The Session #87: Local Beer History

the session beer blogging fridayThe Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday, is an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic. Each month, a different beer blogger hosts The Session, chooses a topic and creates a round-up listing of all the participants, along with a short pithy critique of each entry (see link, posted to comments in due course). This month’s Session is by Reuben Gray at The Tale Of Ale (http://www.taleofale.com) on the topic of Local Brewery History – Reuben wants us to give a history of a local brewery – one that’s more than 20 years old. It may be alive; it may be dead or it may be the living dead…

 “To me, beer is much more a liquid in a glass. It’s about people, places and increasingly, terroir”  Ben Keene, ‘The Great Northeast Brewery Tour’

I am a beer writer who has lived and worked in one of the world’s great brewing capitals for over 20 years. I am also a historian or, as a friend put it, a ‘socio-geographer’ looking for the connections between people and place. To me, just as for Ben Keene who wrote in the preface to his brewery guide to the Northeast of the U.S., beer is much more than a liquid in a glass. It is much more than a way of easy inebriation. It is a connection – particularly, that is, if it is a local beer, brewed with locally sourced ingredients, by people who know people you know. This month’s Session weaves these strands: of place; of people; of time.

This piece is also something of a personal crossing of the rubicon. I will write about a subject I have carefully avoided to date.  I will write about a brewery where I still have connections, having worked there for almost 20 years – and therefore risk upsetting people I know. It is not however a wistful or nostalgic piece about great times gone by (certainly, it is not intended to be) – but it is a tail of a tragedy. A tragedy hardly befitting not just any old brand, but arguably one of the greatest ever brands. Not just beer brands. All brands.

This is the story of Bass.   This is the story of the first and once, most recognisable, trademark in the world. This is the story of its shockingly recent, quick and preventable decline.

The history. Unlike other writers in this month’s session, there’s not a lot I can add to what has been written about the story of Burton and Bass – painstakingly researched and recorded by Roger Protz in his terrific ‘The Story of Brewing in Burton on Trent’ (The History Press, 2011). In a nutshell, the history of Bass is interwoven with the history of British Empire and industrialisation.  William Bass was a local brewer, but successive generations expanded the brewery riding on the coat tails of the rise of the empire in India and coinciding with leaps forward in brewing science and chemical understanding.  Just as the first pale lagers were catalysed by the industrial manufacture of crystal and clear glassware, so Burton ales stole a competitive march on other British brewers through the understanding of malting (new paler & crystals malts that both gave up their fermentable sugars more easily & delivered a paler colour), of new fermentation techniques (in particular, the Burton Union system which allowed for both clarity in presentation and whilst leaving sufficient yeast in cask to allow for secondary fermentation) and embracing steam power which allowed them to brew consistently on a mass scale for the first time and also deliver more quickly to wherever their markets were established.  Go to St Pancras station in London today: as you sip your Cappuccino in Benugos, or buy a Thomas Pink shirt, enjoy the magnificent cellars. They are beer cellars, with columns one Beer-Butt wide. They are in fact, Bass cellars.  And when the Indian trade declined, brewers such as Allsopp and Bass revolutionised domestic beer, using their international brand reputations to effectively exploit the trend for paler, lighter beer styles (pale ale and bitter in particular), coming up with new classics in their own right.

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Bass, of course, was only one of many Burton brewers. At the start of the twentieth century, there were 29 brewers in Burton on Trent. The architectural and logistical legacy still exists today – with some stately architecture and even, roads – Guild Street for example, one of the main routes connecting central Burton to Derby and the north, was built by Bass, and is leased by their successors to the local council today (plus it’s home to The Manzil curry house & The National Brewery Centre – a double whammy).  Elsewhere the former Everards Oast House still looks down goatily on the town, waiting for someone to raise the funds to restore it and appear on Grand Designs.

But Bass survived them all.  Commentators tend to agree that it did so because it diversified into lager earlier; it acquired public houses faster and was incrementally better-run that its competitors.  And it made good decisions along the way.  One in particular was fundamental – history will record Bass as owning the world’s first registered trademark – the red triangle – registered in 1876. Along with Allsopp, Bass moved quickly on the decline of the Baltic trade to establish trade with India and elsewhere in the British empire.  And where the liquid went so went the red triangle – growing the reputation of the company and brand.  The red triangle sold not only within the empire but across continental Europe and across North America. The red triangle got painted by impressionists.

Recent times. The troubles for Bass as a British brewers began with The Beer Orders.  The Orders demonstrated that the British Government was more than rationally interested in the structure of the British brewing and pub retailing industry – it believed that the price of a pint was a vote winner / loser and was desperate to retain a high level of competition in the UK.  Every brewery merger would be investigated – for Bass, when the first major attempt failed (a UK joint venture with Allied – now Carlsberg), the writing was on the wall.  Why would the Bass plc management stay in what they perceived as a low growth, low margin business with active government interest, when they could invest in higher growth, higher value businesses, like hotels?  History was cast aside. The brewing business was put up for sale and ultimately sold unconditionally to Interbrew of Belgium. Many executives ordered a new Aston Martin that day (I met one of the merchant bankers representing Bass plc and they could not believe that they received an unconditional offer). Yet, the government intervened again and ordered the new business to be split – in the end between Interbrew and Coors of the U.S.

