Inside the Bass House
I read the story of Vic Long this month. He was celebrating his 50th anniversary behind the bar at the Ship Inn in Portishead, Somerset. Some of the regulars who joined octogenarian Vic at the party were present at the opening too, including one builder who had assisted him with the pub’s construction.
Vic is thought to be the longest-serving landlord in the country, certainly the longest serving to have built the pub themselves. The Ship has a regular place in the Good Beer Guide, and what really caught my attention was that this pub is a permanent home for Draught Bass.
The WhatPub description of the Ship tells us that “customers visit from afar to sample the Draught Bass”. No surprise really, the dedicated Bass house is a relative rarity these days. Once the biggest seller in the UK, available in most of the 9,000 tied Bass pubs, there are now just 426 establishments reported to have Draught Bass on as a permanent line, with some 200 more featuring it as an occasional guest. If you haven’t used Ian Thurman’s excellent Draught Bass directory to find your nearest outlet, then please proceed post haste.
I have found myself increasingly caught up in the mystique of Draught Bass. I first started looking into the subject in 2019, when I was researching 50 Years of CAMRA. The frequent references to the varied fortunes of the venerated pale ale in What’s Brewing piqued my interest and I tried to get to the bottom of why it attracted such devotion in its fans.
Of course, it’s not for everyone. One interviewee infamously called it “brown glop for old men”, missing the glory days when it was still made at the old Bass Brewery. But there is sufficient interest for well over 2,000 people to be part of the National Bass Day Facebook group and it is growing all the time.
What started for me as an academic interest has turned into a strong personal devotion. I am trying to unpick what has drawn me in. Strangely, it’s not so much the beer itself. I like a well-kept pint of Draught Bass just fine, but I’d never call it a particular favourite. It is the experience that I find, time and time again, in the permanent Bass house that has got me hooked.
My local Bass house is the Cross Foxes. It is in Coleham, just outside of the majestic and flood-prone loop of the River Severn that encompasses Shrewsbury town centre. You have to be in the know to go there – and that’s a little bit of magic straight off the bat. It’s very much a locals’ pub, although my visit raises no eyebrows.
There are more than 800 listed buildings in Shrewsbury, but sadly the Foxes is not one of them. I think it’s a little gem, although finding information about the origins of the building is difficult. It certainly existed as a pub in 1902 – you can pick it out quite clearly on the OS map. Its silhouette is possibly discernible on the 1884 map, but not marked as a public house.
We can be more confident about its recent history – a former Butler’s house, the pub has been under the stewardship of the same family since 1985. A large Bass logo takes pride of place in the centre of the building’s exterior. I stepped in from a deserted, drizzle-soaked street to a bustling den of warmth and noise.
The L-shaped pub has probably not changed much since 1985 (which does not meet the criteria for recognition under CAMRA’s Historic Pub Interiors project, currently set at pre-1970.) I ask for a pint of Bass, and it is delivered to me in the classic straight glass, with the proud red triangle lined with shining gold. This is another key part of the experience.
I lift the glass to my lips. I imagine I can detect a slightly sulphury aroma. But I know it is my mind playing tricks on me. Draught Bass stopped being brewed using the Burton union system in 1981. The characteristic Burton snatch hasn’t been a part of the Bass experience since before I was born. I’m not even sure I’ve identified it in Pedigree, but my senses conjure it up nonetheless, such is the romance of the story.
The pub is startlingly busy for an unremarkable early Thursday afternoon, and this is something I have come to associate with permanent Bass stockists. Punters of all ages are assembled at dark wood tables or standing in groups around the bar. Vintage brewery jugs hang from the low ceiling. This is the sort of place where conversations quickly draw in the whole room. I am pleased to find a stool at the bar to join the regulars, at the heart of the action.
One Bass-drinking patron, sitting in the corner with friends, spots me taking a few snaps with my camera as my pint settles. He calls to me. As I turn my head, he raises his hands aloft, outstretched, like some kind of mythological Merlin.
“What do you think of that then?” he calls.
His associates bellow with laughter. I am being treated to a classic parlour trick. His pint of Bass is leaning impossibly. It sits comfortably on just one edge. The base is angled at about 30 degrees.
I dutifully take a picture of the proud performer, then disappoint him slightly by asking him if I can take a photo of the groove in the table where he balanced the glass. Publican Daryl tells me that the well-worn channel has been there for at least 25 years.
“This pub is full of stories,” he says. “See these marks on the bar?”
He runs a finger across a small dent in the bar top, no more than a centimetre across, then points to another, just in front of me.
“My dad put nuts out on the bar one Christmas, about 30 years ago. One idiot ignored the nutcrackers and tried to break them on here with the bottom of his pint glass instead.”
And this is probably why I find myself now so entangled in the story of Draught Bass. Bass houses tend to be great pubs that care about their beer. They give me a good pint in an iconic glass. They surround me with smiling strangers who share their stories. And for me, this is worth seeking out.