Mirror, Mirror on the pub wall, where can I drink Draught Bass?

It all started in the Queen Anne in Great Hucklow in the Peak District. A lovely pint of unexpected Draught Bass. I thanked the landlord for his well-kept beer and he told me it was the most popular on the bar. Simple pleasures savoured.

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Who could say no to a true icon?

As I left, I imagined a conversation in a pub with my grandson, 10 years hence…

“Grandad, do Bass make mirrors?” He spots my puzzled look and explains that the only time we see the name in a pub, it’s on a mirror. Draught Bass no longer exists. My heritage as a Burton-born lad is gone.

Prior to the Beer Orders of 1989, Draught Bass was available in most of the Bass tied estate of 9,000 pubs. By 2011, Interbrew (as Bass owner, AB InBev was then known) reportedly had 3,000 Draught Bass stockists. It’s unlikely it has more than 750 UK outlets these days. That exceeds the closure rate of UK pubs by some way…quite an achievement.

In response to the ‘mirror issue’, I decided it was time to help folks find my beer of choice. Where are those pubs, often ‘perfect pubs’, is the question the Draught Bass Pub Directory seeks to answer. This is not a lament for Britain’s most famous beer brand. It’s a small effort to resuscitate…to enable more people to find Draught Bass, permanently on the bar, and to celebrate the work of those landlords who nurture a classic English ale. It might even spur the brand owner to support their beer (or sell it to someone else).

The listing of some 500 pubs in Britain that serve Draught Bass on a permanent basis is attached later (now updated to May 2018 but other updates welcome) in the article, but first a few thoughts from me and others.

Where can I get a pint?

Imagine a small red-brick pub in Staffordshire, Leicestershire or Derbyshire, ordinary in its perfection. The chances are there’ll be little choice in the real ale department and maybe lagers and Guinness on the keg fonts. Open the door and you may well find the magical red triangle calling to you from a hand pump clip. You might even be offered the beer from a jug or by gravity. Draught Bass is probably served from the cask or jug in more pubs than any other beer.

In some locations Draught Bass is a rarity, in others such as Stoke-on-Trent and Derby it’s much more frequent. There are beacons of excellence, well-known to the Bass drinker, such as the iconic Coopers Tavern in Burton (once the Bass tap and now lovingly cared for by Joule’s), the Tynemouth Lodge Hotel and the Star Inn at Bath.

As well, there are wonderful oddities like The Sun in Stockton-on-Tees, famous for its banked Bass. Half-filled glasses ready to be be topped up to give a mighty head beloved of the locals. And the Express Tavern in Brentford is literally a beacon to Draught Bass with its illuminated signage paying homage to the name and the Red Triangle. All heroes of their beer-keeping craft and rightly proud of their beer quality.

There is a Draught Bass ‘home counties’ with Staffordshire (146 pubs), Derbyshire (87) and Leicestershire (63) leading the way in terms of numbers of pubs with Bass as a permanent beer. Leicestershire includes my personal favourite, the New Inn at Peggs Green, because of their welcome to a long distance walker on a very wet day.

For lovers of geography, there are hints of the old delivery routes by road, canal and rail in the modern-day loyalties to Draught Bass. The A38 to Derby and the South-West , the old A50 towards Leicester and Stoke and the A444 to Coventry, all links to pockets of relative strength for the beer. As Boak & Bailey say, “there’s a lingering sense out west, of Bass as a premium brand”.

Elsewhere there are swathes of Draught Bass deserts with only the occasional oasis to quench the thirst. In Manchester, the Unicorn holds sway as a unique city centre Bass boozer (see Tandleman’s reports below), Birmingham city centre is empty of Bass pubs, with Liverpool, London, Edinburgh and Glasgow also short-changed.

In Wales, there are a few opportunities to drink Draught Bass and the locals are proud of their traditional Bass pubs. As the GBG entries for the Borough Arms in Neath and the Pen & Wig in Newport respectively report, “this is probably the best back-street pub in Wales, much to the delight of the locals” and “a pub like they used to be”. Stirring stuff indeed.

And uniquely in Cornwall at the New Inn in Tywardreath, they love their Draught Bass so much that the pub is covenanted to sell it in perpetuity.

What’s happened to Bass

When a beer is better known for pub mirrors than the beer itself, the brand has a problem. It has suffered at the hand of government and brand owners alike.

