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.