Saturday, 16 June 2012

Maturing Bass Pale Ale

One of the strangest techniques I've found is how Bass Pale Ale was mature. So counter-intuitive, I was inclined not to believe it was true.

What was this weird technique? Stacking up barrels of it in the brewery yard and leaving it exposed to the elements for several months, with nothing more than a little moistened straw to keep it cool on the hottest days.

It sounds a crazy way to mature a beer. What with all the temperature variations, especially being exposed to direct sunlight. I'd always thought maturation went on in cool cellars with a constant temperature.

So, even though I'd seen it mentioned in more than one source, there was still a lingering doubt in my mind. It was common for breweries to stack empty barrels in the yard. Had someone misunderstood and mistaken empty barrels for full ones? Things like that happen all the time.

Then I came across this photo (in The Graphic of March 21st, 1908, page 410):

There are a couple of reasons why this confirms that they really were crazy enough to leave full casks outside. Firstly, the title. It's called "The Ale Bank", not the cask bank or empties bank. And the three workers pushing the cask. Wooden barrels are heavy, but even so it doesn't take three men to push one. They aren't that heavy.

I can sleep easier now I've got that one sorted out in my head.


Tom said...

That's just weird. Another process lost that means that Bass "doesn't taste as it used to".

Gary Gillman said...

James Steel devotes almost a page to describing this form of storage:

Note incidentally the unrelated comment at the top of the page that long-stored old ales developed "apple and other flavours".


The Professor said...

Bass Ale hasn't tasted right for at least 30 years (maybe more).
The version of Bass currently being sold in the USA (brewed in Long Island, NY) is just a joke.

Alistair Reece said...

I seem to remember a comment you made a while back about Orval being essentially a English pale ale, this would seem to confirm that. Would "mature" Bass have had a similar Brett thing going on as Orval does?

mentaldental said...

That does seem weird. I am pretty sure that being exposed to variations in temperature would make some pretty fundamental changes to the beer. Certainly maturing a beer a few weeks at cellar temp as opposed to a high ambient temp makes a easily noticable difference.

I guess IPA being sent to the colonies would have experienced an even greater range of temperatures and it is often suggested that this is partly why IPA was so successful. Mind you by no means all of it arrived in sound condition. I suspect that the on board conditions are just one the the problems brewer's had to overcome in order to supply the colonial territories rather than being a cause of their success.

Barbarrick said...

That's the Shobnall ale stores with the enormous Shobnall number 1-7 maltings behind. This was one of two major outdoor ale banks that Bass operated the other being in the area known as Dixie near Horninglow Bridge. It could be that many of the casks seen here aren't necessarily being long- stored. Many could be awaiting loading onto rail wagons which went on here and at Dixie stores where the railway exchange sidings lay. This area in the illustration is also a cask repair centre.
Even though these great outdoor ale stores were established in the mid 19th century, Bass also had a great deal of indoor ale storage though I haven't pinned down whether the decision to store outside or in applied to particular styles of ale. The interesting thing here is the date 1908. By the 1890s Bass in their own words had largely gone over to "running ales" as all year round brewing ended the great stockpiles of ale produced in the colder months. The questions I have, when OGs fell from Victorian strengths to 1920 levels, how much ale was still matured outdoors at this time and for how long? Was this picture showing the final years of maturation on the ale banks?

Gary Gillman said...

While these ranks of barrels appear to be flat, some were probably higher, or in the heyday of Bass IPA. I know I have seen pictures of Guinness stored pyramidal-fashion outdoors.

It now occurs to me that the triangle trademark of Bass may result from the daily image at the brewery of huge piles of beer casks.


JessKidden said...

The Professor said...

"The version of Bass currently being sold in the USA (brewed in Long Island, NY) is just a joke."

AB-InBev's US-brewed Bass Ale is coming out of Baldwinsville, NY (in upstate NY, outside of Syracuse - not L.I.). A brewery built by Schlitz in the '70's, A-B bought it as Schlitz was collapsing in 1980. It's their "top fermenting" US brewery apparently, according to some AB employees.

