Tuesday, 4 December 2018

The Bass Chronicles - Part 1 ( 1974 - 1979)

I wrote this article back in the 1990’s. I can’t remember exactly when, but it’s a piece I’ve hung onto over the years, and a file I’ve always transferred whenever I’ve updated, or purchased a new computer.

It’s the article about Draught Bass which, in a recent post, I was threatening to publish in the form of a number of installments. Parts of it may appear a little dated, but the main change has been that Bass have gone from being the UK’s largest brewer to a company which is no longer involved in brewing. The sentiments expressed though, remain the same.

Like most members of CAMRA I am not a great fan of the big brewers or their products, but I believe in giving credit where it's due, and one particular beer, produced by  what was Britain's biggest brewer, remains on my list of all time favourites.

I am talking about Draught Bass, of course. This Burton-brewed beer can trace its ancestry back to the India Pale Ales produced during the 19th Century for export to the Indian sub-continent. Such beers were heavily hopped, and brewed to a high gravity. The high hopping rate helped prevent infection, whilst their considerable strength allowed for maturation to take place, in the cask, during long sea voyage to India.

Over the years the gravity of this style of beer was gradually reduced as the growing popularity of Pale Ale for the home market led brewers to produce a beer which didn't require such a long period of maturation, and which could be produced for more or less immediate consumption. Such beers became known as “running beers”, and were the forerunners of the beer known today simply as “bitter”.

As far as I recall, I  first sampled Draught Bass sometime in early 1974, at the Anglesea Arms in London's South Kensington. This legendary free-house was one of the first pubs in the capital to offer a variety of real ales and I am fairly certain that it was on my second visit to the pub that I took the opportunity to try a pint of  Bass.

The beer was not labelled as Bass at that time, but instead was somewhat confusingly badged as Worthington E. The latter was also the name of a well known keg beer, so it is easy to understand my confusion. I later discovered that cask Worthington E and Draught Bass were one and the same thing, although originally they had been two completely separate brews.

Bass and Worthington were two well-known brewers based in Burton-on-Trent. They had merged during the 1920’s, but had maintained separate identities, and separate beers. I remember reading that Worthington’s ales were lighter in character than those of Bass, whose beers were described as “thick and heavy”. This probably meant they were closer in style to those of the original India Pale Ales, but as tastes changed, it was Worthington’s beers which ended up having the greater appeal.

The separate identities of Bass and Worthington’s beers ceased at the end of the 1960’s, following the creation of the behemoth known as Bass Charrington; a merger between Bass, Mitchells & Butler and Charrington United Breweries. This joining together of two already large brewing groups, created Britain’s largest brewer. With their eye on consolidation and integration, the new company  took the decision to gradually merge the palates of both Bass Pale Draught and Worthington E, so that by the early 1970's they were identical beers.

Eventually Bass Pale Draught became the name for the cask ale, whilst the name Worthington E was applied solely to the completely different, and rather  inferior, keg product. The name Worthington E did linger on for some time, especially in areas such as Wales and the West Country; but also in parts of the capital. This confusion explains why I don't remember much about my first taste of Bass - I obviously believed I was drinking cask Worthington E at the time!

I believe that the change of name from Bass Pale Draught to just Draught Bass took place some time in 1975, as the company, concerned by the success of Courage's promotion of their premium Directors Bitter, and by Allied Breweries’ recently launched Draught Burton Ale, decided they needed a flagship ale in order to compete.

They had a ready made brand in the shape of  Bass Pale Draught, but over the years it had been reduced in strength to a gravity of around 1037 - more the strength of an ordinary bitter than a premium ale. The decision was taken to increase the OG to 1044, and to put some promotion behind the brand, so after years in the doldrums Draught Bass was set to make a fitting comeback.

The first time I  consciously remember drinking Draught Bass was at the now sadly closed, Cross Keys in Eccles, Greater Manchester. I remember the occasion well, it being the day of my graduation from Salford University. My proud parents had travelled up the previous day from Kent to see their only son collect his degree from the university vice-chancellor.

Following the degree ceremony, and a late afternoon meal, they were making plans for their journey back to Kent. It was agreed that myself and the girl I was living with at the time, would accompany them as far as the start of the M602 in Eccles. From there they could easily find their way onto the motorway network, whilst we would be able to catch a bus back to Salford.

Having said our farewells, we decided that a drink would be in order. As it was a fine July evening we sat on the grass, outside the Cross Keys, enjoying both the fresh air and the beer. We had only intended to stay for one, but the beer was so good that it was some three pints later before I reluctantly decided that it was time we made our way home.

