Everything we wrote in May 2020

Another funny old month. Busy at work, distracted by distractions, but still drifting back to our keyboards to type up the conversations we have over pints in imaginary pubs.

This month, a lot of our energy went into a single post – 2,000+ words for #BeeryLongReads2020 on Usher’s of Trowbridge:

Usher’s is a brewery and brand that had all but disappeared from the market by the time we started paying serious attention to beer. It’s not one you hear people swooning over, either, unlike, say, Boddington’s or Brakspear… What caught our eye was the lingering signs – literally speaking – of its once vast West Country empire. Wherever we went, from Salisbury to Newlyn, we’d spot the distinctive shield on the exterior of pubs, or see the name on faded signs.

We rounded up all the other entries here.


We also joined in with Al Reece’s revival of The Session with notes on how we were handling what was then a much stricter lockdown:

At first, it seemed some version of normality might be possible. The Drapers Arms was open, sort of, selling takeaway beer, and we could still ‘pop in’ to Bottles & Books, our local craft beer shop. (Remember popping into places?)

You can read Al’s round-up of the other entries here.


After a prompt in our email inbox, we got curious about whether any historic recipes for Bass might be in the public domain:

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.

This prompted Ron Pattinson to share more details from his collection of Bass specifications.


Yarn

Jess wrote a piece that’s been brewing for a while. There’s something about the way she and other knitters manage their stashes of wool that has echoes of how people think about beer:

…specifically that sense of not wanting to knit/drink what you have, because it’s either not exactly what you want, or because it’s too precious to use up… Yarn, like beer, might be a limited edition – you may never be able to get that exact same colour/recipe again.


The Samuel Whitbread
The Samuel Whitbread as pictured in a 1960s architectural magazine – we’ve lost our notes on exactly which issue, though.

In 1963, Egon Ronay published his first guide to English pubs, covering London and the South East. It’s a fascinating historical document, for many reasons:

It’s taken us a little while to pick up a copy of this book, having encountered later editions, grubby and broken-spined, on the bookshelves of pubs. We suppose most copies were thrown away in around 1967, or were left in the glove-boxes of cars sent to the scrapheap.


As the month wound-up, we reflected again on our ways of coping with lockdown, specifically the absence of pubs. Our solution involves a kind of self-hypnosis, and lashings of Jarl:

A clean glass, a rush slowing to a trickle, and 40 seconds or so later, there we had it: a perfect, pub-like, sunshine yellow pint of one of the best beers in the world… Over the course of the weekend, as we got through both mini-kegs, we never stopped saying ‘Wow!’ That prompted us to ask ourselves the tough questions: which is better – Jarl, or Thornbridge Jaipur? On this evidence, Jarl, being both more delicate and less lethal.


And, uh, just now, Jess posted a piece on pub cricket, a game she played with her family on long car journeys as a child.


We also put together our usual Saturday morning round-ups of news, nuggets and longreads:


On Twitter, we shared a lot of stuff like this, our most popular Tweet of the month:


We also put together 1,000+ words of fresh stuff for our newslettersign up here!

News, nuggets and longreads 30 May 2020: Farewell, Roger Ryman

Here’s all the writing about beer and pubs that struck us as especially interesting in this final week of May.

First, some very sad news: Roger Ryman, brewing director at St Austell and creator of Tribute and Proper Job, has died of cancer at the age of 52. This obituary by Cornwall-based beer writer Darren Norbury at Beer Today says it all, really. We met Mr Ryman a few times and he was always a pleasure to deal with and remarkably open in response to any question we asked.


Illustration: "Wodge of cash."

For his own blog, journalist Will Hawkes has written a piece breaking down the financials of a pub in lockdown. Could The King’s Arms in Bethnal Green, East London, be doomed?

“That is pretty much all down to our landlord,” Chatwin, 40, says. “I think at the end of the day, [with] him being an old publican and an individual as opposed to a massive company, we will be able to salvage that somehow… On the other hand, we owe a lot of suppliers money, about £30,000. Pretty much all of them have been pretty understanding because they are often in the same boat as us… But I think it will come to a crunch point. It’s a massive elongated chain, isn’t it? As soon as one person in that chain is like, “Fuck, I need money,” then the whole pyramid falls down. But at the moment everybody has been pretty nice about the situation.”

Continue reading “News, nuggets and longreads 30 May 2020: Farewell, Roger Ryman”

The Method: mini-keg + music + maps

As the Current Situation rumbles on, we’ve got quite good at enjoying our weekends at home. For example, we’ve just spent two nights in Scotland.

