Bass Light Bitter Ale aka Oriental …

In an earlier post, I mentioned Bass Austral Ale, marketed in Australia during the first decade of the 1900s. It was a pale ale but less strong than Bass I.P.A. It was seemingly unrelated to a strong Bass Austral Ale shipped fifty years earlier to Australia that Martyn Cornell identified.

The Austral Ale of 1900-1910 was probably similar to another, lighter form of Bass pale ale I’ll discuss below.

There are a couple of references, early 1900s vintage, to a “Bass light pale ale” in David Hughes’ A Bottle of Guinness Please. The beer was possibly the same as the Bass light bitter ale (or the second Austral ale) discussed below. Perhaps varying nomenclatures were used in the different markets.

The same perhaps applies to a Light Pale Ale that Bass advertised, seemingly c. 1900, in Calcutta. See the ad reproduced in Mitch Steele’s IPA: Brewing Techniques, Recipes, and the Evolution of India Pale Ale. Finally, c. 1900 Bass advertises a “table ale” in England, e.g. see here. The latter may have been a light bitter ale but perhaps was a low gravity, mild ale (so a different class of beer).

In 1884, the British Trade Journal and Export World, Volume 22, stated:


Germany was exporting lager in the late 1800s including to India and Australia. One response of Bass, and other U.K. brewers who exported, was to brew a lighter style of India Pale Ale. IPAs – Bass’s and most others – were typically strong by today’s mass market standards and certainly lager standards before WW I. They were, barring some exceptions, 6-7% ABV depending on brand and final attenuation.

The onset of world-wide interest in lager led to the well-known family of dinner, brilliant, and light ales. As a class, these have been well-documented but it has not been known to date, to my knowledge, that a Bass light pale ale was marketed for export before 1900.

It appears that the bottler Porter & Co. trademarked the name Oriental, as for its more famous Bull Dog mark (for Bass IPA), there seems no doubt Bass brewed Oriental. In January 1901 the Kenya Gazette carried this advertisement by local agents of the bottler, clearly showing two brands from Bass, the standard IPA and this light bitter ale, subtitled Oriental.



This beer, as the Austral ale of 1900-1910, was surely lower gravity compared to regular, Red Triangle Bass IPA. Possibly it was lighter in both colour and flavour, as well. Likely it was similar to the large number of light, dinner, sparkling, AK, running, etc. new-style ales that proliferated starting in the 1890s.

These became, in filtered and often pasteurized form, the standard ale of the mid-20th century. They were about 5% ABV depending on the period and other circumstances.

In 1889 The Board of Trade Journal confirms U.K. brewers were evolving light pale ales to compete with German and Austrian lager exports.

Also in the Board of Trade Journal, in 1893, M.B. Foster’s, another shipper of Bass to world markets, advertises the light bitter ale of Bass.

In a William Whiteley price list that included Bass and other prominent breweries, Worthington, Ind Coope listed both IPA and light bitter ales. No light beer is shown for Bass for bottled or draught beer. Bass’s nos. 1-6 ales were apparently all strong ales (old or mild), and regular mild ale, not any form of its pale ale: see Ron Pattinson’s ascribing of the styles as at 1879 in his book Bitter!, here.

Maybe Whitely’s in the period mentioned, just before WW I, had the domestic market in mind for its light bitter ale was not a factor, or (what is saying the same thing) didn’t mention a form of its bitter ale handled by export bottlers for specific markets under their names and capsules.

While I have no evidence of export of Bass light bitter to India, based on all the above, I think it quite likely some was sent there.

Also, the following may provide indirect evidence.

Colonel Fitz William Thomas Pollok authored books on his decades soldiering in the far east. In his Fifty Years Reminiscences of India published in 1896, an paragraph appears on beer in India:



The Colonel implies that the longer voyage by sea improved the beer. A shorter canal trip became usual after 1869, about mid-way during Pollok’s service in the east. The Suez route took perhaps a third of the time of the old Cape Route.

Because beer is less likely to deteriorate during a shorter voyage than a longer one, what explained a difference in quality noted by Pollok?

Bass IPA seems to have remained all-malt through the century, so I don’t think it was any change in the mash. Perhaps the hopping rate declined between the time Pollok shipped out from Southampton and his latter service in India. No data exists for Bass pale ale (vs. other beers) over that period, as far as I am aware.



But we know Bass light bitter ale was marketed from the 1880s. Could the Colonel have been drinking that in the late 1880s and 90s, and not realized it was a different beer to Bass East India Pale Ale? I think it quite possible.

