Bass & Company was a British brewery, based in Burton-on-Trent, that became one of the most recognized brewery brands in the world. Bass’ red triangle logo and its flagship beer, Bass pale ale, once traveled the world, spread by the ships of an advancing empire.
Founded by William Bass in 1777, the brewery saw remarkable growth in its early years, with ale sent to Russia in 1784 and to North America by 1799. For much of the history of the flagship brand it was known as an India pale ale because of its shipment to British forces overseas. More than a century later, the brewery would quietly drop the word “India” from its official packaging.
By 1850 it was producing more than 100,000 UK barrels (137,250 US barrels) per year. By 1888, the Bass brewery complex covered 145 acres of land and employed more than 2,500 workers, with output approaching the million-barrel mark.
In 1926 Bass and Co acquired the nearby Worthington brewery and continued to produce that brewery’s popular White Shield, a bottle- conditioned pale ale. That would continue until 1977 when the brewery discontinued the brand and licensed the recipe to a smaller brewery. In the 1960s Bass continued to grow, merging with Mitchells & Butler, and later that decade became the UK’s largest brewery following the acquisition of Charrington United Breweries, brewers of Carling. The new company was named Bass Charrington Ltd and would later become known as Bass PLC.
Celebrated for more than just the flagship Bass pale ale, the brewery produces a number of beers that would introduce new styles to the world and several that would continue to entice new generations of beer drinkers. Bass was the first brewery to use the term “barley wine” for a bottled beer named No. 1 in 1903. Although it was widely distributed for decades, it currently is brewed sporadically.
In 1902 Bass’ King’s ale was released to commemorate a visit by Edward VII to the brewery. Corked-finished bottles that occasionally surface are sought after by collectors. Equally as desirable are bottles of Ratcliffe ale, brewed to celebrate the birth of a brewery director’s son in 1869. The ale was also cork finished and cellared, intending to be drunk on the boy’s 21st birthday.
These beers, the Bass flagship ale, along with general distribution to a global audience, would add to the legend and allure of the brewery, making it a household name not only in the UK but also around the world.
The company would diversify, purchasing and managing pubs throughout the UK, acquiring the Holiday Inn hotel chain and expanding that brand to include several other properties, including Holiday Inn Express and Staybridge Suites. It also purchased several soft drink companies. By this point in the 1990s the company had grown so large that it had a separate division dedicated to its beer efforts named Bass Brewers.
In 2000, however, the company decided to focus its efforts on the lodging and hospitality industry, shed its namesake product, and sold brewing operations to Belgium-based Interbrew S.A. for $3.5 billion. Monopolies legislation demanded that Interbrew dispose of a large slice of their breweries and brands, notably Carling Black Label. The buyers were Coors.
Interbrew would later merge with Brazilian beer company AmBev, creating InBev to create the behemoth Anheuser-Busch InBev, the largest brewing company in the world. Bass pale ale was added to the global portfolio of the company. Bass pale ale is made at Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Samlesbury Brewery in England and is available around the world. For most of its existence the flagship beer was known as Bass India pale ale, although in the 1990s it was rebranded as just Bass pale ale.
Bass has a number of historical distinctions in both brewing and general history arenas. Because of its popularity and impressive exporting in the 1800s, its red triangle logo became the first registered trademark in the UK in 1876. That triangle is clearly visible on beer bottles depicted in Edouard Manet’s 1882 painting “A bar at the Folies-Bergère” and in dozens of paintings by Picasso.
Over the years, the various owners of the Bass brand have played up its historical importance with a number of vague claims and advertisements, including that Napoleon Bonaparte enjoyed the brew so much that he sought to build a Bass brewery in France or that pints of Bass inspired Edgar Allan Poe and relaxed Buffalo Bill Cody. There is even a claim that famed explorer Sir Earnest Shackleton drank Bass ale while on his expedition to reach the South Pole in 1921–22. These claims are murky at best.
One historical truth that cannot be refuted is that the RMS Titanic was carrying 500 cases (12,000 bottles) of Bass ale when it sank in the Atlantic Ocean in 1912. During expedition and recovery efforts of the ship in the late 1990s, nine bottles were found and lifted to the surface from the debris field.
Today, the ale is enjoyed at pubs around the world, where the corporate owners say it is still made following the original recipe. The result is an amber-colored brew with a light, burned, roast aroma. It is made with English malts and hops and is brewed with two strains of yeast that give it a malty, slightly nutty flavor. In the United States it is served at 5.1% alcohol by volume.
Bass ale is frequently used as the bottom ingredient in a Black and Tan, where a pub glass is half filled with the pale ale and, using a specialty spoon, a stout is poured on top, creating a two-layer beverage where the stout floats atop the pale ale.
Bass pale ale is served on draught and in a variety of bottles sizes and cans in more than 50 countries across the world.