The Bass Stink

It always comes as slight shock to realize that certain reputed foods and drink don’t objectively taste “good” on first acquaintance.

This is what is meant by acquiring a taste. From Sauternes, in which “la pourriture noble” (noble rot from botrytis) has a skein of flavour, to the best caviar – always a little fishy – the great foods and drinks often taste a little strange. Food habits are largely arbitrary, which explains the great diversity of things people eat and drink. Fermented mare’s milk, 100 year old eggs, fish sauces of Asia fermented as in Rome of old (garum), Limburger and many other cheeses, cider redolent of old horse blanket (Brettanomyces) – nations acquire a taste for things other cultures can’t abide. And vice versa.

National preferences tend to go in one direction or another. Britain’s traditional food has been said to be relatively bland. But even there exceptions exist and more so in the past. Ever had a bloater (form of smoked herring)? Old Stilton blue used to run with maggots. The British liked mutton, and game hung for weeks. Not for shrinking violets.

One kind of British beer, the famed pale ale of Burton-on-Trent, has always had a stenchy note that reminds many of (apologies) passing gas. Sulphate ions from dissolved gypsum in well waters explains it, in combination apparently with certain yeasts. People got used to the taste and it became a kind of national specialty, indeed an international one.

One might wonder why a taste not immediately attractive could gain a market foothold. It was thought the hard water in Burton beer created a tendency not to sour (see top right-hand column), a consideration which ended perhaps by trumping others. It may be too people just liked it, e.g., German lager is often redolent of dimethyl sulphide, a compound in this case deriving from pale lager malt, not mashing and brewing water.

Bass and other Burton pale ales superseded the original pioneered by Hodgson of Bow, London. Whether Hodgson’s was superior gastronomically is an open question. London’s soft waters were considered more suited to porter production, but if they produced a bitter without the tang of over-boiled egg, I’d say Hodgson’s had the edge. Commercial competition rendered this moot. Later, when all pale ale was vouchsafed from instability, the Burton type had the edge from tradition and pedigree.

I recall when I first tasted Bass in England about 30 years ago being disappointed in the “Burton snatch” as it’s called. It’s noticeable in Marston’s ale too, the other great surviving Burton beer (of the old school). A good English pale ale/IPA often still has the Burton snatch regardless of where brewed, as brewers’ chemists know how to mimic the effect. Much ado about … gastronomy…

In America in the second half of the 1800s, Bass beer was a reputed import, replicating its success around the world. It always cost more than domestic ale. It was from England, home of great ale, ancestor to the American project. Domestic brewers argued their beer was as good or better, but always had an uphill battle. Later-1800s press accounts on the domestic ale trade in New York attest continually to the falling position of ale and its downscale image. See for example this 1880s Brooklyn Daily Eagle piece, and this one.

It must have taken courage to say Bass was “stinky”, but some Americans mustered it.

In 1900, a Congressional hearing looking at food safety and additives in beer heard evidence that on opening a bottle of Bass ale, the drinker anticipated the “Bass stink”. In the source linked there is discussion on the causes. Given the state of science at the time, even experts didn’t really know.

Some thought it was due to lime, or the related sodium, bisulphite, a preservative which can lend a sulphury tang to foods and liquids preserved with their aid. Brewing writers of the period often commented on the effect but the need to preserve foods and drinks trumped issues of refinement of flavour. This was a time of transition, when pasteurizing beer to neutralize residual yeast hadn’t taken hold. In any case draught beer was not pasteurized then, only bottled where the process was used.

Another potential cause was Brettanomyces, as Bass ale then was long-stored at ambient temperature in uncoated wood before bottling. A Dutch scientist, Custers, around 1940 isolated brett yeast from bottles of Bass. This followed upon the landmark discovery around 1900 by Nils Claussen that vatted or long-stored English beer underwent a secondary fermentation from wild yeast, or brett, which imparted the flavour in question.

In the 1900 testimony, Bass strongly denied using preservatives. See my new article on American “musty ale” in Brewery History where I reference the evidence and expand the discussion of preservative in beer.

I’m inclined to believe Bass, and think the Bass stink must have been attributable either to the Burton snatch (gypsum in water) or Brettanomyces, or both. Still, the fact that Bass was bottled by numerous separate concerns – Bass didn’t take in the bottling function until much later, as ditto Guinness – suggested some bottled Bass sent around the world was probably dosed with bisulphite. But whatever the cause, one of the great beers of the world, Bass ale, was … odoriferous.

In the event, once something has cachet it is very difficult to dislodge it. Even today, the status conferred by certain beer and wine imports is magical. Many craft lagers, say, by virtue of being unpasteurized and freshly consumed, are superior to an imported German lager, but still people still endlessly order the latter. It’s the factor of “name”, or recognition. It’s true for many kinds of cheese and wine as well. It takes a long time for things to turn around, for people to develop the confidence to support local production when it is good.

Bass prospered as an export to the U.S. no less after Prohibition. You can still buy Bass in America, it is brewed today under license in New York State and, for local draft supply, Toronto. There is no more Burton snatch in it, no more Brettanomyces, it’s been rubbed out. (The English draught original still features the snatch though, or so I understand).

Was something lost? Yes and no.

Note re images: the first image was extracted from a 1902 issue of the New York Sun, here, available courtesy the NYS digitized newspaper resource. The second image was extracted from a 1904 issue of the same newspaper, here, courtesy the same resource. The last image is via the HathiTrust digitized library as linked in the text. Images appear for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property in the sources resides solely in their lawful owners, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.




2 thoughts on “The Bass Stink

    • Yes, interesting. I think though Brettanomyces and/or Burton snatch is a more likely explanation for the stink noted by Americans. Of the three factors, the most variable I think would be the lime bisulphite, both as to incidence in every batch bottled, intensity of same, and so on.

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