Ron Pattinson said...

Gary, no.

They were Guinness's empty casks. I've no evidence of Bass storing their casks that way.

Gary Gillman said...

Ron, I didn't say Guinness stored its casks empty in a pyramid, I said I recalled reading it stored them that way full.

I will try to find the evidence. If I didn't recall correctly, of course I will say so.


Gary Gillman said...

Well, always up for a challenge (essentially self-imposed in this case!). I can't - so far - find any clear evidence that Guinness stored beer in huge piles of casks outdoors.

I have seen old photos of large piles of casks at Guinness, some pyramidal, but these clearly were newly made or cleaned casks being held in what was quaintly called the "Guinness cask magazine".

Photos of the quai areas where barrels were loaded onto river barges show no huge stands nearby (but my recollection was they were in a brewery yard).

One thing I did find was this:

If you look at the Working In Guinness video, at 2:32 for a few seconds is a clear image of a huge stack of barrels which appear to me to be placed against the wall of a conventional warehouse, perhaps as an expedient to enlarge it. It shows men taking down the barrels and at one point one is ready to receive a cask handed down by two. Of course, one man couldn't handle a filled 36 gallon barrel. But, the picture was clearly posed. Second, maybe the barrels were 9 or 18 gallons (9 was the standard aluminum Guinness vessel by the 1960's anyway). One man could lift a nine or possibly 18 gallon barrel quite easily.

This is not the photo I recall seeing (I think), but it could show finished beer being kept for a while in a large, Burton-type pyramid. But the casks here could be empty, yes.

Incidentally, Southby confirms the practice at Burton of outdoor maturation of beer, see p. 373. He adds the interesting note that hurdles (a lattice-work or frame) of straw were sometimes placed on the piles to shield from heat. If you look in the rear part of the Burton photo you posted Ron, it seems those barrels have a layering on them of some kind which might be this.


Tony Wheeler said...

Having stumbled on this thread just now I feel a need to defend the good name of Bass Ratcliff & Gretton. Rest assured they did not leave their beer outdoors in warm weather. They had acres of indoor ale storage, both at the brewery itself and at the numerous Bass Ale Stores in cities throughout Britain and Ireland. And a couple in Europe too, Paris and Brussels from memory.

Only during the peak winter brewing season did casks sit on the ale banks for any length of time, before being loaded onto rail trucks for dispatch from the brewery. Presumably this was a matter of convenience, ie. casks went direct from the racking room to the ale banks, rather than double handle them unnecessarily via their indoor ale stores. The result was that for several months of the year the ale banks were stacked with full casks, as seen in the 1908 Graphic photo.

How long they spent there is difficult to say, but with many thousands of casks being loaded daily onto rail trucks, it's conceivable they passed through there quite rapidly. In any case it did the beer no harm whatsoever to sit there in winter, and there'd certainly be no need for straw insulation. For the rest of the year the ale banks would be cleared daily. I believe some of them were covered, so perhaps loading was confined to these ones in summer.

That's my understanding of these outdoor cask stacks two or three high. The giant pyramidal stacks are of course empties returned from trade. I'll see if I can dig up a few references.

Tony Wheeler said...

Further to previous post I've dug up some info on Bass ale banks. I found a couple of pics but don't know how to post them here. One is titled "The Middle Brewery - Ale Loading Bank" and shows empty casks in various sizes being unloaded from rail trucks. It's from an early 1920's Bass brochure.

The other is an illustration from Barnard's Noted Breweries titled "Large Ale and Hop Store." In the foreground is an ale bank devoid of casks (Barnard's visit was in June) which is mentioned in the text: "After this we crossed several ale banks to visit the large ale and hop stores. An ale bank in these breweries refers to a large space, generally covering half an acre of ground, raised some four feet from the roadway by a stone or blue brick wall, around which the railway tracks are laid. It is used for loading and unloading casks etc."

