Where is Bass From?

Bass Pale Ale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pub That Does That One Beer Brilliantly

You know the kind of place we mean: it’s perhaps a bit curmudgeonly, perhaps a little old-fashioned, and everyone knows it’s the place in town to go for a perfect pint of [BEER X].

Most often these days, it seems, BEER X is Bass. Certainly in the West Country that’s the case, and there are famous Bass pubs in Penzance, Falmouth, Bristol and no doubt many other places. Here’s a bit we wrote for our now defunct Devon Life column:

Several pubs that sold great Bass 40 years ago are still doing so and one of the country’s very most famous Bass pubs is in Plymouth… The Dolphin on the Barbican is a place to drink, not to dine or pose. There is a range of ale on offer but the main event, as it has been for as long as anyone can remember, is undoubtedly Bass. An ornate plaque outside the front door advertises ‘Bass on draught’; a huge Bass banner hangs behind the bar; and the beer comes in straight-sided vintage-style pint glasses bearing the famous logo…. Though Bass may not be the beer it once was, at The Dolphin under the stewardship of veteran publican Billy Holmes, it still has some of its old snap and crackle, with a chalky dryness and a wonderful mild funkiness. It is unfussy but certainly not bland…. The Dolphin is by no means the only Bass stronghold in Plymouth, however. At the Artillery Arms in Stonehouse Belinda Warne has been learning its ways for 20 years. ‘It’s temperamental,’ she says, reflecting the popular mystique that surrounds the beer. ‘I’ve known it be fine and then, bang, there’s a clap of thunder outside and it’s turned bad in an instant.’

Becky's Dive Bar, photographed by Grant W. Corby (we'd still like to get in touch with him) and supplied by Eric Schwartz (pictured right).
Becky’s Dive Bar, photographed by Grant W. Corby (we’d still like to get in touch with him) and supplied by Eric Schwartz (pictured right).

Becky’s Dive Bar, all the way back in the 1960s and 70s, made its reputation on being one of the few places in London you would ever find Ruddles, for example, and we once made a pilgrimage to Putney in search of Timothy Taylor Ram Tam. (That pub sadly gave up on this unique selling point.) The Museum Tavern in Bloomsbury, a nice pub but otherwise unremarkable, is a go-to place for Theakston Old Peculier.

We reckon the King’s Head here in Bristol is on its way to gaining a reputation for its Harvey’s Sussex Best which seems to be permanently on offer and as good as we’ve ever had it. The Bridge Inn round the corner seems to have a similar relationship with Dark Star Hophead, a beer we still love despite its ups and downs.

For this model to really work the beer ought to be from another part of the country, the further away the better, and ideally one that doesn’t have wide national distribution through Wetherspoon pubs or other such chains and pub companies. But that doesn’t have to be the case: the selling point is really absolute reliability. If you fancy a pint of BEER X, the pub will have it, and because they always have it, and perhaps not much else, they’ll both know how to care for it and get through plenty. (See: Proper Job at The Yacht Inn, Spingo at The Dock.)

The publican has to hold their nerve, of course, when all the other pubs in the area are offering three, five, ten, twenty guest ales, plus kegs, plus bottles. How long does it take to build a cult reputation and a steady clientele around selling one beer really well? Years, probably — perhaps decades. And if a customer craving BEER X turns up and it’s not there you might find yourself back at square one.

What are some of your favourite One Beer Done Well pubs? Let us know in the comments below.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 2 September 2017: Coopers, Commons, CAMRA Cash

Here’s all the beer- and pub-writing that grabbed our attention in the past week, from yeasty Aussie beer to beer-and-life-event pairing.

Phil Cook at the Beer Diary brings an interesting bit of evidence to the table on the hazy beer debate, providing an overlooked (by us) Australian perspective:

Not long ago, when Coopers Sparkling was the local paragon of ‘good beer’, Australian brewers got into the habit of fogging up their beers seemingly just to emulate it and borrow some of its prestige. Likewise, some brewers of juice-bomb East Coast IPAs exaggerate their haze with additives selected solely for that purpose, and not in pursuit of tastier beer as such. Such trickery is indeed obnoxious, but it’s the cheating, not the cloudiness, that offends me.


The Commons brewery building.

