Tag Archives: Pale Ale

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.

IMG_1396

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.

IMG_1570IMG_1573

IMG_1572

**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.

The Session #72: How we love beer

Not why, what, where or when but how we love beer.

the session beer blogging fridayHow do I love thee*? Let me count the ways
.

I love thy glass through its depth and breadth and height
And gentle beads of condensation when in need of a ‘light’
For the lack of bitterness and its ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet pint o’ Mild, lit by sun or candlelight.
I love thee freely, tho’ a sour lambic may make me ail
I love thee purely, bless the Union and its fine Pale Ale.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In matching with curry, chocolate or cheese.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
When I crossed to the dark side – I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my adult life! – and, if God choose,
I shall but love thy biney hoppiness after death.

*With most profuse apologies to Elisabeth Barrett Browning. She deserved better.

©Beer Tinted Spectacles, January 2013

The Session #64: The Pale Ale Counter-Reformation

the session beer blogging friday

In many respects, CAMRA came into existence to save pale ale. Yes, I know it should be a broad church the Campaign For Real Ale, but the reality it was pale ale that was being decimated by the rockets of kegged beer with all the day to day, ‘operational’ benefits they offered. Worthington ‘E’, Watney’s Red Barrel, Whitbread’s Tankard, Ind Coope’s Double Diamond were most definitely not ‘head and body above the rest’ (to paraphrase). Rather, for drinkers who loved and appreciated the subtle nuances of cask beer, these insulted through their artificial, aggressive fizziness and tasteless or unbalanced flavours.  In a way, they did damage on two fronts: they hurt cask, and they hurt the reputation of great beers that happen to be sold in ‘kegs’ for future generations.   My first surreptitious underage swig of beer was from a party 7 of Worthington’s at a party my Mum and Dad were having. I should have been in my room, but I cagily snuck downstairs for an illicit snifter of some sort. The beer was close to hand and I tapped some into a plastic camping cup.

Oh my dear God. It was the most unpalatably rank, wretched, drain-stinkingly awful experience. It didn’t help that I hadn’t yet been on a rite of passage with beer at that point in my life, but goodness me. This stuff had an acrid stink like beer changing from just about drinkable to off, and a taste that was aggressively sharp with carbonation and mildly painful.

There were two upsides though. Firstly it was bad enough to put me off tobacco and other illicit substances.  Secondly, it was so truly awful that I knew that there must be better stuff out there. Saying that, I left it a fair few years to find out more, and I have never trusted my Dad’s taste in alcohol since.    But no wonder CAMRA had a powerful cause. Here was our beer, a style of beer that had dominated our landscape for almost 300 years being right-royally buggered by the same people charged with doing the right thing for it…to tend it, nurture it, pass it on in better shape to their successors. Some hope.

So the movement grew. Not just the CAMRA movement, although undoubtedly that catalysed the change. Time became a powerful ally too. For with time, so the wash of characterless premium lagers revealed the hidden skeleton in the cupboard. Through the ‘80s and especially into the late ‘90s, drinkers began to see that ‘international lagers’ – at first so sexy and alluring – were in truth separated only by their clothes. An interesting label. An unusual font. A pertly shaped glass.

But where, oh where was the flavour?   And why, oh why, must I consume a 5% + ABV lager to get a mere skittering of taste?

And so the Pale Ale Counter Reformation began. And it began on many fronts.  Drinkers in the UK standing on the burning platform, with CAMRA helping them see what we were losing.  With the home brewers-cum-craft brewers in the U.S. challenging their beer norms and looking for interesting styles – sending ripples across the world.  This coincidental wave of drinkers unaccustomed, perhaps unaware, of this family of beers concentrated the flowing tide as it entered the mouth of the bay. To today, where it feels like Pale Ale is truly fighting back; is challenging the hegemony of international ‘lager’.