Step one: get the beer right.

On any normal weekend in Bristol, we’d be grumbling about the lack of Fyne Ales Jarl, which shows up in pubs here perhaps once a year.

Jarl is a 3.8% golden ale with Citra and was the highlight of our trip to Scotland at around this time last year. For us, it has the perfect balance of bitterness (high), aroma (also high) and booziness (low) so that one more pint always feels both desirable and justified.

Now, obliged to source beer by delivery anyway, it occurred to us that we might as well order from the Scottish Highlands as anywhere else. So, two five-litre mini-kegs of Jarl arrived last week, with plenty of time to settle.

Mini-kegs haven’t always impressed us in the past, at least where they’re touted as cask ale at home. The ones they sell in supermarkets at Christmas, though fun and good value, often taste more like packaged beer than they do the mysteriously vital cask versions.

This Jarl though… Oh, boy! The moment we opened the top vent, it was as if we’d set loose a genie. The ghost of hop fields past. A controlled explosion.

A clean glass, a rush slowing to a trickle, and 40 seconds or so later, there we had it: a perfect, pub-like, sunshine yellow pint of one of the best beers in the world.

Over the course of the weekend, as we got through both mini-kegs, we never stopped saying ‘Wow!’ That prompted us to ask ourselves the tough questions: which is better – Jarl, or Thornbridge Jaipur? On this evidence, Jarl, being both more delicate and less lethal.

We paid £44 for two casks, including delivery and a branded pint glass. Keep an eye on the Fyne Ales website to see which mini-kegs are in stock.

Step two: music and maps

It’s almost a psychedelic experience if you get it right. Or at least a Magic Eye picture.

What you’re trying to do is trick the brain, even if only for a moment, into forgetting where you really are, under what circumstances.

If you’re tasting Scottish beer, looking at an Ordnance Survey map you last unfolded in the hills beneath Ben Nevis, and listening to the kind of music that would seem pandering and cheesy in situ, the mind submits to the fantasy.

If this is Fyne Ales, and those are fiddles, then this must be Fort William, which means we must be five days into a ten-day holiday in a perfectly normal year. So relax. Relax. Happy days are here again.

Desperate stuff, really, but we’re not proud.

Step three: reshape reality

One final trick is to change the physical space. For us, that’s meant spending 15 minutes on Friday night packing away the home offices and moving around the furniture in our front room.

If you put that small table here, if you turn the sideboard back-to-front, if you hang those pictures there, if you arrange the whisky bottles on the bookcase just so…

It’s still our front room.

But it’s our front room in fancy dress.

Just different enough to boost the intensity of the daydream and to make staying at home for the tenth weekend in a row somewhat bearable.

A few props help, too, like the catering-size box of ready salted crisps we ordered online. Because you only get those in pubs, right? Who in their right mind would have one at home, right? Ridiculous.

When we Tweeted a photo on Friday, someone asked – concerned, perhaps, or jealous – whether we were actually in a pub. And that, right there, is the point of the game.

News, nuggets and longreads 23 May 2020: Marston’s, Duration, Urquell

Here’s a round-up of beer-related news, commentary and history from the past week, from Carlsberg to classified information.

The week’s big news was the announcement of a ‘joint venture’ between multinational giant Carlsberg and the UK’s largest independent brewery, Marston’s. The new company, Carlsberg Marston’s, is 60% owned by Carlsberg and does not include Marston’s estate of 1,400 pubs. Carlsberg now owns, to all intents and purposes, not only the Marston’s brand but also Brakspear, Ringwood, Banks’s and others.


Martyn Cornell informs us that yesterday was the 299th anniversary of the first known mention of porter in print:

The passing mention came in a pamphlet dated Wednesday May 22 1721 and written by the then-23-year-old Whig satirist and polemicist Nicholas Amhurst (1697-1742). Amhurst implied that porter was a poor person’s drink, writing that “Whigs … think even poverty much preferable to bondage; had rather dine at a cook’s shop upon beef, cabbage, and porter, than tug at an oar, or rot in a dark stinking dungeon.”… The fact that Amhurst (who is buried in Twickenham, less than a mile and a half from where I am writing this) felt no need to explain what porter was suggests it would have been a familiar word to his audience, even if no one had ever put it into print before.

Continue reading “News, nuggets and longreads 23 May 2020: Marston’s, Duration, Urquell”

A survey of a certain type of pub, 1963

In Egon Ronay’s 1964 Guide to 600 Pubs we have a snapshot of ‘nice’ boozers in London and the South of England as they were in 1963, from collections of tat to hot pasties.

