Fancy a Bass?
We’re losing pubs, we’re losing breweries and we’re also losing something less tangible – our brewing heritage. With some 2,000 breweries in operation, drinkers have an abundance of choice. But beneath the radar, some fine and even historic ales have been lost, or are in danger of disappearing or being changed out of all recognition.
Half a century ago, CAMRA’s target was the new national brewers which were hell-bent on replacing good ale with keg beers. The national groups were ale brewers which, thanks to the Campaign’s efforts, could see the success of the likes of Young’s and Fuller’s in London and similar family and independent brewers throughout the country.
As a result, in some cases they restored and even promoted their cask brands again. Draught Bass, the country’s biggest-selling premium bitter, was a case in point: encouraged by CAMRA, Bass produced posters that stressed the beer’s history and its system of production.
Scroll forward 50 years and it’s a different challenge today. The big brewers are global giants. Their over-arching interest is what passes for lager in their vast portfolios. They are driven by an insatiable quest for volume over quality, and they can’t be bothered with finicky ales that need time to mature and reach perfection in casks in pub cellars.
Take the case of Draught Bass again. It once accounted for 800,000 barrels a year. That’s now down to just 30,000 and it’s increasingly hard to find. Its supporters promote it by bush telegraph. In St Albans, it’s a case of “Bass is on in the Robin Hood – call a cab!”
The beer is owned by AB InBev, the world’s biggest brewer, which will sell you the brand if you happen to have £12m under the mattress.
AB InBev also owns the famous Manchester beer, Boddingtons Bitter, an ale so exquisite it made strong men weep or in my case, on my first tasting, a refusal to leave the pub on the grounds that “I didn’t know beer could be that good”. But it wasn’t good enough for AB InBev, even though at its peak it was one of the top five beers in Britain.
Production of cask Boddingtons stopped in 2012 and is now reduced to keg and canned versions. The Times newspaper magisterially criticised AB InBev for its mishandling of the brand, but the paper failed to appreciate the importance of concentrating on such vibrant examples of the brewers’ art as Bud Light.
In Edinburgh, Heineken has closed the Caledonian brewery and the buildings are being turned into top-end apartments on the main road to the airport. The brewery dates from 1869 and is renowned for its historic brewing equipment. It includes boiling coppers heated by direct flame that, according to a former head brewer, stops the beer-in-progress from becoming stewed.
Its main brand, Deuchar’s IPA, will be produced for Heineken by Greene King’s Belhaven brewery at Dunbar, but the rest of the portfolio will be consigned to history.
And Deuchar’s, a former Champion Beer of Britain, is a shadow of its former self. Under first Scottish & Newcastle and now Heineken, it lost its lustre as a result of using cheaper raw materials.
Golden Promise barley and Fuggles and Styrian Goldings hops? You can’t be serious: they’re expensive and the Dutch behemoth had to find £1m to promote a new lager, Heineken Silver.
The Carlsberg and Marston’s Brewing Group, formed in 2022, has been no slouch in closing breweries. Jennings in Cumbria and Wychwood in Oxfordshire have shut, to be followed by Ringwood in Hampshire. When Marston’s was an independent company, it energetically supported its regional subsidiaries, but under CMBC they have gone down the sluice while it invests £10m in its lager plant in Northampton.
What will happen to all the beers from the former CMBC breweries? Some will no doubt end in that elephant’s graveyard, Banks’s brewery in Wolverhampton, where you will find Tetley Bitter.
Remember Tetley? It was synonymous with Leeds until Carlsberg came calling and closed the brewery. It also axed the Ind Coope brewery in Burton along with Draught Burton Ale, a beer that helped drive the cask revival in the 1970s.
Much of the production of Hobgoblin beers, allegedly brewed at Wychwood, has been moved to Banks’s. Will they be followed by the Brakspear beers?
When Brakspear closed in Henley-on-Thames, the beers went to Wychwood. Brakspear Special was briefly revived by a brewpub in Henley, but it’s been discontinued.
Brakspear Bitter has been renamed Gravity. What sort of dumb name is that for a beer? Is it nicknamed Isaac Newton?
When I lived in London, I revelled in the hoppy glory of the ales from Young’s in Wandsworth. When the brewery closed in 2006, the beers were produced for a few years at the Charles Wells plant in Bedford. The former Young’s head brewer Ken Don spent several months in Bedford matching the beers to his satisfaction.
Then in 2017, Wells sold the Eagle brewery to Marston’s which, under the CMBC banner, passed it to a Spanish lager company in late 2022. No ale is brewed there now, and the Young’s beers were transferred to Wychwood and presumably will go to either Wolverhampton or Burton.
They’ve been rebranded London Original and London Special. Crikey, London’s a big place these days but the wonderful Wandsworth beers have not transferred well and bear little resemblance to the ales of old.
I need a beer. Anyone fancy a Bass?