Bass was founded in Burton-on-Trent in 1777 but it was the arrival of the railway there in 1840 which helped it expand rapidly - to almost a million barrels a year by 1877. The beer developed an international reputation and a bottle of Bass, with its distinctive red triangle, can even be seen in one of Manet's impressionist paintings of Parisian bars. In 1926 Bass merged with another Burton brewer, Worthington, and did likewise in 1961 with Mitchell and Butlers of Birmingham. The "brewing merger of the century" however saw Bass coming together in 1967 with Charringtons of London to from what was then by far the largest brewing company in Britain. Bass held this position until the Courage/Scottish Newcastle merger of 1995 pushed it into second place with "only" 23% of the market.
The recent attempt by Bass to regain the number one spot by merging with Carlsberg/Tetley was thankfully blocked by the incoming Labour Government. Bass has this solid, reliable, conservative, but dull, image. It has been highly successful in converting poorly performing managed pubs into themed bars such as O'Neills. But the contention is that the return on the equity of refurbishing pubs is not sufficient to cover the cost of doing them up.
Bass now has eight breweries, three of which are keg only. Their cask ales are not an inspired bunch, beers like Worthington Bitter, Brew XI, and Toby are the epitome of blandness. The flagship brand, Draught Bass itself, used to be one of the great real ales but is rarely found in good condition these days. All too often it has an unpleasantly cloying taste. Stones Bitter, a straw-coloured brew from Sheffield, is probably the best of their national beers.
By far the most interesting Bass beers come from the mini-brewery housed in the Bass Museum at Burton. Many of these beers recreate old Bass recipes whilst others are brewed on behalf of publicans or even individuals. Anyone who tasted Hop Pit Number Five at the Cambridge Beer Festival will need no convincing that they can do the biz.
Bass has never had many pubs in our area. By the early eighties they had just three, all in Cambridge - The Earl of Beaconsfield, The Great Northern and The Little Rose. The last became a restaurant after Bass's lease expired, while the second transmogrified first into City Limits then into Chambers, passing out of Bass's hands somewhere along the way. On the plus side, Bass bought The Minster Tavern in Ely in the late eighties and most recently has given us Quinns Bar at The Holiday Inn.
The Earl of Beaconsfield is an imposing street-corner local next to Mill Road railway bridge. New landlord Gary Hart took over at the beginning of October. A good selection of real ales; Draught Bass, Fullers London Pride, Old Speckled Hen and, in long term occupation of one guest beer pump, City of Cambridge Hobson's Choice. The other guest pump, currently Tiger, should change weekly.
The Minster has been opened out into one large bar and attracts a predominantly youthful crowd. It too always features cask beers, Bass and Hancocks HB are the regulars, while manager Dennis Sharpe includes guest ales whenever trade warrants it.
Like all the big brewers, Bass has put its faith in national brands, nitrokeg (Caffreys), themed pubs and rationalisation. We can probably be thankful that it has such a minor presence round here.
ALE November/December 1997 No. 289
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