It’s taken us a little while to pick up a copy of this book, having encountered later editions, grubby and broken-spined, on the bookshelves of pubs. We suppose most copies were thrown away in around 1967, or were left in the glove-boxes of cars sent to the scrapheap.

Guidebooks don’t endure, generally. They’re usually out of date by the time they go to print and generally all but useless within about two years of publication. When it comes to pubs, which can change from manager to manager and season to season, that’s especially true.

Ronay’s pub guides weren’t annual and the title varied, but the idea was always the same: to help well-to-do travellers find something to eat in a pub that wouldn’t offend their sensibilities.

They’re not as interesting as old editions of the Campaign for Real Ale Good Beer Guide – Ronay and his team weren’t especially interested in beer – and lack the entertainment value of those Batsford guides. Still, there are nuggets of gold to be found.

Let’s start with Ronay’s introduction, in which he sets out his belief that ‘atmosphere is, of course, the most important of the factors associated with the word “pub”’:

I insisted. ‘There must be a way,’ I said, ‘in which we can briefly define the atmosphere of pubs and inns.’

We were discussing, my five colleagues of ‘pub testers’ and I, the resume of months of vetting more than a thousand houses. And, as I pressed them and the highlights of their experience unfolded, stories beyond the mine of factual information they had gathered, i dawned on me that such a definition will always elude us. Our impressions were made up of so many factors: individual experiences, historical facts, intriguing figments of imagination, rare moments of warm human communication and, above all, of personalities. Looking back we find that it is the little things that make English pubs and inns inimitable.

It’s hard to argue with that and interesting to think that Ronay didn’t encounter the English pubs until he was in his thirties, having been born in Hungary in 1915 and only arriving in the UK after World War II.

There’s something tickling about the league of gentlemen Ronay assembled, whose blazers and nicotine-tinted moustaches one can’t help but picture: ‘A tobacco blender, a retired naval commander, a chartered accountant, an ex-RAF officer and a businessman…’

Agreeing certain standards and divvying the country up between them, they managed to visit 1,152 pubs, of which 552 had ‘nothing to commend them’. They found 280 pubs in London worth recommending and 320 ‘in the Provinces’ – that is, from Warwickshire to Cornwall. (Sorry, the North.)

The primary value in this relic is that it provides yet more evidence for an argument we’ve been making for years: though the Gastropub™ may have been invented in the 1990s, and Pub Grub™ in the late 1960s, pubs with decent food and ‘dining areas’ had been around for much longer.

Here’s the first entry proper, for The White Hart at Ampthill, Bedfordshire:

At more and more pubs it seems necessary to book a table in advance, particularly in the evening. As eating places, they are getting better and better, yet most of them are maintaining very reasonable prices.

That could have been written at any point in the past 60 years, couldn’t it?

Lots of the pubs listed, especially those further from London, weren’t serving full meals but pasties, rolls and other items of what we’d now recognise as traditional pub snacks. Others had an emphasis on cheese – 20 types here, 36 types there, chosen from cheese menus. Yes, this is due a comeback.

One of our favourite entries, because it rises above the blandness of most and tells a story, is this for The Barnstaple Inn at Burrington, Devon:

Burrington is one of the very few ‘undiscovered’ villages where your car will even excite comment as you park it under the massive oak near the church. One is amazed that such a rural atmosphere still exists. The landlord seemed surprised that we wanted something to eat – he was obviously unused to travelling customers – but his wife rose so nobly to the occasion that we were served with the most enormous plate of ham with a tomato and at least half a loaf of bread, all very nicely served on a tray. A perfect example, this – down to the helpings of ham – of an unspoilt country inn. Don’t spoil it.

Amongst all the talk of shellfish and steak, there are also plenty of dubious ‘it is said that’ stories of murderous landlords and amorous monks. We’ve heard most of these a million times, and generally assume them to have been invented in around 1955, but this one, from The White Lion at Farnborough, Kent, is new to us:

During recent renovations to the pub, the landlord discovered a woman’s skull under the floorboards complete with a bullet hole through the forehead and he has placed it in a niche in the bar, from where it gleams with macabre light!

Ho ho, what fun! The problem is (a) if you find a skull, even an old one, the police get involved, and it’s unlikely they’d let you keep it as a decoration; and (b) we can’t find any mention of this in any other book, newspaper or journal. Ronay and his writers must have known this but when it comes to country pub history bullshit, playing along is all part of the fun.

