Baying for Bass

In my last two posts I mentioned that lager captured the imagination of the technical fraternity of British brewing in the late 1800s. The change percolated into the breweries, assisted by energetic efforts of Germans or Anglo-Germans getting into brewing in England.

Native brewers followed soon enough so that by the 1920s lager was on trade lists, an exotica favoured by foreigners, Bohemian circles, and officers, diplomats and others of the (enforced) travelled classes.

The great culinary writer Elizabeth David advised to bring lager, among other drinks, on a picnic. While she was writing well after WW II no doubt she was recalling picnics of her youth in the late 1930s.

After all wrinklies don’t go on picnics – I’m not sure anyone does with the frequency described in the glossy food volumes, but those who do it tend to be nimble in the knees.

But what of circa-1850 Britain? A very different time. Britain was proud of its beer. Sydney Smith famously encapsulated the feeling when he wrote that no two ideas were more inseparable than beer and Britannia.

One way this manifested was the use of verse to laud British beer, often in gaudy and intentionally exaggerated terms, to make a point of course.

One frequently cited poem – Michael Jackson recounts it in an early book – orated that the beer of old Burton if “right” will inspire you to “fight”, versus that is (un-literally) frothy Continental drinks that inspire you to dance.

Jackson termed it a dubious tribute – one thing Jackson wasn’t was a Mr. Blimp. His politics tended to the left and he didn’t like that kind of swagger.

On the other hand, in his diplomatic way, Jackson made very clear his belief that beer had high epicurean value especially the great range of bitter and mild his native land offered.

The subsequent birth of a renewed world-wide beer culture is a tribute largely to his dogged faith in the special merits of good beer, British beer not least.

Ironically, part of that British heritage, much of it exemplified by old regional companies making beer of English materials, has gone with the, um, wind.

But in its place another form of ale has arisen to carry the flag. Punk IPA is an avatar, brewed by Scotland’s Brewdog. Punk IPA is the successor, via American craft pale ale and IPA, to disappeared regional bitters from Ruddles, the original Young’s, Eldridge Pope, the great Scottish breweries, etc.

Of course too there are hundreds of new regional brewers in England still making bitter and mild in the old way, or one hopes in the old way. And a clutch of the old ones remain, too, to show the way where they don’t re-invent themselves.

In 1855 a mock ode to Bass pale ale appeared in the superbly-named The Welshman, and General Advertiser, for the Principality of Wales, Carmarthen.

Although humorous and exaggerated in tone – it is unlikely for example any bloods visiting the Continent found nothing good to drink – it upheld British pride in their own productions, and by extension, in being British tout court.

A poem like this was only possible in a context where a contemporary writer noted that you could tell a Briton had passed through by the litter of Guinness and Bass bottles left behind.

In 1855, confidence in Empire and its mission was probably at its zenith even though the Empire lasted for another 100 years. The British weren’t embarrassed to send their products, industrial, cultural, comestible, around the world and trumpet them as superior.

What is saying the same thing almost, they weren’t in a mood to take lessons from foreigners, on gastronomy or much else.

A seeming irony is pale ale was barely 30 years old in England. But already it is spoken of as a deathless symbol of John Bull. The beer type is less important though than the deeper impulse behind the poem.

Before pale ale attracted attention of mock versifiers it was Burton ale. Before that porter, the revered Georgian black Champagne. Before that nut brown ale.

There is always a brew, or was, to serve as symbol of Albion.

And you can bet your life British beer at its best fully justified this. A well-brewed lager is very good to have but by its nature doesn’t reveal the ineffable notes of pale ale, porter, old ale.

This Anglo-Saxon gastronomic zenith was something felt more than expressed, the English were good at many things, but expressing pride in food and drink was not one, until lately if at all.

When they did try to vaunt the merits of their liquid best, the results often fell to bathos, as the poem being considered, although the effect is softened by this being the author’s intent. As the editor put it in his preface, no one was setting Parnassus on fire.

Still, the inveterate beer person likes this history, we take validation where we find it.

It remains true that if a culture fails to uphold its worthy institutions they risk fading away, and beer is only the least of it, in truth.

People start to travel, discover new things, encounter new cultures. Suddenly the pint in the corner pub seems old hat, and it’s a misty pale ale with grapefruit tones and Buffalo chicken wings you want in Bristol.

Jane Grigson said it best, if English towns had signs on the outskirts equivalent to what French towns do, à la (I paraphrase) “York, Its Cathedral, Its Medieval Centre, Its Unrivalled Hams and Puddings” then Britons would value their culinary legacy much more.

To be fair, York’s food culture is in good nick these days. The big county of Yorkshire, probably not incidentally the birthplace of Michael Jackson, never succumbed completely to the cultural inferiority that would rate an Italian or French ham over a local specialty perhaps introduced by the Romans.

They do an annual food and drink festival there, one with a strictly regional focus, that is on our radar to attend.

Returning to 1855, did you notice that the Bass declamation takes a good knock at the medical and legal professions, inter alia? But then that is not exclusive to verse, doggerel or other.

In fact the same broadsheet contains another zinger on we legal drudges, see if you can find it. Pretty funny it is too (ha ha).

Note re images: the first image above was sourced from the 1855 newspaper mentioned and linked in the text (via Welsh Newspapers Online) and the second and third from the Wales Online website. The interior depicted is the No Sign Wine Bar, in Swansea. All intellectual property in or to the sources mentioned belongs solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.