Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - June 2016
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 Marstonís 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 Marstonís, 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 Iíve struggled to find decent examples recently.
I wouldnít claim that the Marstonís-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 Ė 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 itís a pub that keeps in touch with its heritage and tradition.