Bass Obsessed Man


No, I don’t mean me, although I appreciate Bass ale – more especially its history.

In 1987, C.C. Owen wrote a scholarly article, “The History of Brewing in Burton Upon Trent”, published in the Journal of the Institute of Brewing. You can read it here.

He writes:

After 1790 the deteriorating political situation in the Baltic began to adversely affect commerce, while the onset of the Napoleonic wars in 1793 obliged the brewers to pay high insurance charges, convoy dues and excessive prices for grain. By 1806 this branch of overseas trade had become so precarious that it was no longer profitable and the six remaining [Burton] brewers were obliged to seek markets at home. Although the Baltic ale trade never revived, its development had been of great significance in establishing a viable brewing industry of high repute and a thriving industrial community of 6,000 inhabitants.

This point is central to the subsequent development of India Pale Ale as a staple of Trent valley brewing. It suggests too, rather more incidentally, that Burton would hold no particular brief for Napoleon Bonaparte, who had forced an important industry and its intermediaries to do a major reset.

Yet, about 20 years ago, as part of its Bass Obsessed Man ad series in the U.S., Bass announced in this tv ad that “Napoleon Bonaparte” wanted to set up a Bass brewery in Paris.

The ad is funny, and not surprisingly its director had been involved with the film Spinal Tap.

When you hear something like the Little Emperor and Bass ale were fast friends, many are tempted to think it’s pure invention. So many beer stories handed down the ages are said, after all, to be untrue or mostly untrue.

Yet some stories long understood to be mythic end by being true. The story of a departing ship capsizing with a load of (appropriately) India Pale Ale off the English coast, with the ale being sold at salvage, is actually true.

This kind of beer had been sold in England before, and the event’s connection to IPA’s later rise in Britain is unclear. But the ship (the Crusader) did exist, did carry IPA, did sink, and the ale and other cargo were sold as salvage, that is true as beer historians now know. I recounted the story and brewing historian Martyn Cornell’s discovery in this post some time ago.

And in regard to Bass and Napoleon, why would Madison Avenue, famously inventive as the genre is known to be, make up something like the Bass and Napoleon story? No one could simply conjure this, there had to be some basis for it.

No doubt Bass told the ad writer. But where did Bass get it from? I haven’t traced that, a book called Bass: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Ale (1927) may reveal some part of the story.

But I know the answer, or I’m pretty sure I know. I found it in an ostensibly unlikely source, a Victorian book on temperance. Temperance studies, even of the breathless 19th century type, often end by being useful sources on the alcohol industries. After all, know your enemy…

The book is the The Temperance Dictionary (1862) by Rev. Dawson Burns. See his entry for Michael Bass, descendant of the founder William Bass:

Ah, so it was Napoleon III, not Bonaparte. This makes sense. The nephew who finally crowned himself Emperor of France was active when Burton was in its glory as a centre of the world ale trade.

Even had Bonaparte been minded to help Bass in Paris – and found a pacific moment to launch the plan – in his time Burton ale was a strong, sweet, brown drink, one not likely to appeal to Parisian becs. Burton brewers only developed IPA from the 1820s. By then, Bonaparte really had gone for a Burton.

But exhilarating Burton pale ale, snappy and clean on the palate, is different. Indeed IPA gained good early sales in Paris as part of its general international expansion.

And Napoleon III might be expected to welcome one of the world’s greatest breweries to his rebuilt city. Remember? He commissioned the engineer Haussmann to design a new centre for the city. A perfect opportunity to welcome a famous brewery to the zones industrielles created strategically in the new city.

Napoleon III ensured the creation of Les Halles, the famous food market of Paris, so he had an interest in food supply and logistics.

He even got behind a project to create a reliable substitute for butter. Now that part doesn’t sound very Paree, very gourmet, yet Napoleon III was no misty-eyed romantic; had he been he wouldn’t have torn down half of Paris to put up something new and untested.

So it makes sense it was he who tried to entice Bass to Paris.

Back to the 1998 commercial: It’s revealing in a number of ways. First, an interest in beer history is being mocked, basically. Even in the context of a short, hardly serious pitch the beer nerd is made to look like a pedant/blowhard.

The cool guy is the one trying to order a beer and he doesn’t want to know from beer history. The chick behind the bar, well, she’s heard it all before.

Then there is the stuff about the water being filtered through gypsum. Yes, gypsum is part of the story of Burton ale success, but it isn’t being told exactly right. The implication is the water is clarified, or purified in the actor’s words, by the gypsum.

Gypsum, or calcium sulphate, is a common mineral. It actually works in brewing to accentuate hop bitterness and add a sulphur note. These encourage the stability of beer, an important issue before pasteurization was developed.

Finally, they conflated Bonaparte and the nephew. Not so serious in the context of commercial advertising, nature of the beast one might say.

And it’s just a beer commercial and they had little time, so…

If the ad was done today, some 20 years later, I think the history would be treated more respectfully, and the facts better nailed down. Maybe.

But why didn’t Baron Michael Bass go to Paris? Why is an interesting question. Can it be he was in no mood to conciliate the descendant of a man who had destroyed his ancestors’ brown beer trade, even were it to his advantage?

Can it yet be Napoleon III was trying to make amends for his uncle’s devastation of that trade?

Perhaps, à la longue, the “water is different” theory really is true.

We can’t know, or I don’t know, at any rate. One thing is clear though: Napoleon III had vision, since beers are commonly brewed today far from source with great fidelity.

(That Napoleon clan really had something, we could use their like today).

N.B. The image above is a glass of genuine Bass Ale, brewed in Toronto by the Labatt unit of AB InBev. Whatever the whys and wherefores of creating the beer in mid-1800s Paris, it’s no trouble to make it far from Burton today.