Bass Purple Triangle Pale Ale

Yes that’s Bass purple triangle, not the more familiar red, or less familiar blue, polygons in the Bass pale ale family.

The Bass Tradition

Bass of Burton-on-Trent, UK historically made many kinds of beer including pale ale, mild ale, stout, and strong ale. In reputation, its pale ale aka East India Pale Ale was pre-eminent, certainly in the 19th century and for a good part of the next. It wasn’t the first India Pale beer but was probably the best known and most famous of the genre.

The brand still exists, in Britain and elsewhere. A U.S.-made version is pretty good despite anguished despairings of some tasters. A version brewed in Belgium is I think excellent, although different from the British draught that stresses, or the last time I had it, the “Burton snatch”.

This is a sulphur-like (burnt match, boiled egg) effect deriving from gypsum in well water, with the Bass yeast perhaps also playing a role. A vintage Bass label is seen below (source: Brewery History Wiki).



The Special Flavours of Bass

There was a notable funk in bottle-conditioned Bass Red Triangle exported c. 1900 to America. Some American drinkers called it the “Bass stink” as documented in my article on American “musty ale”. Musty ale was a fashionable drink in the U.S. Northeast from about 1875 until WW I.

While musty ale retains a certain mystery, the best explanation is probably not the sulphate snatch of Burton pale beer, but rather the effect of Brettanomyces. This is the wild yeast component in the former mixed cultures employed by British breweries until single cell yeasts became generalized in brewing.*

It depended how long the beer was kept, but Brett generally manifested in beer kept later rather than sooner, hence often in ocean-shipped beer. A typically horsey or barnyard flavour resulted, prized by devotees but less and less as the Victorian period wore on.

So, classical Burton pale ale could have at least two sources of funk, the “struck match” of gypsum-influenced mash water and the horsey notes of Brett. No wonder they called it the Bass stink.

Burton Sans the Funk, the Eagle Brewery

In the American Northeast some brewers in the Gilded Era claimed the superiority of their beer over Bass and similar imports. I gave examples earlier, but the statement below, from an 1885 issue of the Paterson, New Jersey Morning Call, is of particular note:



The words “…being entirely free from those characteristic odors often noticeable in malt liquors after a long sea voyage” probably referred to Brettanomyces

The full article explained that three partners of the brewery, called the Eagle Ale and Porter Brewery, were English-born. Such persons by personal connections or their own memory must have known what pale ale for the English market was like, the typical draught bitter of the day or light AK.

Inferentially such beers did not feature Brett, as by the later 1800s they were sold relatively fresh, with a month or so of aging, vs. kept in warehouse a year or more and then shipped in a sea voyage lasting many months. See Martyn Cornell’s summary on this point in his book Amber, Gold, and Black.

Brett takes time to work, to marshal its characteristics in bottle or cask. The effect would have varied from brewery to brewery, even brew to brew, but the general point made in the article makes sense.

The Americans were telling their customers (imo), don’t be lured by long sea-voyage pale ale, it’s not fashionable any more even in England, whence the style originated.

The “B” beer of the Eagle brewery, but probably also its I.P.A., were likely of this newer or “domestic” character, pale ales presenting a relatively fresh aspect.

I cannot exclude that the article was referencing preservatives in some exports, which could present a sulphur-like taste. I discuss this in the musty ale article, but incline, as explained there, to Brett as the cause of the stink in imported beers.

The phrasing “after a long sea voyage” seems to point to this, as preservatives where used were inserted at bottling stage or earlier.

Bass of Blue and Purple

Bass later marketed a bottled Blue Triangle Pale Ale starting in the 1930s, a pasteurized, stable version of Bass Red Triangle. I have drawn attention to yet a further “triangle” iteration, the little-known Bass Purple Triangle.

It was advertised in British Malaya in the 1920s as discussed in my recent article for Brewery History, “An Outline on Beers and Brewing in British Malaya: 1827-1957. Part I”. Below is a sample advert for the brand, in this case from the Australian press of the period (April 28, 1924, Townsville Bulletin):



My article discussed the likely character of Purple Triangle, considering it was probably akin to Blue Triangle, the intention being to present a fresh beer of “pub” character, not one long-matured with the exotic stamp of Brett.

I discussed an impactful ad in particular showing the hanging sign of an ideal English pub, telling Malayan expats Purple Triangle delivers what you remember from those pubs. The implied invitation was to shift from the still-available but old-fashioned, bottle conditioned Red Triangle to Purple Triangle, the taste of your “local” back home.

In the fullness of time Red Triangle became the standard bottled Bass, filtered and pasteurized just as Blue Triangle had been. Purple Triangle did not survive, or very far, the Flapper Age. Of course Britain’s colonial presence faded, and anyway lager, sans Brett however matured, took over the position in most overseas territories that characterized the Purple and Blue Triangles of Bass.

I identified numerous British examples in late 1930s Mandate Palestine in this post, some at least, such as Barclay’s Sparkling Beer, were lager but also presented ale-like aspects. A Purple Triangle Mark II if you will.

Bass Red Triangle as sold today in any market, including draught Bass, does not exhibit a Brett influence, but some of it still has a “sulphur springs” note, withal another taste.

The Eagle has Landed

The Eagle Brewery, for its part, carried on in somewhat altered form, due to merger with other local breweries, into World War I. It was still preoccupied with India Pale Ale, and took what are significant steps historically to market it more effectively, as discussed in this post.

However, the war and Prohibition put paid to further development of the beer. For a more granular look at Hinchliffe brewery history, see in the Document Center of the City of Paterson.

American I.P.A. survived Prohibition, but barely in comparative terms. Still, in the shape of Ballantine India Pale Ale** the style lasted long enough to help inspire a new generation of brewers. Early American I.P.A. still glimmers in today’s craft I.P.A., as a grandparent’s visage will echo in a lineal descendant’s.

Below we see in the Morning Call of 1885 the handsome Eagle Brewery as built in 1867 by Shaw, Hinchliffe, & Penrose.



Note re images: Source of each image above is identified and linked in text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*While some “family brewers” in the UK today apparently still use multi-strain yeasts, by my taste experience the Brett horsey note is absent today vs. occasional survival of a gypsum (struck match) note in their pale ale.

**Also from New Jersey.




Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.