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.

Why not make cider?

It all began with a big sign on the window of our local home-brewing shop, the unfortunately named Brewer’s Droop: ‘It’s Cider season! Borrow our cider press!’

We’ve been blessed with apples this year. Or rather, with some extensive YouTube study and a five hour pruning session in February, I managed to get the unproductive tree in our rented property to produce hundreds of absolute whoppers. I have hitherto been almost the opposite of green fingered, so I’m inordinately proud of this.

We had already made pies, frozen puree, made apple butter and eaten apple pancakes for breakfast every day for two weeks. But, still, we had loads.

So I wandered into the shop to find out more and came out fixated on the idea. As in, Ray asking, “What are you thinking about?” as I stared into the middle distance pondering the process. As in, drifting off to sleep with visions of sweet juice flowing freely from the press.

The shopkeeper told me I could hire a scratter (pulper) and the press on a daily rate. I didn’t need any other kit as we already had fermenting vessels and campden tablets. That just left a couple of issues to sort before pressing day.

Firstly, it turned out that, though we were trying to deal with an apple surplus, we’d actually need more apples – “at least five 20 litre buckets to make it worthwhile,” said the helpful chap in the shop.

The poster I put up in the Drapers.

Fine, no problem: I contacted a couple of friends who also have apple trees and then had the bright idea of putting a sign up in The Drapers Arms. This turned out to be wildly successful and mildly stressful.

We had to get them from the pub to home on foot. Garvan, landlord of The Drapers, lent us his sack truck but, still, we still end up scattering apples around the pub and Hansel and Gretel style along the Gloucester Road.

It all worked out, though, and without any planning at all we hit upon a good mix for cider – mostly eating apples, a few cookers and some actual cider apples.

Unfortunately, not many people left their details so I have no way to say thanks to lots of the donors apart from here, and perhaps another sign in the Drapers. So, thank you all, it is really appreciated.

Next, I had to work out what processes to follow and how to use the kit.

Cider production, even more than brewing beer, seems to be a field full of contradictory advice and inconsistencies, with reputable sources disagreeing on methods.

“You don’t need muslin”, said the bloke at the shop – not much of a salesman, with hindsight.

“You definitely need a straining sock or something similar,” said two Drapers regulars, referring to a system for lifting the crushed apple out of the press when it’s done.

“You’ll need Campden tablets and a cider yeast,” said one; “I never use yeast, just let it do its thing,” said another.

I eventually settled on no straining sock but decided I would do the Campden tablet plus yeast thing.

The press in action.

I learned a few things in the thick of it:

> You need at least one other person, and preferably three or four. That way, you can be scratting while someone is emptying the previous pressing, or putting more pressure on the press, or making a round of tea without a break in production.

> Pulping apples in a hand cranked scratter is incredibly satisfying but the juice and pips will fly several metres as the fruit disappears into the maw, so either do it outside or cover everything.

> Yes, you definitely need a bloody straining sock. Digging out compacted apple cheese from a press is a lot harder work than digging out a mash tun, and you have to repeat it several times.

> The press can always be turned one more time, though it might not be worth the effort after a while.

> Size of apple really matters in estimating yield. “About five buckets of apples to one bucket of juice” said the chap in the shop. “About three times as many apples as volume of liquid,” said a cider making expert in the Drapers. I think my yield was more like one bucket of juice from six buckets of apples. I think that’s partly because a lot of our apples were huge – the bloke in the Drapers has a tree that produces lovely little red apples, hence, I reckon, his much better yield.

We learned afterwards, from books:

> As well as size of apple, amount of juice is dependent on when you pick the apples and press them. We don’t really have the room to do what most sources suggest, which is to pick the apples and leave them for up to four weeks before pressing, so we probably couldn’t have done this differently.

> We should have aimed for a balance of sweetness, acidity and tannin in the juice, and should have made adjustments to achieve it. Well, the juice we got was absolutely beautiful, but I’m not sure if it will have enough acid or tannin to make good cider.

We got 30 litres of juice in the end after about 17 hours of hard labour, mostly me but with Ray’s help in the evening.

That juice is, at present, still juice, as fermentation does not seem to be quite kicking off as it ought to.

The fermenting vessel full of juice.

One of the smaller carboys is going fairly well, though not spraying foam everywhere as promised; the other is more sluggish. Our massive 20 litre jar seems to be going nowhere, at the time of writing.