It has become a beer brand that is so damaged by neglect it would make an excellent case study for a MBA. It’s no coincidence that the beer is all too occasionally listed on CAMRA’s  WhatPub database, as Marston’s Other (Bass) or Molson Coors Burton – Other (Bass). Its brand profile as a draught beer is desperately weak.

The changes of ownership and brewer that have progressively weakened Draught Bass are not entirely the fault of the owners. The decline in beer sales was likely to cause structural changes in the UK brewing industry, but the ‘Beer Orders’ laid waste to Draught Bass, and what followed can be traced back to the chaos created in 1989.

The ‘Orders’ placed a limit of 2,000 pubs for each brewery’s tied estate. This was the catalyst for a merry-go-round of corporate disposals and the creation of the non-brewing pubcos. Bass had one of the largest tied estates and the repercussions were immense.

As Pat Saunders described it in the Brewery History journal,

“By February 2000 Bass had decided to quit the brewing business.”…”By June 2000, Bass agreed a sale of its brewing division for £2.3 billion to Belgium rival Interbrew. With the sale went the Bass name and red triangle trademark.”

“The deal though, like the failed attempt with Carlsberg, was fraught with difficulties. Brussels agreed the UK probe in to the Bass deal and its referral to the European Commission….In February the matter was taken to the courts. In the interim Interbrew could retain Bass Brewers until a ruling on the enforced sale of the brewing interests. Interbrew wanted some freedom of choice over how it could make the disposals. In May the High Court overturned the Government ruling.”

With the Competition Commission forced to reconsider its position, various options were developed by the OFT. Eventually Patricia Hewitt (Secretary of State for Trade and Industry) decided that Interbrew should be required to dispose of either Bass Brewers or Carling Brewers to a buyer approved by the OFT.

By 2002, Coors bought most of the brewing business and created Coors Brewers Limited, the UK’s second largest brewer with more than 20% market share. However Interbrew retained the rights to the Bass beer brand.

After the deal, Draught Bass was initially brewed by Coors and in 2005 production was moved to Marston’s brewery in Burton. So for the past 16 years, AB InBev hasn’t brewed a drop of Draught Bass in the UK. (Kegs, cans and bottles are brewed in Salmesbury in Lancashire.)

Staffordshire Day was celebrated recently with a Michael Arthur Bass look-a-like leading the way and Burton’s MP and former Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group , Andrew Griffiths, lauding Bass as one of the UK’s leading brands. Mr Bass must have been ranting from the grave given the current state of the brand and the decline in the numbers of pubs stocking one of England’s great traditional ales.

Can Draught Bass be saved?

It’s difficult for me to be unemotional about Draught Bass. It was part of growing up in Burton. But what are the facts.

The EU AB InBev careers’ website accurately describes the relative importance of their brands to the company.

“The UK has a strong portfolio of AB InBev brands. This includes, global brands, Stella Artois and Budweiser, international brands, Beck’s, Leffe and Hoegaarden, as well as local brands, including Boddingtons and Bass.”

Boddies and Draught Bass…as I’ve described before, the awkward kids in the class for AB InBev.

A search for Draught Bass on the main AB InBev website, illustrates the problem further.

“Results For: Draught Bass

No results were found.”

You get the feeling it just doesn’t matter any more to the brand owner. When did you last see any press coverage driven by AB InBev, for what was once one of the world’s leading brands?

Could anyone else do better?

Carlsberg has recently announced a revamp of their Tetley brands including cask, with promises of investment. In response to questions from the Morning Advertiser, Carlsberg gave their thoughts.

“Tetley’s is a bit of a sleeping giant in the portfolio, in that we have perhaps not done much with it in the last five years….It’s a brand that we have probably underestimated in terms of its potential within our business, but we feel it deserves more love – it’s about trying to breathe new life into it”

Whilst some Tetley lovers will not be happy until it’s once again brewed in Leeds, the plans of Carlsberg shows that some brand owners are willing to invest in a premium ale. And Tetley’s Cask is only a minor regional classic. (Obviously since I wrote the original post, Carlsberg have announced that Leeds Brewery will be brewing some old recipe Tetley beers in Leeds. Tetley’s Cask will continue to be brewed in Wolverhampton.)

Imagine what might be done with a world-leading brand like Draught Bass.

