I got invited to a birthday party in Burton-on-Trent that was quite unlike any other – a mass tasting of six legendary beers known as the ‘Bass Corkers’.
On 16th December 1869, Ratcliff Ale was mashed in at Bass, Ratcliff & Gretton in Burton-on-Trent to celebrate the birth of a son to the Ratcliff family. It was a fairly common tradition in brewing families for such beers to be brewed ready for when these scions reached their majority at the age of 21. The story I heard was that young Master Ratcliff never made it that far, so the beer was never opened.
On 16th December 2019, I’m in Burton to drink some Ratcliff Ale on its 150th birthday, along with five other variations on these beers designed for ageing, know to connoisseurs and collectors as the ‘Bass Corkers’.
Bass fan and Burton beer historian Ian Webster, ably assisted by passionate fellow Burtonian beer collector Gary Summerfield, wanted to commemorate Ratclliff Ale’s anniversary, and put an appeal around Burton. Burton responded, with people donating scores of bottles – a total of 75 beers are opened for tonight’s audience of 100 or so people. This is an incredible act given that some of these bottles trade on EBay for £300 or more. I thought I knew these beers well, but I’m astonished to find there are pint bottles and quart bottles, with the occasional ultra-rare magnum.
The way these strong ales were made was to boil the wort for twelve hours, reducing the liquid to create a very high concentration of fermentable sugars. This led to an alcohol content of around 12% ABV which, aided by heavy hopping rates, vastly reduced the chances of microbial spoilage as they aged, according to Burton Brewer and Chairman of the National Brewery Heritage Trust, Dr Harry White. Harry explains the difference between the effects of microbiological spoilage – infection that means the beer goes ‘off’ – and the effects of ageing, which is all about oxidation.
Oxidation as ‘a complex series of interactions’ that begin with whatever oxygen is left in the bottle when it is sealed. There’s always some, and a bottle-conditioned beer needs it to start its slow, secondary fermentation. The yeast mops up the oxygen during this process, but then, when there’s nothing left for it to eat, it dies. When beer is a few years old it can taste stale, papery, or wet doggy. But there’s not a straight line into old age and decrepitude – other reactions continue to happen, and various different aspects of the beer come and go in a process John Keeling, when he was head brewer at Fuller’s, likened to sine waves, during vertical tastings of Fuller’s Vintage Ale. Those tastings were truly memorable – but even the most venerable Vintage Ale – from 1997 – is fifteen years younger than the most youthful Bass Corker, which is…
Prince’s Ale, 1982
Starting with the youngest first, the idea is you get some kind of progression. This 37-year-old, brewed to commemorate the birth of Prince William, tastes more like a three-year-old barley wine. There’s chocolate and caramel on the nose, some fruity notes reminiscent of ruby port, and no hint of papery oxidation at all. It tastes different rather than old, with a hint of meaty umami character, some acidity, but mainly a warming, welcoming fusion of malt character, alcohol and microflora.
Princess Ale, 1978
This has a much paler caramel colour than its younger sibling. It’s much lighter on the nose, toffeeish, with hints of spice and incense. On the palate it’s lighter again, with a bitterness that’s curiously tannic rather than hoppy. Overall, it tastes old and woody – not as engaging as the beer four years younger, but just as drinkable. Maybe it’s something to do with Princess Anne having mashed the beer in, given that she doesn’t like beer.
Jubilee Strong Ale, 1977
This is much darker again, chocolate-coloured. There’s a little tartness on the nose, which reminds me of Rodenbach, and a bit of smokiness. On the palate, it’s sweet, sour and bitter – I swear there’s still a bit of hop character to it – and something that is not directly derived from hops, barley, Burton water OR Bass ale yeast.
I’m on a tasting panel with Roger Protz and a selection of former Burton Brewers. My old friend Steve Wellington – another former brewer and the man who recreated A 19th century Burton IPA for the voyage to India I recounted in Hops & Glory – is in the audience. Steve once told me that when you taste aged beers, you get a different reaction from professional brewers than you do if you assemble a broader panel of taste experts – and so it proves with this beer. The brewers up here speak of mild infection, of something getting into the bottle that shouldn’t be there. Whereas I’m thinking that Brettanomyces means ‘British fungus’, so named because it was originally associated not with Belgian sours, but vatted strong British ales. This beer reminds me that Rodenbach – one of the finest sour beers in the world – took its original inspiration from none other than Greene King.
Prince’s Ale, 1929
Why was there a jump of fifty years between this beer and the previous (or rather, subsequent) one? I don’t know. The war was an obvious factor, but why was there not one for the Queen’s coronation? I can vaguely remember her Silver Jubilee and the incredible wave of patriotism that came with it. It was also around the same time that a large stash of the 1902 Kings Ale was discovered in Bass’s cellars, so maybe that inspired the idea for the start of the second wave of corkers that ran from 1977 to 1982.
But now we’re on to the end of the first wave, mashed in by Edward, Prince of Wales, who went on to become king for a few months before abdicating to marry an American divorcee. It had the shortest brew length of all the corkers, and is therefore the rarest. Apparently, it was still on sale in 1945, for £5 a bottle. or over £200 today – one for people who moan about ‘modern over-priced craft beers’ to think about.