It’s all the same yeast so perhaps I used too many Campden tablets and killed it? We will probably mix up the one that is going with the one that isn’t and see what happens.

At the moment, then, we don’t know if all the hassle was worth it, and by all accounts, even if we do get cider, it won’t be drinkable for another year. Still, we’ve already gone from “Never again!” at one o’clock on Friday morning to “When we do this again next year…”

The History of Home-brewing in the UK

This article first appeared in issue 9 of Hop & Barley magazine, a home-brewing special published in 2018, and available to buy at £10 from the website.

Before 1963 if you wanted to make your own beer in Britain you either had to pay the government for the privilege, or do it secretly, thanks to the lingering effects of Victorian legislation.

In 1880 Prime Minister William Gladstone, seeking to appease the farming lobby and urgently raise money, replaced the longstanding malt tax with a duty on the finished product – beer. As a side effect, households that brewed their own beer for ‘domestic use’ (that didn’t sell it) were suddenly subject to registration, regulation and inspection, and were required to pay for a licence.

This didn’t stop home-brewing altogether, especially not in cases where it was part of community life, as at Blaxhall in Suffolk where, according to the recollections of one elderly villager, almost every housewife brewed her own beer before World War I. They shared equipment and formed a ‘yeast chain’ with each woman collecting yeast from whichever of her neighbours had brewed most recently. [1]

But as the 20th century wore on, and people were dragged into court for making beer at home without licences, home-brewing as a vital tradition all but disappeared. Official numbers suggested that by 1961-62 only 250 people in the entire country had licences to brew beer at home. [2]

Of course there was plenty going on without licence behind closed doors and one 1963 newspaper column described a home brewer ‘who wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons’ running a substantial brewery out of his garage to which ‘the Customs and Excise have never found their way’.  [3]

The cost of investigating and prosecuting hardly seemed worth the effort which is why, on 3 April 1963, Conservative Chancellor Reginald Maudling announced the abolition of the 1880 law, with its ragged Victorian trousers, in his budget speech to the House of Commons. On the day of Reginald Maudling’s announcement, the garage home-brewer mentioned above drank a toast to the Chancellor, raising a mug of his own strong ale. Freedom, at last.

Continue reading “The History of Home-brewing in the UK”

News, Nuggets & Longreads 6 October 2018: Cask, Cans, Classics

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the world of beer in the past week, from cask anxiety to Berlin boozers.

The latest Cask Report was published (PDF, via Cask Marque) but for the first time in a few years we couldn’t summon the energy to read it, hence no mention in last Saturday’s round-up. But there has been plenty of commentary in the past week and a bit which we thought it might be worth rounding up:

Martyn Cornell – “Why is finding a properly kept pint of cask ale such an appalling lottery in Britain’s pubs”?

Ben Nunn – “[Are] we… heading for a world where real ale is, like vinyl, a niche product – not really for the mainstream, sold only in specialist outlets and usually restricted only to certain styles or genres?”

Pub Curmudgeon – “Maybe it is also time to question whether handpumps can be more of a hindrance than a help.”

Steph Shuttleworth (Twitter) – “[We] don’t currently have any reports that are nuanced or in-depth enough for the industry to rely on… Cask is a significant part of many craft breweries e.g. Marble, Magic Rock, Thornbridge, but we can’t draw lines as to who is in which market…”

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Session #136: Farmhouse Brewing — Cheap, Fast, Fresh

This month’s host is Dave S of Brewing in a Bedsitter and he has asked us to tackle, in any way we like, the subject of farmhouse brewing.

We’ll begin this bit of pondering with an extract from an article in the Brewing Trade Review for June 1955 reporting on the collection of the Museum of English Rural Life of ‘absolute unit’ social media fame.

In the home brewing section a particularly interesting exhibit is the equipment from a Suffolk farmhouse where this once domestic art was practised as recently as 1934. Included is a mash tub, vat, stillions and a heavy old copper, the removal of which almost necessitated dismantling that part of the building in which it was houses. Other items allied to home brewing include examples of malt scoops from Suffolk and Berkshire, a Suffolk mash stirrer, a Berkshire horn mug and kegs of various size from Somerset, Essex and Worcestershire once used by farm labourers to carry their beer and cider into the fields, particularly at harvest time.

Insofar as we’ve given British farmhouse beer — or let’s say rural beer — a great deal of thought there’s a point hinted at here that rings true for us: we reckon it ought to be quickly, cheaply, easily made, and probably drunk very fresh, if not, indeed, while still fermenting.

