That Little Bit of Magic

Cask ale collage.Drink­ing extra­or­di­nar­i­ly good Bass at the Angel at Long Ash­ton on Sat­ur­day we found our­selves reflect­ing, once again, on the fine dif­fer­ence between a great pint and a dis­ap­point­ment.

A few years ago, when we were try­ing hard to make the Farmer’s Arms in Pen­zance our local, we had a ses­sion on Ring­wood Forty-Nin­er that made us think it might actu­al­ly be a great beer.

But every pint we’ve had since, there or any­where else, has been pret­ty dread­ful.

What gave it the edge that first time? And what was miss­ing there­after? Extra high fre­quen­cies, or an addi­tion­al dimen­sion, some­how.

This elu­sive qual­i­ty is what we tast­ed in eight pints of Tim­o­thy Tay­lor Land­lord out of ten at the Nags Head in Waltham­stow for sev­er­al years in a run, and what is so often not there when we encounter it as a guest ale any­where else.

It’s what makes rec­om­mend­ing or endors­ing cask ales in par­tic­u­lar a mug’s game: “Is it only me that’s nev­er got the fuss about Lon­don Pride?” some­one will say on Twit­ter. No, it’s not, and we don’t doubt that you’ve nev­er had a good pint, because it can taste like dust and sweet­corn, and does maybe more than half the time we encounter it. But when it’s good, oh! is it good.

Bass isn’t a great beer in absolute terms, but it can be, hon­est.

Harvey’s Sus­sex Best can be a wretched, mis­er­able thing – all stress and stal­e­ness – and might well have been every time you’ve ever encoun­tered it. But the next pint you have might be a rev­e­la­tion.

Are the lows worth endur­ing for the highs? Yes, and it might even be that they make the highs high­er.

(We’ve prob­a­bly made this point before but after near­ly 3,000 posts, who can remem­ber…)

Bristol, Where Headless Pints are a Feature, not a Bug

A Bass pale ale advertising lantern.
The William the Fourth, Sta­ple Hill.

Here’s a thing: the perfect Bristol pint doesn’t have foam. It comes up to the very brim, and the merest  hint of scum might draw a tut.

At least that’s what we’ve been told by sev­er­al dif­fer­ent peo­ple on sev­er­al dif­fer­ent occa­sions that this is the case, and that Bris­tol his­tor­i­cal­ly likes its pints ‘flat’.

A few months ago we had to nego­ti­ate heads on our beers with a mem­ber of staff in a pub more often fre­quent­ed by elder­ly men who angled the glass and trick­led the last inch­es with great care: “Look, I agree with you, but I’ve been work­ing here for a while and this lot have got me trained to serve it flat.”

At which point, an inter­rup­tion from a grey-hair with a sad-look­ing decap­i­tat­ed pint: “Yeah, prop­er Bris­tol style, we’re not up north now.”

To Jess, this idea doesn’t seem so alien: she recalls a gen­er­al pref­er­ence for com­plete­ly head­less pints in East Lon­don before about, say, 2005.

There, it often seemed to be tied to the ques­tion of val­ue, and a refusal to be at all influ­enced by the super­fi­cial: foam’s a mar­ket­ing trick to make mug pun­ters pay for air, innit?

In Bris­tol, we won­der if it’s a com­bi­na­tion of that, plus the influ­ence of scrumpy cider drinkers, whose pints are froth-free by default.

But we can’t say that in prac­tice we’ve encoun­tered many flat pints in Bris­tol, though, and one of the few handy sources, Fred Pearce’s 1975 guide to the pubs of Bris­tol, fea­tures plen­ty of shots of white-capped glass­es.

Maybe we’re hav­ing our legs pulled, or per­haps this is more com­plex than we’ve realised  – maybe only cer­tain brands or styles get the millpond treat­ment – but either way, it would be a bit sad if a gen­uine bit of local beer cul­ture has been lost.

Even if it’s good news for us as drinkers who very much pre­fer a bit of dress­ing around the top of the mug.

As you might have guessed, this is real­ly our way of flush­ing out more infor­ma­tion. Do com­ment below if you can tell us more.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 12 May 2018: Bass, Bavaria, Bambini

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the world of beer and pubs in the past week, from the masculinity of beer to the fascination of Bass.

Dea Latis, an indus­try group ded­i­cat­ed to pro­mot­ing beer to women, and chal­leng­ing the idea that beer is a male pre­serve. It com­mis­sioned a study from YouGov into women’s atti­tudes to beer which is sum­marised here, with a link to the full report:

Beer Som­me­li­er and Dea Latis direc­tor Annabel Smith said: “We know that the beer cat­e­go­ry has seen mas­sive progress in the last decade – you only need to look at the wide vari­ety of styles and flavours which weren’t avail­able wide­ly in the UK ten years ago. Yet it appears the female con­sumer either hasn’t come on the same jour­ney, or the beer indus­try just isn’t address­ing their female audi­ence ade­quate­ly. Overt­ly mas­cu­line adver­tis­ing and pro­mo­tion of beer has been large­ly absent from media chan­nels for a num­ber of years but there is a lot of his­to­ry to unrav­el. Women still per­ceive beer brand­ing is tar­get­ed at men.”

We’ve already linked to this once this week but why not a sec­ond time? It’s a sub­stan­tial bit of work, after all.

There’s some inter­est­ing com­men­tary on this, too, from Kirst Walk­er, who says: “If we want more women in the beer club, we have to sweep up the crap from the floors and admit that flow­ers are nice and it pays not to smell of horse piss. How’s that for a man­i­festo?”


Bass Pale Ale mirror, Plymouth.

Ian Thur­man, AKA @thewickingman, was born and brought up in Bur­ton-upon-Trent and has a lin­ger­ing affec­tion for Bass. He has writ­ten a long reflec­tion on this famous beer’s rise and fall accom­pa­nied by a crowd-sourced direc­to­ry of pubs where it is always avail­able:

It’s dif­fi­cult for me to be unemo­tion­al about Draught Bass. It was part of grow­ing up in Bur­ton. But what are the facts.

The EU AB InBev careers’ web­site accu­rate­ly describes the rel­a­tive impor­tance of their brands to the com­pa­ny.

The UK has a strong port­fo­lio of AB InBev brands. This includes, glob­al brands, Stel­la Artois and Bud­weis­er, inter­na­tion­al brands, Beck’s, Leffe and Hoe­gaar­den, as well as local brands, includ­ing Bod­ding­tons and Bass.”

We’re fas­ci­nat­ed by the re-emer­gence of the Cult of Bass as a sym­bol of a cer­tain con­ser­v­a­tive atti­tude to pubs and beer. You might regard this arti­cle as its man­i­festo.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “News, Nuggets & Lon­greads 12 May 2018: Bass, Bavaria, Bam­bi­ni”

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.