Ironically, in this context, Pollok liked lager. “Beer, especially lager, is the best for the tropics”, see pg. 316. But maybe it was a case of, when I want Bass I want Bass.

Pollok knew pale ale well including his mention that the messes deployed special skills to bottle beer properly. A book published in 1878, The European in India by Edmund Hull, noted how “country bottled” pale ale, i.e. bottled in India from imported casks, was superior to bottled imports. The bottled, Hull wrote, was “apt to become … somewhat sharp and tart”.

Beer was exported to India both in bottle and cask. The connoisseurs clearly preferred cask beer bottled in situ. Perhaps one reason, apart from the tendency to be less acid, was a higher finishing gravity of cask vs. bottled.

Terry Foster’s modern study of pale ale states that American analysis of bottled and cask Bass (hence imported) in the 1880s-90s showed a cask sample at 1014 FG vs. a maximum 1007 for the bottled. If this pattern was similar in India and I don’t see why it wouldn’t have been, no wonder bibbers preferred country-bottled. It would have had a richer flavour from the greater residual extract.

That said, by the late 1800s the British Indian army, at any rate, drank beer mostly brewed in India. See (in part) the 1889 Board of Trade source cited above. The reasons included both quality and price.

For a continuation of this post, see here.

Note re images: image immediately above is draft Bass Ale, as poured in a Toronto pub not long before local (licensed) production ceased a couple of years ago. The other images are drawn from the volumes identified and linked in the text. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*Further searching disclosed a couple of references from the early 1900s to “Bass light pale ale” in David Hughes’ A Bottle of Guinness Please. This beer was quite possibly the same as Bass light bitter ale and/or the second Austral ale. Perhaps varying nomenclatures were used in the different markets. The same applies viz. a Light Pale Ale brewed by Bass advertised, seemingly c. 1900, in Calcutta. The ad is reproduced in Mitch Steele’s IPA: Brewing Techniques, Recipes, and the Evolution of India Pale Ale. Finally, again c. 1900 Bass also advertises a “table ale” in England, see e.g. here. The latter may have been, as well, the light bitter ale, but perhaps was a low gravity mild ale.








2 thoughts on “Bass Light Bitter Ale aka Oriental …”

  1. Gary,
    This is an interesting (but maybe unfathomable) description of the export beer industry in old Britain. I think there might be some explanation for why the beer bottled in the colonies was better than that bottled in Britain. Live beer (unpasturized on yeast) is somewhat better protected from oxidation to some extent by the action of the yeast to scavenge oxygen from the headspace. Also, could the various shippers have specified slightly different recipes for similarly named beers?

    • Arnold, thanks. The beer sent out in bottles in this period (1850-1900) was also bottled with residual yeast, hence scavenging applied the same way. Also, since casks are porous and beer casks in that period, from Britain, were not lined as lager casks were, the risk of oxidation was possibly greater in the cask. On the other hand, you have the greater bulk in casks, just as a large wheel of cheese will last longer than a small wedge, so…

      The beer in either case should have been subject to the same Brettanomyces, which would strip out the dextrin and complex sugars given enough time.

      I think in the end it’s the factor of bulk that made the biggest difference.

      I don’t think, from my understanding of it, the shippers could specify a different formulation from Bass or Guinness. AFAIK they all got the same beer, but some shippers had repute based on their skill in storing and bottling beer in England.

      I think it’s quite likely though that hop rates fell for Bass EIPA in those 50 years, because a drop has been identified generally (Pattinson has studied this in particular). Maybe the Colonel liked the higher-hopped beer. But it can work both ways here. Maybe the high-hopped beer, if it was higher-hopped earlier, smoothed out over the 3-4 month trip around the Cape whereas lower-hopped beer, taking only 30-45 days on the Overland Route through the Mediterranean and Suez, seemed more bitter.

      Yet another possibility: maybe the beer taking 3-4 months in transit, in the varying sea climates, developed the Brettanomyces tang and Pollok liked that, whereas beer sent in one-third the time on the Overland Route did not develop that quality, at least on arrival in India.

      Maybe Hodgson’s pale ale (his Hodson’s) was stronger than Bass in the 1850s, and when he said Bass, he really meant Hodgson’s. Indeed I’ve argued Hodgson’s was unusually strong, 8-9 ABV, at that time.

      One thing is certain though, Pollok knew beer well to make the statements he did. It’s not just the oft-cited romance factor, that in one’s dotage things from years before seem better but in truth are not. There was a reason for what he said, but divining it is difficult, at this remove.



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