That is, like ‘Cornish swanky’ which we wrote about for Beer Advocate a couple of years ago:

One particular set of instructions is repeated in various corners of the internet, usually verbatim, without any original source. The earliest version, posted on RootsWeb by someone called Jan Gluyas in May 1997, calls for boiling four pounds of brown sugar in five gallons of water for 45 minutes with hops, ground ginger, raisins and salt. It is to be fermented for around two days and then bottled with a single raisin in each bottle for priming.

Or, if you prefer pictures to words, along the lines of this ginger beer recipe from a strangely compelling YouTube channel which is part exploration of 18th century American cooking techniques, part advertising for a firm that sells historic kitchen equipment:

The Brewing Trade Review article gives details of the slightly larger scale, more elaborate communal brewing method of one Suffolk village via the testimony of an 81-year-old woman interviewed in 1950. Even that, though, was fermented for a maximum of a week before being drunk, although…

those who liked “young beer”, it seems — or who perhaps found seven days too long a wait to quench their impatient thirsts — often tapped the casks before the lapse of this period.

But it’s hard to imagine anyone making this kind of beer commercially viable in 2018 so these days farmhouse, as a label, must mean something else. Lars Marius Garshol may have it when he suggests that most commercial beers commonly labelled as ‘farmhouse’ are actually “farmhouse ales that have been imported into the world of commercial brewing, undergoing some changes on the way”.

Session #132: Home Brewing Conversations

Illustration: home brewing hydrometer.

This is our contribution to the monthly exercise in collective beer blogging which this time is hosted by Jon Abernathy at The Brew Site who asks us to reflect on home brewing.

We winced a bit at this one. Over the years we’ve written about why we love home brewing, why we stopped home brewing, and why we started again. But we haven’t brewed in ages, or felt the urgent drive to do so. Jon has prompted us to interrogate ourselves.

Question One: Why is the home brewing kit still in the attic six months after we moved to Bristol?

There are positive reasons. We’re in a new part of the world with limited time off work which we want to spend exploring, not watching a pot that never boils. We’ve been busy ticking pubs and getting to know the local breweries. And (this may or may not be positive depending on whether you believe it is the job of beer bloggers to sacrifice their health in the War on Prohibition) we don’t drink as much as we used to — we only need so much beer!

But there’s at least one poor excuse: we’re still sulking because the last few beers we made were duds. We read the books, we bought the apps, we procured the fanciest ingredients from the Malt Miller, and we sanitised everything within half a mile of our house. Twice. After all that, the beer was still basically crap — a bit rough, a bit acidic, a waste of time and money.

Homebrewing yeast, book, notes and bottle.

Question Two: So why bring the brewing kit at all?

We had limited space in the removals van and got rid of lots of stuff, including about 150 books, but for some reason we kept the boiler, the mash tun, and the thousand bits of easily lost copper and plastic. Clearly there is unfinished business. The itch lingers.

It might never get used again — there’s hardly a house in Britain that doesn’t have a load of dusty home-brew kit in the back of a cupboard — but it’s good to know it’s there.

If we find a particularly interesting recipe in the archives we can at least make a stab at brewing some version of it. (Our last really successful beer was a 19th century Whitbread pale ale from Ron Pattinson’s marvellous book which turned out funky and fascinating.) If we wake up one Saturday morning with the urge to brew we could be filling a fermenting vessel by teatime. (Bristol has actual bricks-and-mortar home-brewing shops.) And we sometimes daydream about using it to make some mad, strong, beastie-riddled keeping beer for mixing with stuff from the supermarket as we’ve done with Orval in the past.

Or maybe it’s just sentiment. You’d be surprised how many memories a plastic bucket can hold.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 30 December 2017: Helensburgh, Hammers, Home-brewing

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the world of beer and pubs in this final week of 2017.

It’s been slim pickings with the Christmas break and the ubiquity of Golden Pints (check out the hashtag on Twitter) but we found a few things to chew on. First, there’s this stream of recollection by Peter McKerry at Brew Geekery which amounts to a tour of pubs that have meant the most to him over the years:

Then it was the Clyde Bar in Helensburgh, a well-healed town on the Clyde coast, during a prolonged period of unemployment in my early 20s. I’d drop in for a few Tennent’s on ‘Giro Day’, and it was here that I witnessed taxi driver and regular, Dermot, rescue eight pence from the trough WHILE I WAS URINATING IN IT. While that event is imprinted onto my mind (it was a 5p, 2p and a 1p), it gives a false impression of the pub. It was a great live music venue, and featured in a video from purveyors of beige jock rock, Travis, if such trivia interests you.