Historic pub crawl
One of a handful of pub crawls included in the book, illustrated by Michael Peyton.

In London, what’s clear is that the chain pub was beginning to emerge as a concept. For example, there are three Chef & Brewer pubs listed – a joint project between Grand Metropolitan and Levy & Franks. Here’s a description of one, at 60 Edgware Road, London W2:

A brand new pub like this one is a crying need in the Edgware Road. It is built into a new block of shops and offices, and with its clear plate glass window, it is barely distinguishable at first from the shops around it. The single bar is narrow but long, with a bar running the length of the room, and one wall is covered by a coloured mural depicting an aerial panorama of London. Canned music and plastic are inevitable in a modern pub it seems, but it is pleasant and comfortable here, although the roar of traffic is unceasing.

The Samuel Whitbread
The Samuel Whitbread as pictured in a 1960s architectural magazine – we’ve lost our notes on exactly which issue, though.

We’re pleased to note, too, that Ronay and his team share our interest in The Samuel Whitbread, the big flagship pub on Leicester Square which is now Burger King:

One of the most fascinating of modern houses with its semi-circular shape and all-glass walls. Take your foreign friends to the basement bars where murals illustrate all the old London Cries, from flower girl to coalman, and enjoy the cosy atmosphere all the more surprising as this is a ‘contemporary’ pub.

We won’t go through every single entry in the book but here’s one more that leapt out, because it seems to describe a pub for mods:

This pub is at the centre of continental and American style clothes, of jazz instruments and the pop-music world. Needless to say, the pub fits like a glove. Modern, go-ahead and young. It is packed with the sort of people whose conversation revolves round pop and jazz, jazz and pop. In the capital of music publishing an ‘olde worlde’ pub would be quite incongruous. As it is, in the world of PVC, it provides the sort of quick lunch that serious talkers need to keep them at it.

We’ll finish with a couple of notes on terminology: in those days before the language of cask and keg firmed up, all sorts of terms were used. Here, we get ‘canister’ for keg and ‘wood bitters’ for cask. And – we sort of like this – ‘landlord’ as a gender neutral term: ‘The landlord is a woman.’

And a footnote: after all this, how did Ronay use the accumulated knowledge of 50 years of pub food? He became a consultant for the Wetherspoon chain, known to ‘turn up unannounced in a chauffeur-driven limousine to check the crispiness of the onion rings and fluffiness of the baked potatoes’.

News, nuggets and longreads 16 May 2020: Prague, palates, pints of plain

Here’s all the writing about beer, pubs and brewing of which we took particular note in the past week, from pawned trumpets to malfunctioning palates.

In Prague, Max Bahnson, AKA Pivni Filosof, has been surveying pub and brewery owners on the subject of business during lockdown and their hopes for after pubs are allowed to re-open there on 25 May. Some are philosophical, others angry, all of them interesting:

Jan “Hanz” Charvat (Zlý Časy, Pivkupectví, Bad Flash): The news caught me in Vietnam and I had to sort everything out with the staff over WhatsApp. The pub was fully closed over the first weekend and on the first Monday we opened the takeaway window, which has remained open throughout. The turnover is 15% of the normal. This covers the wages of the person at the window and maybe the energy costs. I’ll borrow money for the rent and the rest. The sales at Pivkupectví (the bottle shop) are the same, maybe a little higher.

Continue reading “News, nuggets and longreads 16 May 2020: Prague, palates, pints of plain”

A round-up of #BeeryLongReads2020

In our email newsletter last month (sign up!) we announced another round of #BeeryLongReads through which we ask our fellow beer bloggers and writers to join us in turning out something substantial.

The big day was Friday 8 May and to our great relief, quite a few people took us up on the challenge.

Here are the all the entries we spotted via the hashtag on Twitter or were told about by DM or email.

Authenticity
SOURCE: Florida Memory

Three faces of authenticity (and the diddley-bow)

by Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer

“About a week ago, Jenny Pfäfflin—a beer, baseball and Danish hot dog enthusiast who happens to be exam director for @cicerone—tweeted, “I pretty much lean into tradition when it comes to beer and brewing—because it’s what I’m interested in—but the discussion around ‘authenticity’ is often exhausting. That somehow, if it isn’t ‘authentic,’ it isn’t good. And who bears the right to deem something authentic anyway?” Perhaps authenticity is worth considering within the context of music…”


Caulier 28

Caulier 28: The strange life, inevitable death, and curious rebirth of a Brussels brewery

