One of the great ironies of the rise of I.P.A. (India Pale Ale) in U.S. craft and international brewing is an inverse decline of Bass Ale, originally Bass India Pale Ale. I refer here to Bass in North America and probably the U.K. It does enjoy strong sales in a few select markets, notably Japan, but where craft culture is strong the brand has languished.
Bass was de-anchored from its heritage when the Belga-Brazil international brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev acquired the business in Burton-on-Trent, U.K. about 20 years ago. In a series of corporate manoeuvres related to anti-trust compliance, AB In Bev contracted the brand out to North American-based Molson-Coors, which now owns the historic Burton brewery. Other brewers have made Bass too for the label-owner.
Marston’s, a surviving old Burton firm, currently makes the draught (real ale). Bottled and probably kegged beer (non-real ale) are made elsewhere in Britain for shipment overseas except to the U.S. and Belgium where AB InBev makes Bass locally, and latterly Canada.
By latterly, I mean that until quite recently small quantities of draft-only Bass Ale were produced at AB InBev/Labatt Brewery in Toronto. The city’s Elephant and Castle pub chain was one outlet for it, perhaps the only one. But on my last visit to a E & C – no Bass, and it was off the menu.
The website of Ontario’s The Beer Store, in good part owned by AB InBev, listed it for some years in kegs, but no longer. It therefore appears it is no longer available.
The beer, shown above last year at a E&C downtown, was very nice. It was similar to the imported Bass we used to get but fresher and better, even though only 4% ABV for some reason. It probably simply followed the current U.K. practice in this regard. The standard Canadian strength is 5% ABV.
Bass was at that level as an import, and even higher historically. Craft IPA is usually around 7% ABV, but Bass has stayed behind, like a once-thoroughbred racer whose pace is now a trot.
Few know or care today that this very Bass is a cornerstone of modern IPA. There would be no IPA today but for Bass and other early avatars: Hodgson, Salt, Allsopp, all popular in India in the early 1800s.
Bass until the craft era was well-reputed. It has a characteristic nutty, fruity taste. Apple-like, I always thought.
Many of the Burton beers were well-known for a tang of sulphur. I discussed it here a while back, and showed from original research that American beer mavens once savoured a “Bass Stink”. This was likely related either to the gypsum content of Burton well waters, a secondary fermentation from wild yeast, or both.
Latter-day Bass in bottles and cans, as well as kegged Bass such as the Canadian one mentioned, eschew the effect, an acquired taste for many. The draught Bass brewed at Marston’s still has it, a good thing for traditionalists.
I prefer the cleaner, brewery-conditioned Bass. But it seems the Toronto supply is used up. Will it come back? We’ll see. But there is little point to offering such an old specialty if you don’t tell people – accurately – what it is and what it means. I hope AB InBev will put the accent on educating the Ontario consumer, if the beer re-appears in the future.
If modern craft brewing is a party and Bass is crying, who can blame her? It’s her party, she can cry if she wants to. At least, she was on the committee.