News, nuggets and longreads 31 August 2019: London, Lambeth, Lancashire

Here’s everything that struck us as noteworthy in the world of beer and pubs in the past week, from judging beer to assessing malt.

First, a bit of news: Founders Brewing Co has finally sold off the majority of itself to Mahou, having initially surrendered a 30% stake in 2013. This comes in the context of accusations of endemic racism at the Michigan brewery which have tarnished its image in the past year or so.


And another: according to figures released by London City Hall, the number of pubs in the city has stabilised at just over 3,500. In 13 boroughs, the number of pubs actually increased and the number of small pubs across the city went up, bucking a trend towards larger pubs that’s been evident since 2003. There’s also a map showing the number of pubs for each borough – a fascinating at-a-glimpse readout with traffic light colours that we suspect would look similar for most cities in the UK these days.


Old engraving of Lambeth Palace.
Lambeth Palace in 1647. SOURCE: Archive.org

At A Good Beer Blog Alan McLeod continues his investigations into old British beer categories asking this time why Lambeth Ale was called Lambeth Ale:

Let me illustrate my conundrum. If you look up at the image above, which I am informed is a 1670 illustration of the sights at Lambeth, you will note two things: a big church complex and a lot of grass. Here is a similar version dated 1685. I have further illustrated the concept here for clarity. Lambeth Palace is and was the London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Church of England. It sits in what is known as – and what was at the time in question – Lambeth Marsh. Grass.


Tractors at Rivington.
SOURCE: Katie Mather/Pellicle.

Katie Mather reports for Pellicle from “Manchester’s Lake District” where Rivington Brewing Co is operating from a farm, producing American-style IPAs and sour beer:

“We do suffer from a massive sense of imposter syndrome,” Ben says as we stand around the tiny lean-to, clutching mugs of digestive biscuit-coloured tea. “When other breweries give us good feedback we think… But we’re making it in here. Are we good enough?”


A perfect pint of Bass in Plymouth.

For Derbyshire Live Colston Crawford has written about the resurgence of Bass, not only as a cult brand but as a beer really worth drinking:

Nothing the various owners of the brand have done to try to ignore it has, it would seem, diminished its popularity in this part of the world and people keep on telling me that Bass right now is as good as it’s been for many a year… There are a number of pubs serving multiple brews around the city who will not remove Bass from the pumps, as there would be an outcry if they did… This suggests that the owners of the brand – currently the conglomerate AB-InBev – have missed a trick while concerning themselves with flogging us Budweiser.

There’s even a poll: does Bass taste better than it has done for years?


Judge with beer.

Chris Elston at Elston’s Beer Blog has been reflecting on what it means to judge beer in our everyday lives, in the wake of his experience at the World Beer Awards:

How can you judge a beer when you haven’t even tried it? We all do it though, every time we go into the bottle shop or supermarket, we do it. We’re not just choosing the beers we’d like to drink, we’re judging those we’re not sure about or the ones we feel we don’t want. These are the beers that lose out, or rather, we lose out because we’ve judged that they are not worth purchasing. Which again is wrong.



If you want more reading and commentary, Stan Hieronymus posts a round-up every Monday, while Alan McLeod has the Thursday beat covered.

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.

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

Lt General Sir Hope Grant GCD

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

“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.

The Town Pale Ale Built

Molson Coors brewery in Burton upon Trent.

Arriving in Burton (upon Trent; on Trent; -on-Trent), the first thing we noticed was the smell: as in Bamberg, the aromas of brewing and associated industries are thick enough to catch the breath. Though the town feels run down, it is still hard at work making beer, and enormous branded lorries thunder by every few seconds: Carling, Carling, Worthington’s, Hobgoblin, Carling, Grolsch, Pedigree, Carling, Carling…

We took our time getting to the National Brewery Centre, via the Unilever Marmite factory and Marston’s (‘Mild, Strong, Pale’). We knew we were nearly there when we spotted a forlorn Burton Union — wooden barrels, pipework and yeast collection trays — in the corner of a car park sheltering under what looks like a cowshed.Joule's of Stone brewery advertising.

It’s a funny old place, the museum. The history of beer and brewing, and Burton, and Bass (with historian-baiting myths present and correct) are crammed into one large room at the start, like a kind of ‘executive summary’. Ephemera ripped from the walls of the old brewery, such as a fire notice from the nineteen-fifties with instructions for the ‘Senior Barmer’ and ‘Senior Getter-down’, are the highlights. The explanation of the Union system, complete with cutaway, is also the clearest we’ve come across.

This being built by a ‘Big Six’ brewer in its final death throes, and then maintained by Coors, the wording is careful throughout: it was great how they used to do it in the old days, but it’s just as good now, in a different way; the Burton Union was very interesting, but dirty and inefficient; nostalgia is fine, but progress is good, too; Joule’s of Stone was a lovely old brewery and all that, but time marches on! And so on.

whiteshieldcarExiting, we followed a red line painted on the ground which leads us through a collection of drays and pub signs, past some docile shire horses the size of dinosaurs, and out into the midst of a collection of vintage brewery vehicles. The Worthington White Shield ‘bottle car’ takes pride of place. Everywhere there are reminders of regional breweries and brands Bass swallowed up in the twentieth century before it, too, was absorbed.

Finally, confusingly, we reach a second museum. This exhibition, slightly larger, tells the story of Burton and Bass in particular in more detail. What comes across here is the sheer scale of the operation at its height: besides the brewing itself, there were coopers, sign-painters, railwaymen, engineers, maltsters, bookkeepers and carpenters occupying acres of offices, workshops and yards.

There are also small but moving details, such as the officer’s beret of the Staffordshire Yeomanry from World War II, which incorporated the famous red triangle into its regimental insignia.

We, of course, loved recreations of both an Edwardian pub and a keg-only nineteen-sixties bar.

Winding up in the brewery tap, we were gasping for a pint of Bass, having forgotten that Molson Coors, who are lumbered with the premises, don’t own the brand. Rarely-seen cask-conditioned Worthington beers were a welcome substitute, though. White Shield was much juicier and fruitier than in bottles; Spring Shield was a very modern, zippy pale-n-hoppy, despite its heritage branding; and ‘E’, brewed, we think, to a nineteen-sixties recipe for Bass, was pleasingly, drily bitter, with a funky note in the finish.

Worthington White Shield and Spring Shield.

As we drank, we conducted a post-mortem. On the one hand, this isn’t the museum the British brewing industry deserves. It doesn’t tell a story as it ought to — it seemed a jumble of odds and sods — and we’d have preferred it to be more clearly about Bass, Burton or Britain, rather than a bit of all three. That we had it almost to ourselves for two hours made us worry for its future. Would it perhaps be better off as part of something like the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, where it might get more passing trade? The people of Burton wouldn’t like that idea, we suspect.

And, on the other hand, it’s better than nothing, and anyone with an interest in beer, of whatever variety, will find plenty here to fascinate them. The fact is, if we don’t play with the toys we’ve got, we won’t get anything better.

Entry to the National Brewery Centre costs £8.95, which includes four quarter-of-a-pint tokens redeemable in the brewery tap. We also picked up some interesting bottled beer from the gift shop at very reasonable prices.