Clearly these ale banks were home to cask stacks only seasonally: "The ale banks cover many acres, and for several months of the year are overspread with full casks of ale, two or three high."

Barnard also mentions covered ale banks: "All the racking rooms cover more than two acres of ground...Opposite the large racking room, there is a very extensive roofed shed with open sides over the ale bank, where empty and full casks are received and delivered. There are four tramway tracks running over the surface of this bank, and on two sides are railway lines for loading and unloading."

From the Bass brochure we have: "7000 casks of ale often dispatched in one day, the amount having sometimes reached 9250, filling 666 trucks." It can be calculated that such numbers of barrels stacked in the manner seen in the 1908 Graphic photo would occupy approx one acre of ground. With an acre being cleared every day, casks in a 5 acre stack would spend only 5 days there.

Too many characters so will continue in next post.

Tony Wheeler said...

Also from the Bass brochure: " we enter upon a noisy scene. Empty casks are being rolled in to take their places before the racking squares...The casks are now connected to the racking squares by flexible pipes for filling...the workmen are striking the casks with ascertain by "sounding" when each barrel is full...the men are rolling the casks to the loading bank, and so to the trucks and stores, where the beers will be matured before being sent to the consumer."

Clearly this was "running beer", as commented upon by Michael Bass himself in 1884: "how fast our trade is becoming a running one." In other words, pale ale was no longer routinely matured at the brewery, but was sent instead directly to regional Bass Ale Stores for distribution. These too are mentioned in Barnard:

"...the company have stores and offices at Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Hull, Sheffield, Newcastle-on-Tyne, Stockton, Stoke, Leicester, Exeter, Festiniog, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dublin, Cork, Belfast, and Paris."

Barnard visited the London Ale Stores: "...leased by Messrs. Bass, Ratcliff & Gretton from the Midland Railway Company...three floors which together cover an area of over five acres...capable of holding 160,000 barrels of the time of our visit (1887) they held 124,770 barrels."

Some evidence of seasonal brewing: "In passing through the yard to the next range of buildings, we noticed a large raised bank upon which are stacked, every summer, as many as 13,000 empty casks, eleven in height, one above another like a large pyramid. These casks, which consist of butts for home use, are taken down and filled with ale, during the winter months and forwarded to all parts of the kingdom."

However it's clear that brewing was conducted year round, as demonstrated by cask stocks. With annual production around one million barrels from the mid 1870's onwards, Barnard in 1887 reports casks stocks in various sizes amounting to approx half a million barrels capacity. On average therefore, casks were refilled twice each year.

This also puts paid to any possibility of lengthy maturation in cask. A six month maturation period would permanently remove the whole of Bass cask stocks from circulation in trade, leaving none for customers. A three month maturation period would remove half their cask stocks from circulation, and casks sent out to customers would have to be back at the brewery, washed and ready to be refilled, within three months.

From such calculations we might conclude that by late 19th century, a maturation period in cask of perhaps two to three months was the norm. In my experience that's quite adequate for an IPA destined to enjoy further conditioning in bottle.

Sanks said...

In 1962 my family bought an Old Bass House in Tunbridge Wells. The outgoing landlord was very clear on how to cellar Draught Bass.
These were in 18 gallon Kils delivered by train.
"Roll them into the cellar, rack then up and leave until the staves go green, then spile and serve". I remember it being very lively, but once it had quietened down, the beer poured without too much head. Incredible smell of sulphur on nose, almost wine like quality in depth, very moreish and absolutely lethal after effects.
We were privileged to have a trip to Burton at the time the Union Room was still in operation. The leads me to comment hat surely the only beer ay near close to the original taste of Bass must be Marstons Pedigree? I don't think that White Shield tastes anything like the original and when I see these article on maturation etc I can understand why..

Ron Pattinson said...


thanks very much for your personal memories.

I can remember Bass from the union sets and it could be a magnificent drink, if looked after properly