Jeff Alworth at Beervana provides a heartfelt reaction to news of the closure of a brewery he loved, The Commons, which operates in his home base of Portland, Oregon:

But the very thing that made The Commons beloved by some–and they probably have more superfans than Deschutes–made it mysterious to most. It was the Velvet Underground of breweries, making exceptional beer most people didn’t understand. Any brewery that routinely offers mild ales and microbiere (a tiny saison) but not IPA is defining themselves far outside the mainstream. The Commons spent years fielding the same question from confused patrons: ‘which one’s the IPA?’For a time, they were absurdly guiding people to Myrtle, a saison in which astute drinkers might detect the presence of hop aroma. That was their sop to the masses.

His suggestion that the departure of the head brewer was an early danger sign is an interesting one, too — something to watch out for in what may or may not be a period of strife?


Bass on Draught plaque outside an English pub.

Martin Taylor AKA retiredmartin has been reflecting on Bass, a beer with which we are also slightly obsessed, as a manifesto continues to emerge from his reports of visiting every Good Beer Guide pub in Britain:

Some of you may have noticed my predilection for Draught Bass, but it’s a complex relationship… If honest, I’d prefer it if only a landlord who cared about Bass served it, like the Black Lion in Leighton Buzzard so clearly does… Top beers like Young’s, Adnams and Landlord saw their reputation decline as their beers went into chain pubs with more hand-pumps than customers, and I fear Bass has suffered by being served too early, or too long, in many pubs.

We’ve noticed an improvement in Bass, and in Young’s Ordinary, in recent years and think he might be on to something here. And might not a Good Bass Guide — a slim volume — be a useful publication?


Mariage Parfait.

We don’t often include trip reports here for one reason and another but this account of a visit to Edinburgh from Katie at The Snap & The Hiss has at its centre a lovely moment of personal importance, paired, of course, with a suitable beer.


This ostensibly rather boring bit of behind-the-scenes CAMRA business might be one of the most important stories of the week: the Campaign is experiencing some financial difficulties because ‘revenue was likely to be less than the amount forecast at the start of the financial year, and upon which the organisation’s spending plans were based’. In other words, people are literally not buying what CAMRA is selling. We will watch how this develops with interest. (Morning Advertiser)


Meanwhile, BrewDog has done something genuinely interesting and refreshingly straightforward: its owners have pledged to give 10 per cent of profits to charity, and 10 per cent to employees on an ongoing basis. BrewDog haters will no doubt roll their eyes at this but it’s much bolder and clearer than most corporate social responsibility programmes. And when a firm can start giving money away, you have to suspect it’s doing alright, don’t you?


And, finally, as signs of the times go, this is hard to beat:

Changing Tastes, 1968

“Overall the trend in beer tastes seems to be away from the sweet dark beers towards bitters, but there is the strange anomaly of the increase in both sweet and bitter stouts, the trends of which vary surprisingly from time to time… [And] there is evidence that the public is moving from the highly hopped bitter beers to a smoother and blander palate. Young people particularly seem to prefer this kind of beer, and their popularity has been boosted by the strange belief that light-coloured beers are alcoholically weaker and therefore safer with the breathalyzer.”

J.A.P. Charrington, President of Bass Charrington, The Times, 22 April 1968.

Refreshing Pale Ale, Delhi, 1857

in his diaries, published posthumously in 1894, General Sir James Hope Grant (1808-1875) recalled the siege of Delhi during the 1857 ‘Indian Mutiny’:

james_hope_grant“I must here mention that during the terribly hot weather beer was my great stand-by. In fact, I scarcely think I could have existed without this balmy nectar — it put such vigour and strength into my sadly exhausted frame. We were also very fortunate, during the first three month, in procuring an ample supply of Bass and Allsopp’s best brew, as all the houses in the north [of India] sent as much as they could — knowing the uncertainty of being able to retain it in the state the country was in. I had as yet no A.D.C., when one day I received a note from Captain the Honourable Richard Curzon, who had been military secretary to General Anson before his death, asking me if I would take young Augustus Anson, who had lost his appointment as A.D.C. to his uncle. I at once agreed to do so, and the young gentleman accordingly came to my tent to introduce himself to me. He was an intelligent, good-looking young fellow, with a look of honest determination in his countenance which pleased me greatly; but as he felt a natural diffidence on his first appearance, and looked rather pale and worn out, I proceeded to my bed, drew out from underneath a bottle of sparkling beer, and gave him a tumbler of the delicious elixir. He had scarcely quaffed it off when the change appeared marvellous — his diffidence departed from him, his countenance brightened up with a rosy hue, and a great friendship was soon established between us.”

Picture from The National Media Museum.