June 2016

Great Stuff this Bass

Draught Bass is a great survivor and a link to our brewing heritage

THE WELL-KNOWN Bass red triangle was famously the first trademark ever registered, and it remains a distinctive beer symbol almost 150 years later. When CAMRA was formed in the early 1970s, Draught Bass was the only nationally-distributed cask beer. Outside its Midlands heartland, it had a strong following in rural Wales, the West Country and the North-East, and was also well-regarded from London to Edinburgh. It was always a free-trade favourite even where the owning company had no tied houses. The late Rhys Jones reported how there remained a lingering resentment in Anglesey about Stockport brewer Robinsons buying up free houses selling Bass in the 1950s.

Across large swathes of Derbyshire and Staffordshire it (along with Marston’s Pedigree, of similar strength) was often sold in pubs as the standard bitter. Bass also entered into trading agreements with a number of independent brewers that led to the beer being sold in some of their tied houses, a notable example being Higsons of Liverpool, with it being available in the George in Stockport, a once-great pub now a shadow of its former self.

In the mid-1970s, its original gravity was increased from 1039 to 1044 to make it a stronger competitor against the popular premium ales of that period. It was never an in-your-face beer, with a distinctive subtle, bittersweet palate, but was generally reckoned to be amongst the beer aristocracy. In the 1970s, the parent company controlled over half the pubs in Birmingham, but only condescended to make Bass available in six of them.

As the number of nationally distributed beers mushroomed in the 1980s, it lost some of its status, although it remained a widely available and popular beer. In the early 80s, Bass stopped using the distinctive Burton Union fermentation system, a move that was felt to rob it of some of its character. The late, great beer writer Michael Jackson certainly reckoned Pedigree, not Bass, to be the Burton classic.

The upheaval in the brewing industry following the Beer Orders inevitably took its toll. The Bass brewery at Burton-upon-Trent ended up being taken over by Molson Coors, but the rights to the Bass name went to ABInBev. The cask version of Bass is now contract-brewed by Marston’s, home of its historic rival Pedigree. The bottled and canned versions are brewed by ABInBev at Samlesbury, and are not from the same brewing stock, although they do have a slight echo of the cask original. Ironically, Pedigree seems in recent years to have lost a lot of ground in the free trade, and I have to say I’ve struggled to find decent examples recently.

I wouldn’t claim that the Marston’s-brewed Draught Bass is on a par with the 1970s original, but it is hard to compare things over a forty-year gap. But it does retain much of its essential character – complex, subtle, bitter-sweet, slightly sour and lactic, and not really drinking its strength. Its understatement makes it a classic English beer. Unlike many other 4.4% beers, you could happily sink several pints in a session.

While its distribution is diminished compared with what it once was, it is still often found in the Midlands and in other areas such as the North-East, Wales and the South-West. I read of one new pub opening in the North-East putting Bass as the core of its beer range, and visited a pub in West Wales proudly advertising it as their next guest beer. It remains the signature beer in classic unspoilt pubs such as the Star in Bath and the Seven Stars in Falmouth. And, wherever I see it on the bar, I get the feeling it’s a pub that keeps in touch with its heritage and tradition.

4 comments:

  1. Draught Bass is a good example of why it can be nonsensical for folk (including Beer bloggers) to say 6X is rubbish, Greene King IPA is undrinkable, Bass/Pedigree is a shadow of it's former self etc.

    The Bass in Manchester's Unicorn, despite that being a good drinker's pub with a reputation for Bass, has always disappointed. As you've noted before, the Potteries and Burton are still good places to get excellent Bass, along with parts of Cornwall.

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  2. John O. Lewis, Shrewsbury10 September 2016 at 09:20

    Curmudgeon is to be congratulated on his first class article on Draught Bass in the June issue of Opening Times. This is an excellent and much underrated beer which I drink very regularly at the four pubs which serve it permanently in Shrewsbury. We also have one pub to the north of the town and two to the south, all on or near the A49, in which I partake from time to time.

    Having been brought up in rural Berkshire I did not come across Bass until I went to university in Aberystwyth in 1960. The local brewery, David Roberts, had just been taken over by Hancocks of Cardiff and Bass was widely available in Hancocks pubs in the town - Hancocks Bitter (HB) at 1/6 per pint, the cooking bitter, and Bass at 1/10 per pint, the premium bitter.

    When I came to work in Stockport in 1968, I frequented what was then the superb George for a double treat - Higsons Bitter and Draught Bass. At this time there was a small Manchester brewery called Swales, taken over by Boddingtons in 1970. Its products were known as “Swales Swill” but Swales houses had Draught Bass and I remember drinking it in the White Hart on Cheadle High Street. After Stockport I worked in various locations in England and sought out Bass, frequently without any luck, although I do remember a pub in Walthamstow in the late 1970s, the Flower Pot, which sold only Bass from several handpumps.

    Draught Bass is given no advertising by its current owners AB Inbev and since the brewing is subcontracted out to Marston's (who actually withdrew its sale, despite many protests - and it was the best seller - from a free house they acquired in central Shrewsbury), the beer appears to be an orphan in need of a caring brewery. The last widespread advertising I recall was in the 1970s.

    Whilst on CAMRA business in the south west last year I came across the Yacht Inn in Penzance. This is a St Austell house with two Bass handpumps, the Bass outselling all other cask beers on offer. If a historic Bass house is sought the Coopers Tavern - now a Joules pub - in Burton upon Trent, the former Bass brewery tap, should be visited. Bass is the most popular beer there.

    (Note: This appeared as a letter in the September edition of “Opening Times”)

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  3. I used to drink Bass at the Magazine Hotel in Wallasey in the early to mid 80s
    The only beer on handpull- it was a great pint. Unfortunately I don't believe that it's still available despite the fact that they now have a broader range of beers
    The pub is still signed as a Bass house
    I had few pints at the Coach and Horses in Dumfries a fortnight ago where, once again, it was the only cask available.
    Both nice old pubs down by the river.

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    Replies
    1. Paul - I had Bass there a few years ago. WhatPub says they still sell it, plus a few other. Not in the Beer Guide any more though. Lovely pub with view across to 'Pool.

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