So that’s Carlsberg sorted on the premium cask front. Are there any other large brewers/pub estates that ought to consider acquiring and investing in Bass?

Marston’s from a technical viewpoint might seem an obvious choice, but I suspect in their eyes they would be merely diverting funds from their established brands, principally Pedigree. In my view, Greene King for similar reasons would prefer to stick with GK IPA. Molson Coors have put their marketing muscle and sales distribution behind Doom Bar and why should they switch from a very successful brand (in commercial terms) that they acquired only recently.

For me there’s only one player in town who should be interested. In the UK, Heineken have a substantial estate (Star Pubs and Bars) but they don’t have a strong premium cask ale, with only Deuchars and John Smith’s in the pack. They have experience of Draught Bass in their leased estate and could do so much with the brand.

‘Great stuff, this Bass’, or just a BBB that’s not what it was?

Boak and Bailey in All About Beer magazine describe the problems with some old beer brands, in their case with regard to Guinness.

“…beers that are around for a long time often come to be be perceived as Not What They Used to Be…Sometimes that is due to jaded palates or is the result of a counter-cultural bias against big brands and big business”…Both of these might apply to Guinness but there is also objective evidence of a drop in quality, or at least essential changes to the product.”

The loss of the Burton Union system of brewing Draught Bass and the move to contract brewing by Marston’s are significant changes in my eyes. Some say that it might even be partly brewed in Wolverhampton. However at its best it remains a fine beer of subtle qualities.

The Drinker’s Tale

Tandleman expressed similar concerns in a blogpost about a trip to the Unicorn in Manchester in 2014.

“We brought our pints into the the back room and surveyed the beer. Served in Bass glasses, the beer was a mid brown and served Northern style. It smelled sweet and malty with just a hint of hops. And that’s how it tasted too. It was in great nick and I could have drank a few. We all enjoyed it, but to me it wasn’t the Bass of yesteryear, but that was hardly a surprise.

Is Bass part of the present or the past. It is a ghost of its former self, so the past I’d say, but it was nice to drink it again nonetheless.”

Two years later he recounts a slightly different tale of the same pub,

“I caught a barman’s eye and shouted out that rarely heard order “Two pints of Draught Bass please. Not only was the Bass on, it was superb. In this time capsule, it seemed just the thing to drink. We had two pints each. The Unicorn was a Bass House and Bass is still one of the permanent beers. The presence of Worthington Smooth is another clue. I wrote about it and Bass here a couple of years ago, but I liked the Bass less then. I wonder why?”

That’s my experience too, well-conditioned and in a pub of good sales volumes it is a still a wonderful beer. Could it be better, probably.

The Landlord’s Tale

Hughie Price, host of the Tynemouth Lodge Hotel conveys his passion about Draught Bass and a few wistful thoughts on how ‘things ain’t what they used to be, or could be’.

“The first time I drank a pint of proper beer in a pub, it came straight out of a wooden barrel on the end of the bar and it was Draught Bass, otherwise known as Bass Pale Ale (4.4% ABV)….Draught Bass is the No 1 selling ale at my pub. Bass drinkers are surprisingly loyal to their product, as it still one of the finest beers brewed in the UK. It’s all down to the flavour, as well-kept Bass is in a class of its own…

When Bass ceased to be brewed using the Unions, there was a marked change in the character of the ale, which was lamented by devotees of the beer, myself included…. The Burton Union System is a brilliant system for separating the yeast from the wort, but far from being just a yeast-clarification mechanism, the Unions also deliver more robust and flavoursome beers than other real ale brewing plant…

Marstons-brewed Bass has a superb if slightly modified flavour, but is brighter in character and with a much lighter sediment in the barrel, which bodes easier on the stomach. It is still brewed to the old Bass recipe using two unique strains of brewers’ yeast, which contributes greatly to the flavour of the ale along with Burton water and finest English hops and malted barley…

Although Marstons are now brewing Bass in Yorkshire Squares, it is now the only brewery left in the UK that still uses the Burton Union System for brewing some of its own beers. Marstons are to be applauded for keeping their Burton Unions intact. It is just a shame that Marstons do not brew Bass in their Unions, as this would regenerate a huge amount of interest in Draught Bass and return the character of the beer to its former glory.”

He finishes with, “the future for Draught Bass is uncertain.” Indeed so.