By Eoghan Walsh at Brussels Beer City

“Skieven Architek. Not many cities have a dedicated curse word for architects and malicious developers, but Brussels does. For locals it reflects their animosity towards the developers and urban planners who through their periodic, megalomaniacal plans to reinvent Brussels – the imperial power projections of Leopold II, 19th century public works, the ghastly reconfiguring of Brussels as a post-World War II car-centric city – have trampled on the city’s residents for centuries. Brewers have suffered as much as anyone at the hands of these scheming architects…”


Pub interior.Love beer, love pubs

By Ed Wray at Ed’s Beer Blog

“Since the coronavirus crisis started a number of theories have been offered about the origin of the virus. Most people are blaming the eating of bats, but eating bats is nothing new. We’ve had it happening years ago and I don’t remember any problems arising when Ozzy Osbourne ate a bat. Others blame a Chinese laboratory for creating the virus, but I think they’ve just been getting reality mixed up with The Survivors programme. Strangest of all, some conspiraloons are blaming 5G masts. Electromagnetic radiation creating a virus? I don’t get that one at all. No, none of these theories ring true. As a person of faith the real cause of this terrible disease is clear. And his name is Des de Moor. This might come as a surprise to some, but bear with me…”


Moon Under Water

The public house that roared

By Kirsty Walker at Lady Sinks the Booze

“According to the company’s website, a journalist once remarked to Wetherspoon’s chairman Tim Martin that his chain pubs were exactly like the perfect pub as described by Orwell. And Orwell’s Moon Under Water sounds lovely until you realise that yes, he might be describing a Spoons. Now, my local branch, the Ferry Boat , is very nice. They took over the old Kwik Save store and made a cheap pub with acceptable food and a nod to local history with the name (Runcorn had a famous ferry which crossed the Mersey estuary and is immortalised in the poem ‘Tuppence Per Person Per Trip’.) I’ve been to the Ferry Boat a number of times and it’s perfectly pleasant and a community minded place. But show me the person who says that any branch of Wetherspoons, Yates or All Bar One is their ‘favourite pub’, or ‘the best pub in the world’…”


Real draught beer.

Intoxicated through the years part one: Genesis

By Richard Newberry at Intoxicated Me

“Strong’s of Romsey. On holiday we drove to the market town of Romsey, even before we had got out of the car, the smell was unbearable, I mean really unbearable to this child. I demanded we leave the town. My other early recollection of beer was after the fortnightly visit to Nana and Grandad, my father was often visibly stressed afterwards and before driving home we would stop at a pub. At the very least this was crisps and a fizzy drink in the car, sometimes a garden, better if it had a swing. Dad emerged after one pint, visibly relaxed. The jury was out on beer at this point but pubs were definitely good places…”


Grandfather

Something in the water

By Josh Farrington at Beer and Present Danger

“My father’s family have always lived in Burton and its surrounding villages, nestled among the hills and valleys between Staffordshire and Derbyshire. My great-grandfather was a farmer and a money-lender, who kept a cast iron safe in the living room with a lace doily and a bowl of fruit on top. He would open it up on Sunday evenings to take stock, counting out the large paper notes on his scrubbed wooden table while the rest of the family looked on. My grandfather, Jimmy, was a promising football player who did a stint with Burton Albion, before going into business in the town, setting up Farrington’s Furnishers in two large units on the Horninglow Road…”


Ushers

Usher’s of Trowbridge: disappearing one brick at a time

By us, here

“Two questions: first, what the hell happened to Usher’s of Trowbridge? And secondly, how much research can you do into this question without visiting Trowbridge or, indeed, leaving your house at all? Usher’s is a brewery and brand that had all but disappeared from the market by the time we started paying serious attention to beer. It’s not one you hear people swooning over, either, unlike, say, Boddington’s or Brakspear. What caught our eye was the lingering signs – literally speaking – of its once vast West Country empire. Wherever we went, from Salisbury to Newlyn, we’d spot the distinctive shield on the exterior of pubs, or see the name on faded signs…”


We also said we’d choose a favourite post and send the writer some books as a prize. It was a tough choice but the winner is… Josh Farrington. Nice one, Josh, and thanks everyone for joining in.

News, nuggets and longreads 9 May 2020: VR, influenza, McEwan’s

Here’s all our favourite reading on beer and pubs from the past week, excluding #BeeryLongReads2020 contributions, which will get their own round-up tomorrow.

