The Bass Stink

Americans Expected a Stenchy Smell on Opening a Bottle of Bass

It always comes as slight shock to know that some reputed foods or drinks don’t taste “good” on first acquaintance.

For these one needs to “acquire” a taste. From Sauterne wine in which “la pourriture noble” or noble rot colours the flavour to the best caviar – always a little fishy – great food and drink can taste a little strange. Food habits are largely arbitrary, which explains the great diversity of things people eat and drink. Fermented mare’s milk, 100-year-old Chinese eggs, Asian fish sauces fermented as in Rome of old (garum), Limburger cheese, farmhouse cider redolent of a horse blanket – these are just some of the things the producing nations admire while in other places they are anathema. And vice versa.

National preferences tend to favour either strong and impactful or bland and soothing. Britain’s traditional food has been said to show the latter traits. But even there exceptions exist, and more so in the past. Ever had a bloater, a form of smoked herring? Old Stilton blue cheese used to run with maggots. The British for centuries liked mutton, and game hung for weeks. Not for shrinking violets.

One kind of British beer, the famed pale ale of Burton-on-Trent, often had a stenchy note akin for some to (apologies) passing gas. Sulphate ions from dissolved gypsum in well waters explains it, in combination perhaps with certain yeasts. People got used to the taste and it became a regional, national, and finally international taste, in the form of Burton India Pale Ale.

One might wonder how a taste not immediately attractive could gain a market foothold, especially internationally. It was thought the hard water in Burton beer created a tendency not to sour (see top right-hand column), a consideration which perhaps trumped all others in pre-pasteurization, pre-refrigeration days.

It may be too people just liked the taste – German lager often discloses dimethyl sulphide, a compound deriving from pale lager malt, not from water used in mashing and brewing. Lots of people like that taste in beer, in Germany and outside.

Bass and other Burton pale ales superseded the original form pioneered by Hodgson of Bow, London. Whether Hodgson’s beer, which presumably lacked the stench because London’s water is soft, was superior gastronomically is an open question. Soft water is considered more suited to porter production, a London speciality in the past, but if the water produced a bitter ale without a taste of over-boiled egg, I’d say Hodgson’s had the edge.

The commercial skill of Burton’s brewers rendered this moot, as they took over the trade from Hodgson in India, which formed the basis for their later success in the domestic U.K. market. Even when pale ale could be vouchsafed from instability by microbiological controls and pasteurization, the Burton stench or snatch, as it is known in brewing circles, remained from tradition and pedigree.

When I first tasted Bass ale in England about 30 years ago I was disappointed by the Burton snatch, as I hadn’t grown up with it. It’s noticeable in Marston’s ales too, the other surviving Burton brewer of the old school. Today, a good English pale ale/IPA often still has the Burton snatch regardless of where brewed in the U.K. as brewing chemistry can mimic the effect.

In America in the second half of the 1800s, Bass beer was a reputed import, as it was around the world. It always cost more than domestic ale. It was from England, home of great ale, and the main ancestor in cultural terms to the American project. Domestic brewers argued their beer was as good or better, but they always had an uphill battle. Late-1800s press accounts on the domestic ale trade in New York continually attest to its falling position and rather downscale image, in contrast to the Germanic lager that is. See for example this 1880s Brooklyn Daily Eagle piece, or this one.

As an import, Bass ale retained its cachet, but at the time sales of imported beer were negligible in terms of national beer consumption: America drank its own, and it was to be almost exclusively lager by WW I.

It must have taken courage to call this Bass “stinky”, but Americans mustered it without discomfiture. In 1900 a Congressional hearing on food safety and additives in beer heard evidence that when opening a bottle of Bass drinkers expected the “Bass stink”. Given the state of science at the time, even experts didn’t really know the reason(s), as disclosed in the transcripts.

Some speculated the smell was from lime or sodium bisulphite, a preservative that can lend a sulphury tang to foods and liquids. Brewing writers in the period often commented on this effect but the need to preserve foods and drinks trumped all refinements of flavour. This was a time of technological transition, when pasteurizing beer to neutralize residual yeast hadn’t taken full hold, especially for draft beer. People had recourse to what worked. Better pongy than putrid…

Today, we know that another potential cause of the stink may well have been Brettanomyces, as Bass ale then was long-stored at ambient temperature in uncoated wood before bottling. A Dutch scientist, Custers, around 1940 isolated Brett yeast from bottles of Bass. This followed on the landmark discovery c.1900 by Nils Claussen that vatted or long-stored English beer underwent a secondary fermentation from wild yeast, or Brett, which caused the flavour in question.

In the Congressional testimony Bass strongly denied using preservatives. In my article on American “musty ale” in Brewery History I referenced this evidence and wrote that the likely cause(s) of the stink were the Burton snatch (gypsum in water), Brettanomyces, or both. Still, the fact that Bass was bottled by numerous separate concerns – Bass didn’t take over the bottling function until much later – suggests that some bottled Bass was probably dosed with bisulphite, and the preservative might have imparted a noticeable off-smell. But whatever the cause, one of the great beers of the world, Bass ale, was odoriferous. Some classic Burton ale still is.

And so once a drink, or food, acquires a cachet it is difficult to dislodge the reputation even if “objectively” it has what can be viewed as faults in flavour. Even today the status of certain beer and wine imports is magical. Example: many craft lagers by virtue of being unpasteurized and sold soon after production are superior to imported lagers. Still, many people endlessly order the import. It’s the factor of “name”, or recognition. It’s true for many kinds of cheese (Stilton, Roquefort) and wine as well. It takes a long time for things to turn around, for people to develop the confidence to support local production even when arguably it is superior either due to less processing or simply a higher standard of production.

Bass ale prospered as an export to the U.S. after National Prohibition (1920-1933) just as before. You can still buy Bass in America, it is brewed today under license in New York State. There is no more snatch in it, no Brettanomyces, it’s been rubbed out. The English draught original, now brewed at former rival Marston’s in Burton, still features it though, or so I understand.

Note re images: the first image was extracted from a 1902 issue of the New York Sun, here, available courtesy the NYS digitized newspaper resource. The second image was extracted from a 1904 issue of the same newspaper, here, courtesy the same resource. The last image is via the HathiTrust digitized library as linked in the text. Images appear for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property in the sources resides solely in their lawful owners, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.




2 thoughts on “The Bass Stink”

    • Yes, interesting. I think though Brettanomyces and/or Burton snatch is a more likely explanation for the stink noted by Americans. Of the three factors, the most variable I think would be the lime bisulphite, both as to incidence in every batch bottled, intensity of same, and so on.

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