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Tony’s Pre-1970 Boddington’s Clone Recipe

Tony Leach is a home brewer based in Stockport and got in touch with us a while back for input on his attempts to clone Golden Age Boddington’s.

He had alread hashed it out pretty thoroughly on the Jim’s Beer Kit messageboard, including comments from Ron Pattinson, before we exchanged a few emails debating hop varieties, whether it was necessary to use any brewing sugars, and so on. He also spoke to someone who used to work at the brewery (on the phone, having been put through by the pub landlord) who advised him to use Nottingham dried yeast rather than the liquid strain that is supposedly the Boddington’s strain.

Boddington's clone just before fermenting.
A sample of Tony’s clone after cooling, before fermenting. SOURCE: Tony Leach.

Here’s the recipe Tony eventually came up with:

Old Boddies Pre-1970
English Pale Ale

Recipe Specs
------------

Batch Size (litres): 23
Total Grain (kg): 3.425
Total Hops (g): 54
Original Gravity: 1.036
Final Gravity: 1.006
Alcohol by Volume: 3.93%
Colour (SRM/EBC): 6.6/13
Bitterness (IBU): 28.7
Efficiency: 75%
Boil Time: 75 mins

Grain
-----
2.5 kg Maris Otter Malt (73%)
0.5 kg Pilsner Malt (14.6%)
0.2 kg Golden Syrup (5.8%)
80g Carapils (Dextrine) (2.3%)
80g Torrefied Wheat (2.3%)
60g Flaked Corn (1.9%)

Hops
----
24g Northern Brewer (7.8% Alpha) @ 75 mins
24g Goldings (5.5% Alpha) @ 15 mins
6g Goldings (5.5% Alpha) for dry hop

Misc
----
Single-step infusion mash at 65°C for 90 mins; mash PH adjusted to 5.3.
Fermented at 18°C with Danstar Nottingham dried yeast
Water: 'Stockport corporation pop dechlorinated with a crushy.'

This is his interpretation of the information at hand with some tweaks to suit modern materials and methods, with the primary success criterion being not complete historical verisimilitude but something more practical: the approval of some local drinkers who remembered Boddington’s at its best.

He brewed batches aiming for 28 and 30 IBUs but says:

Had the 28 IBU brew on at my local last night. For some reason it was only around 98% bright but that did not put people off having a go. Generally, it went down very well and brought some memories back for a few of the older boys. It’s dry — very dry, leaves you thirsty. Twenty-eight IBU is perfect, I would not go more. The dryness gets you and the bitterness hits the throat just right.

He’s keen for others to give his recipe a go; we will certainly be doing so later in the year.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 9 July 2016: Coventry, Drinking Games, Home Brew

Here’s all the writing about beer and pubs from the last week that’s made us laugh, think or take note, from drunken archery to home brewing competitions.

For the Midlands Beer Blog Collective Bob Maxfield profiles Coventry brewery Twisted Barrel whose motto is ‘More Folk than Punk’:

One of the directors came up with that – we both looked at each other and said yeah that explains it and encapsulates us. A little left leaning, like to work collaboratively, and work face-to-face with people… Punk has become more corporate nowadays and we’re not the kind of people that stand on a rooftop and shout about ourselves.

(The lingering influence of BrewDog, even if only as something to react against, is fascinating.)


From the Economist an interesting nugget: there is a growing craft beer scene in the Middle East held back less by religion, as might be assumed, than by bureaucracy, infrastructure and economics.

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Boddington’s Bitter: 1968 v. 1982

We’re fascinated by beers that Aren’t What They Used to Be. How much of that is down to contrast with what else is around, or jaded palates?

We’ve just written a piece for All About Beer considering Guinness from this angle but also had the chance to return to an old obsession: Boddington’s Bitter.

We wrote a #BeeryLongreads piece on it which is worth a look but, in brief, 1970s real ale campaigners and aficionados loved Boddington’s Bitter because it was pale, dry and very bitter. Somewhere along the line, it lost its spark.

The other week we got a look at some original brewing logs from Boddington’s and tried to answer a simple question: what changed between the 1960s and the 1980s?

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