New life for Bass and Boddies?
When I first started writing about beer in the late 1970s and was asked in radio or press interviews to name my favourite tipple, I routinely answered “Draught Bass”. It was a magical beer, with the famous Burton sulphurous aroma, followed by a complex intermingling of juicy malt, tart fruit and gentle but persistent hop bitterness.
Bass had an enormous tied estate throughout Britain that meant Draught Bass was available from the West Country and even into parts of Scotland. You were never far from a Bass pub or a pint of Burton’s finest. The sales figures were prodigious. Some two million barrels of Draught Bass were produced annually, making it far and away the biggest-selling premium cask beer in the country.
And it wasn’t confined to Bass pubs. It was not only widely available in the free trade but was also taken by other brewers for their outlets. I remember the late John Young, chairman of Young’s of Wandsworth, telling me that when he went into the family business in the 1950s and worked in the brewery’s pubs, Draught Bass always stood alongside Young’s beers.
“If you didn’t sell Draught Bass, there was no point opening the pub doors,” he said.
And yet first Bass and then InBev let the beer slide. The reasons are not difficult to grasp. Giant modern brewers are interested in volumes. Lager brands such as Carling and Stella Artois have far longer shelf lives than cask ales that have to be sold within a few days of being tapped.
The global breweries no longer own pubs. When Bass controlled a large tied estate, it could also control the quality of the cask beers it dispensed. But following the ham-fisted intervention of the government in the 1990s, the then national brewers had to sell off many of their pubs, and were no longer responsible for beer quality in the free trade.
Burton-brewed beers, with their volcanic secondary fermentation in cask, are notoriously difficult to look after. Without Bass cellar technicians on hand, the good name of Draught Bass suffered.
But if a brewer believes in a brand it will climb every mountain to support it and promote it. The new global brewers who now dominate British brewing have starved their cask beers of investment and support. The result is the massive and staggering decline of Draught Bass, along with the cask versions of John Smith’s and Tetley’s.
At the same time as I was cheerfully supping Draught Bass at every opportunity back in the 1970s, I heard there was another amazing beer brewed in the North-west. When I first encountered Boddington’s Bitter in a pub in Hyde near Manchester, I refused to leave. I didn’t know that beer could taste quite that good. “Boddies” was distinctively different beer to Bass. It had a famous straw colour and a modest strength of 3.5%. But, by golly, it tasted good.
The family-owned Boddingtons made the fatal error of going on the merger trail and drawing attention to itself. The result was a takeover by Whitbread. The national group, briefly, turned Boddies Bitter in to a national brand but the beer was sidelined by InBev when it bought Whitbread along with Bass in 2000. It’s still brewed – by Hydes of Manchester – but is now rarely seen outside the North-west.
InBev once promoted itself as “the local brewer”, promising commitment to regional beers. This promise has been washed down the sluice. The group has put all its kegs in one basket. Its only interest is increasing volumes of Bud and Stella – a re-run of the bad old days of the 1960s when the Big Six national brewers axed hundreds of local brands to concentrate nf new keg beers.
The off-loading of Draught Bass and Boddies points up the glaring gap between the priorities of the global producers and even large regionals. Some years ago, Bass tired of producing Charrington IPA and hived off production to Shepherd Neame in Kent. The beer’s volumes were too small for Bass yet it was the biggest brand Sheps had ever produced.
Similarly, when S&N could no longer be bothered with Courage Best and Directors it sold them to Wells & Young’s. Even though W&Y’s Bombardier is one of the Top Ten premium cask ales in the country, Courage Best is now the company’s top-selling beer.
In the right hands, Draught Bass and Boddies have a bright future. Clearly, Bass would be a good fit for Marston’s as the Burton brewery is currently producing the beer under licence for InBev. Similarly, Hydes might well wish to take on Boddies if the price is right.
So here’s to a new future for two renowned, classic and much-loved beers. As for InBev, the group should sack its entire accountants department if such lame-brains think the likes of Draught Bass and Boddington’s are not worth the candle.