The beer of course, was Draught Bass, and was on sale dispensed from a free-flow electric pump with a new-style font - based on an old-style Bass mirror. The beer was superb! It was pale in colour and had a delectable malty taste, subtly interlaced with a wonderful hoppy bitterness. It certainly slipped down a treat, and made me realise just what a good beer Bass could be.

During the following years I drank Bass whenever and wherever I could and, following a move to London in early 1978, actively sought out this excellent beer which was readily available in many of the company's Charrington tied houses.

Later that same year, and quite coincidentally, I ended up working for Bass Charrington, after obtaining my first laboratory post following my graduation.  This was with Hedges & Butlers, who were the wines and spirits division of Bass Charrington. They were based in East London, at the time, at Bromley-by-Bow. The ironic thing is that I didn't realise the connection initially, as I was sent for the interview by an agency.

To compound my ignorance further, as I was  somewhat naive in those days,  I had mentioned on my application form, that I was a member of CAMRA The parting comment from the company’s Quality Assurance Manger who interviewed me, which was spoken in a very broad Polish accent, was "Bass Charrington shoot CAMRA members!"

Despite my initial fears that I had blown my chances I was offered the job, having obviously made a good impression where it counts. Hedges and Butlers dealt exclusively with wines and spirits and the company were very keen for their employees to learn more about this fascinating aspect of the drinks trade.

Unfortunately, despite their connection with Bass, opportunities to learn about beer and brewing were few and far between. However, after a bit of badgering, coupled with a grouse at the fact that managers and supervisors had been given a tour round the Bass Burton Brewery a colleague and I were allowed to accompany the Q.A. Manager on one of his regular visits to group headquarters at Burton-on-Trent. This was ideal, as whilst our boss was ensconced in a meeting, we were enjoying our own private tour around the brewery with a member of the Burton Q.A. departmental staff acting as our guide.

Our first port of call, naturally enough, was the laboratory where we were able to compare the different ways in which beer was analysed as compared to wines and spirits. Colour, taste and appearance seemed to be prime factors in determining what went into the make up of a good pint, although microbiological quality, yeast counts etc. were also important. Having got the "shop" side of the visit out of the way we were then shown round the somewhat clinical and modern Number 1 Brewery. The highlight of the trip though, for me, was a look around the adjacent, and much more traditional, Number 2 Brewery.

This delightful group of red-brick buildings was Victorian in origin. With its teak-clad mash tuns and gleaming coppers, it was as traditional as any brewery you could wish for. It was here of course that the company's traditional cask ales were brewed. Close by stood Bass's famous Union Rooms, where Draught Bass, together with Worthington White Shield, fermented away in a series of interlinked oak casks.

The only sound audible was that of the gentle hissing of the fermenting beer as it forced its way out of the swan-necked pipes at the top of each cask and into the collecting "barm troughs". Here the yeast settled out, allowing the clear beer to return to the casks. It was certainly a magnificent sight to behold, but unfortunately I only had the simplest of cameras with me, and the photographs which I took did not do justice to such a magnificent place.

After gazing in awe at the care and attention devoted to brewing such a splendid beer, what better next than to sample it. Even better to be able to sample it just yards from where it was brewed, as our guide ushered us in to the brewers’ sample cellar.

This long, low room, with its white painted walls and tiled floor was home to row upon row of racked casks, each bearing a chalk mark showing gyle number, date of brewing, racking etc. The cellar seemed to be both a mecca and general meeting place for brewers drawn from all over the vast site (it was lunchtime after all), and all were knocking back glasses of Draught Bass. This "palace of beer appreciation" was presided over by a white-coated steward. After our guide had introduced myself and my colleague to the latter, we were each  presented with a half-pint tasting glass, full of Draught Bass, drawn straight from one of the casks.

Needless to say the beer tasted divine, being a crisp but subtle blend of malt and hops with the slight sulphury taste, know as the "Burton Snatch", for which the town’s ales are famed. Our first glass was swiftly followed by several more, before it was time to find our boss and head back to London.  

To be continued............................................


Etu said...

The "Burton Snatch"?

I grew up on the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire border, and the local Bass was approached with some reverence even then, back in the 1970s, but I never heard that expression, not in our stamping ground at least.

Maybe it was J.K. Rowling's inspiration for "The Golden Snitch" on the other hand?

Whatever, it's a fine, absorbing piece of writing, Paul

Paul Bailey said...

Glad you enjoyed the piece, Etu. There’s more to come, but unfortunately there’s a shortage of contemporary photos from the period(s) I’m writing about. Before the advent of Smartphones and digital photography, film was expensive and processing doubly so. Consequently people just didn’t take photos in the way, or in the volume, they do now.

I think it was an article by Roger Protz where I first came across the expression “Burton Snatch”. Think I’d prefer a “Golden Snitch” if I’m brutally honest, but not if I have to fly around on a broomstick to catch it!