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…)
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.
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.
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?”
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 EUAB 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.
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:
William Bass & Co
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?
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, 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.