bit of paperwork has snuck out?

The basics

What are the specifications of cask Bass as it is today?

We know it has an ABV of 4.4%. According to this commercial wholesaler’s catalogue, it uses Golding, Fuggles, Progress, Challenger, Styrian Golding, Hercules and Admiral hops – can we assume this information came from the brewery? And from drinking it, we know it’s, well, brown – somewhere around 10 SRM according to analyses by home-brewers.

In our experience, it certainly tastes different to other beers brewed by Marston’s* which we, at a guess, put down to a distinctive yeast strain. At times – at its best – it almost hints at Orval, which suggests a complex multi-strain yeast. What would seem to be an official blurb says “It is brewed with two strains of yeast” so maybe there’s something in that.

So, on the whole, that’s not a lot to go on.

English hops | multi-strain yeast | brown | 4.4% ABV

Twenty years ago

The historical record online is rather polluted by guesswork home-brew recipes on forums and in magazines but there are some nuggets to be found.

For example, beer writers Michael Jackson and Roger Protz (pals and contemporaries) were consistent in suggesting that Bass used Northdown and Challenger hops in the 1990s.

Writing in 2003, Mr Protz also offers further detail: “Bass is brewed with Halcyon pale malt, maltose syrup and Challenger and Northdown hops.”

Halcyon malt | maltose | English hops | multi-strain yeast | brown | 4.4%

The Continental Affair

Perhaps the most interesting recipe in the public domain, with very decent provenance, is the one for the IPA Pete Brown took to India for his Hops & Glory project. Pete worked with Steve Wellington at the Bass microbrewery in Burton-upon-Trent to develop the beer:

I’d told Steve that I wanted a beer that was around 7 per cent ABV, packed full of hops, with dry hops in the barrel, brewed with traditional Burton well water. “There was an IPA called Bass Continental that was last brewed around sixty years ago,” he explained. “It was brewed for Belgium and based on recipes that went back to Bass ale in the 1850s, so it’s pretty authentic. It was six and a half, so we’re upping it to seven. We’re using Northdown hops, which are very aromatic, pale English and crystal malts. We’re using two different Worthington yeasts, and water from Salt’s well, rich in gypsum.”

Now, this is especially interesting because it connects both with modern Bass recipes (Northdown) and an earlier historic recreation put together by Mark Dorber when he was running the White Horse in Parson’s Green. He told us about this when we interviewed him for Brew Britannia back in 2013:

It was Burton pale ale that first really caught my imagination. We had our first pale ale festival in 1992, and then an India pale ale festival the following year, in July 1993. I approached Bass and suggested using the small test plant to brew something to an authentic historic recipe. Tom Dawson provided the recipe for Bass Continental and we used that as the basis for the brew. Something went wrong, however, and it had far higher alpha acids than we’d planned, and we also dry-hopped the hell out of it in the cellar. It was more-or-less undrinkable, but massively aromatic. I kept a couple of casks back and, the next year when we had a follow-up seminar. That was a real meeting of minds from the US and Britain, and everyone went away very enthused about IPA.

So arguably it was this attempt to brew old-fashioned Bass that kickstarted the whole IPA obsession of the past 30 years.

Anyway, more importantly, this means that Bass Continental recipes have escaped the brewery vaults and are floating about. Even better: one of them has been written down and published.

Not for the first time, we find ourselves recommending Mitch Steele’s excellent book IPA from 2012. Because Mr Steele is a brewer himself he seems to have been remarkably successful at convincing his peers to share recipes and the book contains a goldmine of valuable information on specific beers. That includes fantastically detailed notes on the Brown-Wellington IPA based on Bass Continental, albeit with some key details withheld.

Key points:

  • water with 400 ppm CaSO₄ and 360 ppm MgSO₄
  • 97.8% pale malt, 2.2% crystal
  • invert sugar
  • Fuggles and Goldings at start of boil, Northdown to finish
    ‘Burton Union dual strain yeast’.
  • The same book also contains a version of Steve Wellington’s recipe for Worthington White Shield, a close relative of Bass. It’s quite different to Continental but, again, Northdown is the feature hop.

One small problem with the above recipes is that Northdown hops weren’t developed until the 1970s and crystal malt wasn’t widely used until well into the 20th century. That puts paid to the suggestion that the Continental recipe has any real tie to the 1850s.

Ron, of course

Although we know he hasn’t been able to get to the Bass brewing logs, much to his frustration, Ron Pattinson has of course managed to gather some invaluable information on Bass from other sources.

Most notably, there’s this survey of the beer’s specifications from 1951 to 1993, based on the Whitbread Gravity Book and the CAMRA Good Beer Guide.