And here were the seeds of demise of Bass, the brand.  Interbrew kept the name & red triangle trademark; but the breweries and brewing assets in Burton went to Coors. With Interbrew breweries throughout the UK and in Europe it was inevitable that Bass would have to cut ties with its home.  Perhaps a deal could have been struck between Coors and Interbrew to prevent this: but why would Coors help Interbrew protect one of the inherent strengths of a now-competitor brand? And why would Interbrew pay a premium to do so?

Bass & me. It was hard as someone who cares about these things to witness the company and the brand unfold as it did. From being someone who had worked on and sold the Bass brand to see it go was tough.  But my history stems from before I joined Bass. Indeed, I fought hard to join Bass Brewers because of draught Bass.  Me and my University mate Duncan, enjoyed a pint or three in ‘Ye Olde Shippe’ just off Exeter’s Cathedral Close, or in the Great Western near the station or best of all, at The Bridge in Topsham. Oh, there were good beers available from smaller brewers, but draught Bass was the daddy. Story goes that Bass was strong near the railway stations – being on a direct line from Burton the beer was always as fresh as it could be even with the distance covered.  It was a lovely quaffable ABV, 4.4%, with a bit of everything: a snappy, struck match, sulphurey aroma, an off-white creamy head and that lovely nutty flavour from the two strain Bass yeast. My brother always summarised it well: whereas Pedigree and Bass were both great beers, Pedigree is that bit agricultural – a bit farmyardy. Bass though, whilst also enjoying the Burton character, had better balance, a touch of sophistication.  If a beer could be this good, it must be a good company, I thought.

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**Fiddling: One bottle, three triangles.  Today, Bass can’t seem to make its mind up on even how to represent the red triangle – or indeed Bass’ signature – on its bottle.

Long term, there have been two big losers. The first were the people of Burton who had to endure seeing the Bass name, of which so many were proud, disappear (topping off a list of all the other great Burton beers – in particular, Draught Burton Ale (Pedigree is the exception, thankfully)).  Down came the red triangle. Off the brewery. Off the maltings. Off the trucks. Off the sheds. Even off the (Bass) Museum (it’s like Prince: ‘The Museum formally known as Bass’). Even off the wretched little brown signs that point to Burton’s brewing heritage*.  Second and tragically was the beer. Draught Bass and Bass Pale Ale have, to mis-coin a wartime expression, ‘Gone for a Burton’.  Sure, draught Bass is still brewed (ironically, by its long time competitor, Marstons). And cans and bottles are brewed by ABInbev up in Salmesbury. Bass Pale Ale for the U.S. is now brewed overseas (Belgium I believe, so it can still claim ‘imported’). But, unlike other Burton breweries – Thomas Salt, James Eadie, Allsopps, the list is long – which are properly dead, Bass has to endure a living dead status. Shorn of its home ties, brewed where convenient, unloved by its new parents (it has apparently been up for sale by ABInbev since 2010) it now stumbles along, all the while withering on the vine.  Commercially I understand that ABI has to prioritise, yet in the U.S., not so long ago Bass was the largest imported ale (800k U.S barrels a year); today it is less than a quarter of that – and on their watch. From being the U.K’s largest cask ale at the turn of this century (180k UK barrels) today, it gets lost in the rounding, with a parent who makes some noise about the brand but isn’t really doing anything other than fiddling** (Molson Coors, ironically, have now acquired Cornwall’s Doom Bar which is the UK’s largest cask brand – done, it must be said, for balance, on their watch).  Today seeing draught Bass in Burton is a rare sighting indeed – in fact, not so long ago, the new owners insulted Burton drinkers by insisting it came out of many pubs to be replaced with a keg version. Piss on my chips why don’t you?

Yet, it’s not nostalgia or wistfulness that makes me angry. What hacks me off is that today, premium UK brands are so exportable. Look at our car industry – a laughing stock 10 years ago, today Land Rover can’t keep up with demand – Jaguars, seemingly, are becoming as common as BMW 3 series. Or clothes brands – not just luxury brands, but ‘British look’ brands like FatFace or Boden are successfully building their businesses abroad. And over the last twenty years, ale’s time has not only come again at home, but in so many markets worldwide too.  This should be a new frontier for Bass. Indeed the beer is still great – a tad sweeter in the palate perhaps, but still the delightful aroma; still the restraint, the balance. But no new frontier. Rather, it languishes in a long tail; slighted and suffering due to the greed of Executives and the bodged intervention of government Civil Servants.

The tradition and memory of Burton, Pale Ale drinkers, brewing history and Bass deserves better.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014

*One still persists, A38 northbound, just south of Branston.

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