Well, if I had a spare £200, I’d pay that for a bottle today. The nose is of dried fruit – dates, prunes, figs and currants – with a hint of church incense again. The fruity character is intense, combining the complex sweetness of dried fruit with the sourness of overripe fruit. Then there’s an umami meatiness that some of my colleagues on the panel describe as marmite.
I’m not so sure.
There’s a moment of panic whenever you’re trying to taste something with the aim of identifying that taste and communicating it to others. It’s the moment when your taste buds and olfactory bulb all flash with sensation and send blind signals deep into your cerebral cortex, and your brain seeks to contextualise what you’re experiencing versus your established knowledge and memory. When you’re primed to expect a particular flavour – when you know what you’re drinking and what it’s meant to taste like, or when someone asks you to look out for a particular flavour note – the brain usually identifies it straight away, or thinks it does. ‘Marmite’ is a common flavour note for aged beers, and if you know this, you can detect it and tick it off – flavour successfully identified. But if you didn’t know this, I’m not sure Marmite is what you’d pull out here. I’m conscious that I’ve already used it as a flavour note myself, but Marmite is a shortcut, an easy port of call, similar to when we categorise and tick off the complexity of lambic beers with the term ‘horse blanket’. It often stops us from probing further. This is spicier yet subtler than Marmite, the meatiness just one component of something broader.
King’s Ale, 1902
The danger with the Bass corkers is you can never be quite sure how well the contents stand up. If the wax seal around cork has broken, it’s probably not worth it, as the beer will have been assaulted by oxygen over the years. So you look for the wax seal – but how do you know it wasn’t broken, and then resealed by someone decades later? When it comes to the Kings Ale, brewed by Lord Bass’s mate Edward VII, there’s an easy way to tell: the original bottlings came with a lead seal, and that’s what we’ve opened tonight.
I opened a bottle of Kings Ale in 2009, to celebrate winning Beer Writer of the Year for the first time. There’s a blurry video of it on YouTube somewhere. My bottle didn’t have a lead seal. It poured with the look and consistency of gravy and tasted like of cork, marmite – for real this time – and death.
Tonight’s is… better than that. There’s a big waft of balsamic vinegar on the nose, and a surprisingly yeasty element. Umami here is not marmite, but porcini mushrooms. There’s chocolate, acidity and fruit on the palate. It tastes like an older, raggedier version of the Prince’s Ale, which makes sense. But still, it’s far from unpleasant.
Ratcliff Ale, 1869
These bottles were originally sealed with red wax, so if your wax is black – like one of mine at home is – that means the contents may not be good. This one smells really clean, and pours bright and clear, like Madeira. The now-familiar incense is there, and it smells like Christmas cake. There’s bitterness and acidity, coffee and spice, alcohol heat, Madeira wine, and elements I simply don’t have the vocabulary for. It tastes like nothing else.
By the end, I’m surprised how much I’m feeling the effects of drinking a flight of 12% ABV beers. I’ve often heard that the alcohol decays and loses its potency in beers like this. My intense desire for sleep, and the spidery handwriting in my notebook, suggest otherwise.
I’ve tasted beers that are alive and vibrant, and I’ve had beers that taste dead and decayed. The beers we’ve tasted tonight are somewhere between, having visited both poles before embarking on their own, unique journeys. There’s far more here than the effects of oxygen-driven ageing: these beers are complex processes. Tate two different bottles of the same beer, and their character can be quite different. It reminds me of the ‘generative music’ experiments created by Brian Eno, where a few simple elements are fed into a randomising system to create something that is ever changing, never quite repeating. Here, tiny differences in the microflora in each bottle can lead to ever-widening variations over time, magnified by the conditions in which each individual bottle matures – temperature, humidity, whether it’s stored upright or on its side, and so on.
Will there be more Bass corkers? Could there be? Well, the Queen’s Ale for Brenda’s 50th Jubilee was bottled in 500ml with a crown cap, but is still well worth seeking out. Apart from that, around ten years ago, Steve Wellington invited me to brew a new batch of Bass No.1 Barley Wine – the original recipe for Ratcliff Ale. We loaded an incredible amount of malt into the mash tun and left it for its 12-hour boil. A curry and a few hours’ sleep later, we were back in the brewery and running off a thick, dark wort that looked and smelled amazing. A few weeks later, Steve, almost tearful, informed me that it had been so long since the Bass yeast had had to contend with such a mighty wort, it simply hadn’t been up to the task. Fermentation hadn’t taken place, and the batch had had to be poured away.
And that’s not the only problem.
In the complex world of corporate beer trademarks and ownership, the archive of Bass recipes is now owned by a different company from the people who own the Bass brand. Anheuser Busch-Inbev continue to commit many travesties with Bass, but ABI has more than one face and more than one set of opinions. Mike Siegel of Goose Island is genuinely passionate about recreating old beers from the past, as evidenced by his recent collaboration with Ron Pattinson and Wimbledon Brewery’s Derek Prentice, the wonderful Obidiah Poundage. Mike recently asked Molson Coors – owners of the Bass archive – if he could gain access to old Bass recipes with a view to reviving something akin to these legendary corkers, and was given a pretty categoric and final refusal.
Earlier tonight, Harry White made a heartfelt plea to the audience for the archives to be used much more.
Come on guys, it’s Christmas – let’s join the dots. And could whoever currently owns the famous Bass yeast get it to some kind of yeast gym in the New Year?