It provides OG, FG, ABV, attenuation and colour for each check-in, from which we can see that the bottled version was especially dry and strong c.1961, with more than 95% attenuation and more than 6% ABV.

A key point, we suppose, is that it varied massively from one decade to the next so there is no such thing as BASS, only a multitude of BASSES.

In conclusion

If we wanted to brew an authentic old-school Bass, here’s what we’d do:

  • Pick a year from Ron’s table and use that to establish the key parameters.
  • Base the malt bill on the Continental recipe given by Steve Wellington (98% pale, dab of crystal).
  • Select a suitably funky yeast – there are some with supposed provenance.
  • Use English hops throughout, probably finishing with Northdown.

And then, probably the most important step: get a professional cellarman to look after it and a publican with know-how to serve it with due reverence in perfect glassware, in a perfect pub.

Because really, the recipe probably isn’t the most important thing when it comes to the magic of Bass.

Tell us we’re wrong!

Now, knock us down a peg or two. Flourish the brewing log your uncle nicked when he retired from Bass in 1972. Point to an amazing, authoritative source we missed.


* It’s complicated: AB-InBev owns the rights to the brand, while MC has possession of the physical records, and Marston’s make the cask product for ABI. This is a result of the reorganisation of the British brewing industry in the 1990s and the emergence of massive multinationals.

13 thoughts on “What do we really know about how to brew Bass?”

  1. There are still a multitude of Basses. Beside the Marston’s cask one there’s the Salmesbury bottled one, the Glaswegian one that used to be brewed in Belfast, and the Belgian one, wherever it comes from. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a brewery in Angola or Indonesia that has some other beer called Bass for convoluted historical reasons. And I doubt there’s any common ancestor between them.

    1. AB-InBev also brew a Bass Pale Ale at Baldwinsville, New York. And Samlesbury brew a Bass Pale Ale in bottles (5% ABV), as well as the canned variant at 4.4% ABV. Kirin of Japan used to brew Bass under contract, I don’t know if they still do.

      1. When I tried it many years ago, the US brewed bottled Bass was a poor parody of the British brewed version and I wouldn’t want to try it again since AB Imbev seems to cheapen every beer they touch.

      2. Which is odd — I live in CNY and I can’t remember the last time I saw Bass anywhere around here. Wouldn’t mind trying even the garbage stuff.

  2. The 1975 GBG does indeed show 1039, and the 1977 edition 1044. I remember coming across Bass in a pub in Norwich in the mid 70s and not being greatly impressed, so perhaps the taste improved with the rise in strength (or it could just have been the particular pub). The Union System ceased to be used for brewing Bass in 1982 and I recall a lot of dire predictions at he time but don’t think there was any really discernible change in taste when it happened.

  3. That table was a subset of the data I have on Bass. 1851 to 1994 is the full lot. I could post it, if anyone is interested.

    1. I would be for one, as it would be good to have as much as possible in one place, and people could add anything to it they know of, perhaps not there. I’ve come across many Bass analyses for example between 1900 and 1914 in American journals and similar.

      Here is one from 1880 on Bass Pale Ale in bottle, neat and compact: https://books.google.ca/books?id=YFY_AQAAMAAJ&pg=PA19&dq=formula+for+bass+pale+ale&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjsj-bY_aHpAhVCmuAKHch2DuU4ChDoAQhOMAU#v=onepage&q=formula%20for%20bass%20pale%20ale&f=false

      To all this, and I just saw on Twitter about Peter Symons’ work, I recommend to anyone, which Ron will know about, Cornelius Sullivan’s testimony in 1899 on brewing materials in the Parliamentary inquiry. It’s extremely helpful to understand aspects of Bass’s brewing then, taken with other sources.

      Gary

  4. Hello Ray and Jessica. Irishman from the Drapers here. Can I add to the debate that when I started working in pubs in my home town in the Irish republic a pint bottle of Bass was very popular. 1989 or so. The standing order in a medium sized pub was 10 dozen pint bottles a week. Waterford was and still is a big “large bottle” town. The pub would also sell 30 dozen large bottles of Guinness, 10 of Smithwicks, 10 of a local ale called Phoenix, 10 of Harp and 10 of Carling Black Label. The Bass was a “stumpy” bottle, brewed and botlled by Beamish and Crawford in Cork, 4.4% like many others have said. Then about 1993 abruptly it changed to 3.5% and was brewed in Belfast and tankered to Cork before eventually going into a peculiar long neck pint bottle direct from the north. It was never the same thereafter, all the malt went when the brewing moved and when the strength was reduced.

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