For Good Beer Hunting, American beer historian Brian Alberts provides an account of the flu pandemic of 1918 and how it affected drinkers and brewers in Milwaukee:

Milwaukee’s leaders stepped up in a crisis, and largely handled it well. But, for the city’s brewers and saloonkeepers, this wasn’t the only battle to fight. From a business standpoint, it probably wasn’t the most important battle in the fall of 1918, nor the second, and maybe not even the third. After all, when the President criminalizes your beer supply, a university threatens to shut you down completely, the Senate tries to brand you a traitor, and a pandemic ravages your community—all at the same time—how do you decide what takes priority?


VR pub: barman and bar.
SOURCE: Tristan Cross/Wired.

Is it even possible to write about pubs without getting lost in philosophical questions about what makes a pub a pub? For Wired magazine, Tristan Cross writes about how yearning for his South London prompted him to build a virtual reality replica of the pub from scratch:

Finally, after weeks of effort and days of rendering, I’ve done it. I’ve made Skehans, and I’ve brought my friends inside. Despite beaming at being able to hear to their utterly depraved nonsense again, it’s still not quite right… I’m there, in Skehan’s with my nearest and dearest, but they can’t see or hear me. It’s like I’ve died and been sent to haunt them on a night out. The simulation is nearly there. It has the pub and the people, but you, the player, are absent.


Anchor brewery, San Francisco.

Jeff Alworth continues his survey of classic beers at Beervana with notes on Anchor Steam, somehow finding new things to say, and wrapping it all up in an elegantly readable package:

In choosing the combination of two-row and pale, Anchor created the blueprint that would dominate craft brewing for two decades. The pale malt available then was so free of character it was often called ‘sugar’ for its capacity to ferment cleanly. The caramel malts provided body (not typical in lagers), sweetness, and flavor. Until well into the 2000s, that was the character of most craft beer… They chose an old hop variety in Northern Brewer, first grown in England in 1934. This, combined with the open fermentation, gave the beer a distinctly British flavor. When craft breweries started opening up along the West Coast in the 1970s and 80s, they followed this general profile…


Illustration: 'Yeast'.

Lars Marius Garshol asks an intriguing question: is the distinction between baking yeast and brewing yeast a false one?

[It’s] not only me who thinks baking yeast can make good beer. Kristoffer Krogerus did a scientific evaluation of Suomen Hiiva and found it to be “perfectly usable for beer fermentations”. Brulosophy also did a recent experiment with baking yeast and although people could tell the difference, 1 in 3 preferred the version with baking yeast… So a lot of different bread yeasts really do produce good beer. Why?

A footnote from us: a few years ago, we wrote about Cornish swanky beer, including a recipe, and recommended fermenting with baking yeast. That really seemed to annoy people even thought it worked, based on the evidence of our own tastebuds.


McEwan's Pale Ale
SOURCE: Sontarans on Flickr.

Tandleman asks an interesting question: which long lost beers do you most miss? His own list is intriguing, including several names that don’t often crop up as candidates for The Canon:

McEwan’s Pale Ale… Always in pint screwtop bottles. I used to drink this in Dumbarton when in certain pubs. McEwan’s Pale Ale was also the first beer I ever tasted. Darkish, not too sweet and hardly strong at all. A great thirst quencher. And I liked pints bottles. Sometimes it was a Belhaven Screwtop or, if flush, Whitbread Pale Ale.

The comments are great, too, though, with plenty of other people joining in the game. Us? We’re still thinking.


Brew2You

The Campaign for Real Ale has taken the interesting step of launching a consumer beer retail platform, Brew2You. The idea is that drinkers download an app and use it to buy beer from local brewers and pubs. CAMRA doesn’t take a cut but it does add a 5% admin fee to cover costs. We’ll probably be giving it a go.


Finally, from Twitter – cor, blimey, what a turn up!


For more good reading, check out the round-ups from Alan and It Must Beer Love.

Usher’s of Trowbridge: disappearing one brick at a time

Two questions: first, what the hell happened to Usher’s of Trowbridge? And secondly, how much research can you do into this question without visiting Trowbridge or, indeed, leaving your house at all?

Usher’s is a brewery and brand that had all but disappeared from the market by the time we started paying serious attention to beer. It’s not one you hear people swooning over, either, unlike, say, Boddington’s or Brakspear.

What caught our eye was the lingering signs – literally speaking – of its once vast West Country empire. Wherever we went, from Salisbury to Newlyn, we’d spot the distinctive shield on the exterior of pubs, or see the name on faded signs.

Continue reading “Usher’s of Trowbridge: disappearing one brick at a time”

What do we really know about how to brew Bass?

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.