Finally

What can you do to help? Drink Draught Bass. Get out to one of these pubs and savour a pint of Draught Bass and if it’s good, tell the landlord. If he or she doesn’t have it – ask why? And if you’re really brave ask AB InBev about their plans for Draught Bass and ask CAMRA what they are doing to put pressure on the brand owner.

Of course you might still think it’s just a bland old BBB and that’s why it’s disappearing. In that case I’ll leave the last word to Roger Protz. In a recent tweet, he summed up why I hope my grandson won’t need to ask his ‘mirror, mirror on the pub wall’ question.

“If Timothy Taylor’s Landlord or Boltmaker… or Draught Bass are bland beers, I am a banana sandwich.”

He’s not, it isn’t.

Draught Bass Directory May 2018

Thank you

Whilst I lay claim to all the errors and omissions (BTW, comments and additions welcome below), the listing couldn’t have been put together without others’ sterling efforts. The CAMRA volunteers who produce the GBG and WhatPub entries for a start. My fellow Bass obsessives – RetiredMartin, PubCurmudgeon and Britainbeermat who were willing to sit next to the strange bloke on the Bass social media bus. And everyone else amongst the twitterati who contributed their favourite Draught Bass haunts.

The listing belongs to us all but I acknowledge the copyright of CAMRA to GBG and WhatPub entries. (I’m happy to relinquish the copyright of the Directory to CAMRA if they’re interested.) Whilst I’m about it I acknowledge the trade mark, the world’s most famous trade mark – the Red Triangle of Bass held by AB InBev.

Commercial use of this post and the Draught Bass Pub Directory is not permitted.

 

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15 Comments

  1. Hughie was just on yesterday about how it would be a great idea for W&D to buy the Bass brand and secure its future. You can add the Low Lights Tavern in North Shields (five minutes walk from the Tynemouth Lodge) to the Bass list – it’s sold it for around six years although it’s nowhere near as good as the Lodge’s.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for doing all that research! Coming to London this summer and hope to visit the one pub that carries it. Former Bass Ale fan in the States. Visited the brewery twice many years ago.
    Kegged Bass Ale in the States is now made in New York at an AB brewery. Distribution and sales are almost zero. The taste is obviously awful.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Heineken also have Theakston – the story is complicated, from what I can work out the family have regained control but Heineken retain a substantial stake and treat Theakston as their main cask brand along with Caledonian. Obviously they could do more with it internationally than some.

    If you want Bass to be brewed in Unions then I suspect Marston are the only people with the interest and the coopering capability to do it, but you can see why they wouldn’t do it without full control of the brand. Their approach seems to be collecting BBB brands so that they can appear to offer “choice” in their pubs, so I wouldn’t rule it out.

    I suspect Bass will end up with whoever buys Enterprise, which may well be Coors, it would be quite a good geographical fit with Carling. I wouldn’t rule out Greene King either – they could do with a more “northern” brand now that they’ve got Spirit, and they could do with a bit more stamp collecting to offer a more varied range on the bar like Marston. It would also be sort of fitting for the two big British cask breweries to have Bass and Pedigree as their flagship brands.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: A TOURIST IN NOTTINGHAM LOOKING FOR BASS – retiredmartin

  5. Enjoyed the article, well researched and presented. Working for one of the Bass subsidiaries in London in the 1990’s, I recall that Draught Bass was a difficult beer to keep well in the tied pubs and those that could did very well – e.g The White Horse, Parsons Green where the cellar-man at the time was Mark Dawber who has gone on to greater things with Adnams. When the tied houses were allowed to take a guest ale, a lot of London pubs took Fullers London Pride which was supposed to be easier to keep, consequently Draught Bass took a back seat or vanished from the pumps altogether.
    The great shame is that all that tradition tied up with the red triangle (the first registered trade mark), and the advertising heritage has been lost and this is largely down to the management decision to split the company and put more investment into the Holiday Inn brand which seemed to take favour over the UK pub estate – it’s sad that Bass should only be thought of as a manufacturer of pub mirrors

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Many thanks for your response. Much appreciated. Good to hear what happened over the last few decades. You make an interesting point about the difficulties of conditioning Bass. It’s worth linking through to Hughie’s excellent blog as he describes how it’s easier now but the beer isn’t as good.

    Like

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