Pint of the usual?

by Greg Richards

In this age rich with new breweries and more guest beers than the most devoted beer-hunter can keep up with, there are still plenty of drinkers that prefer to stick to “a pint of the usual”. Many go for trusted brands, established beers that have been around as long as they can remember. But how many of these beers are actually the same brews they used to be?

Look at Bass, a beer that many pub-goers will recognise. The Bass red triangle was the first trademark to be registered in the UK. While it still appears on the pump-clip, what’s going on behind the label has changed drastically. The brewery was set up in Burton-upon-Trent in 1777 by William Bass and, by 1877, it was the largest in the world, with an annual output of one million barrels.

In the early 20th century , Bass acquired a number of other breweries and their pubs. The Strugglers Inn used to be tied to the Bass estate and, when the current landlady Anna took over, Bass was a permanent fixture. Now it only appears about once a week. “It’s a nice drink but not the beer it was,” according to the landlady.

In 2000, Bass brewing operations were bought by Interbrew (now AB InBev), the company behind Stella Artois, Becks and Budweiser. While Bass is still brewed in Burton-upon-Trent, it’s now produced by Marston’s and is currently a 4.4% ABV beer, having previously been brewed to 4% and 4.3%. Where a barrel used to have to settle in the pub cellar for over a week prior to serving, it can now be ready in two and half days. Some would say that’s progress, but such changes can’t happen without altering the beer itself.

Not that Bass is the only beer with such a story. Ruddles County is a beer you’ll see in many pubs. Ruddles Brewey began in 1858 and traded independently until 1986 when it was bought by Watneys. Since then the name has been owned by three other breweries, most recently Greene King, the company that also brews Hardy & Hansons and Morland beers.

Often breweries buy up smaller breweries to get hold of the rights to a particular beer. When Molson Coors bought Sharp’s in 2011, it didn’t talk about the brewery, it talked about “the Doom Bar brand”. You could argue that these beers would disappear completely if the breweries simply went bust. Isn’t it be better to keep a beer brewing rather than try and resurrect it in 100 years time?

Does a small change in strength make it a different beer? If a different company owns the rights, how does that affect the taste? If it’s the same recipe, then surely it’s the same beer wherever it’s made. These are all perfectly logical arguments. But beer’s not logical and while these changes may go unnoticed individually, added up you end up with a different beer.

These are clearly still popular beers – the big boys wouldn’t buy up these breweries if they didn’t think they could sell a fair few pints of the stuff. However, as the number of breweries continues to increase and people become more informed about the different beers available, can they rely on the drinkers that always go for the same beer? Especially if they realise it’s not the drink it used to be.

And what about the beer? Bass (4.4% ABV)) is a traditional brown bitter with a nutty aroma and a malty, caramel taste.

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