What a family of beers it is! From the unusual or less common Bière de Gardes, Blondes or Strong Ales, to the widespread, more accessible Bitters, American Pales or Burton Pale Ales.  Many of the bottles in the ale section of UK supermarkets today are pale ales; in the US no self-respecting bar would do without at least one great, often local (ish) Pale Ale on draft.  And pales are springing up all over now and gaining momentum.  In a bar the other night, I drank a Cooper’s (from Adelaide); a Sierra Nevada (from Chico, California), followed by a bottle of Llangollen Bitter (from North Wales) later that evening.

But let’s start with Burton Pale Ale. Not the first, but at their best, the style-definers.  Yes, you may beg to differ; and of course, the beauty of taste is how idiosyncratic and individual it is, but sorry, over this there can be no doubt. Burton didn’t earn its fame through fluke. It earned its fame because at their best, these Pale Ales were world class. At their best, they were beguiling, moreish, complex, rewarding, shocking and supremely drinkable. A combination that was….is…..awesome.

But there’s the rub. Where today are the pale ales that made Burton famous? In Pedigree, perhaps… but for me, still too unreliable when kept in the wrong hands and all too often these are the hands of Marstons publicans. And I do agree with my brother, who thinks it’s a bit ‘barnyardy’, a bit rustic, compared in his mind with the Daddy. With Bass.

But alas, alas. This, of all Pale Ales, a signature beer of its style, a world class beer, superbly balanced, flavoursome and nuanced, has been mugged by the shadowy yakusa of international brewer consolidation and left, breathing, but barely audibly, in a brewing back alley.  Once, not that many years ago, UK brewing’s biggest export, now a shadow of that, forced to become Disneyesque in Anheuser Busch InBev’s ridiculous attraction to serving it as part of a black and tan.  Damn you for wrecking this beer and damn you more for treating it with disdain.

Thank the Lord for Burton Bridge then. Their eponymous Bridge Bitter keeps Burton’s flag flying.  This is a beer with structure, with a delicate floral character but a spine to stand up for itself.  There’s just that drying, vaguely burnt, bitter linger that means your hand is lifting the glass for the next sip not long after the last one has been swallowed.  For like very few beers, great Burton Pale Ales have that quality that is so difficult to define:  tasty yes, but moreishly drinkable too.

Whilst Pale Ale found fame with the spread of the style from Burton, of course this is just a fraction of the story.  One of the interesting chapters is in Belgium; known of course for so many interesting, challenging, defining styles of beer, but a haven for Pale Ale too.  I travelled to Belgium a few years ago and met the chaps at Palm in Steenhuffel.  Palm Breweries is one of the larger national companies in Belgium today, but recent years have been tough.  Despite its reputation as a great beer nation, the reality is that the market is over 70% international lager and it’s as cut-throat as elsewhere in northern Europe.  So in the last decade Palm have redefined their business; adding true speciality brands like Rodenbach and Boon lambics.  And refocusing on Palm Speciale.

For many years, Palm Speciale seemed to play second fiddle to its Antwerp rival, de Koninck. A fine beer, no doubt, served in its bolleke (little ball or bollock). Palm seemed more grounded, less aspirational – it’s symbol of a Brabant Shire Horse the perfect manifestation.  Doughty and workmanlike.  Yet Palm is a terrific pale ale that shouldn’t be over-shadowed, and a great example of how the Belgians can appropriate and re-interpret different beer styles.  The base of Palm is undoubtedly a pale ale. A rich amber colour, a fruit-sugary crispness that you only expect from a warm fermented beer, but matched by a malt-led roundness. Cave Direct sell it in the UK (beermerchants.com) – look out for it, and look out for it’s cognac like bol glass, which doesn’t just add to the enjoyment but concentrates and directs the aromas in a way that enhances Palm’s drinkability. Only without the bolleks.

There are now so many pale ales in fact, with so much terrific variation that the style risks fragmentation. This may be no bad thing, especially when you consider how far the it has come in the last generation…from a time when it was on its knees, to today….a Pale Ale Counter Reformation, when for some, I drop to my knees and offer reverential praise.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012