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Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Higson's and Bass

Manet's Un bar aux Folies Bergère
showing a Bass bottle (detail).
In the 1970s, many Higson's houses used to sell Draught Bass as a guest beer, including my local here in Southport, the Guest House.  Recently I've had the chance to try both of these beers:  Bass of course has never gone out of production, while Higson's is on its second revival.

The InBev website says of Bass: "It is a full-flavoured ale that is still brewed to an original recipe, using only the finest ingredients and the experience of generations. It is brewed with two strains of yeast to produce a complex, nutty, malty taste with subtle hop undertones."  Note:  an original recipe, not the original recipe, and that description seems - shall we say? - optimistic.  It was on in the Guest House last night and I had two pints of it; I'm not one for tasting notes, so I won't try, but it didn't taste as awful as some beer drinkers have claimed - merely very ordinary, and not standing up well alongside the micro and regional beers that surrounded it on the bar.  My view that the venom heaped upon this beer is because it was regarded as the Rolls Royce of beer in the 1970s - the White Star in Liverpool was famous for the quality of its Bass in those days, and I rarely went to Liverpool without a visit to that pub.

The original Higson's was last brewed in Liverpool in 1990.  It's now on its third incarnation, this time being brewed by Liverpool Organic Brewery, and I had it in Liverpool a couple of weeks ago.  This brew was apparently approved by Liverpool CAMRA at the Liverpool Beer Festival where a couple of versions of the beer were being tried out.  Again, I had two pints of the beer and it seemed even less like Higson's than the previous version of two or three years ago; I was struggling to find any resemblance to the beer I remember.  Unusually for a product of Liverpool Organic, it was fairly unremarkable with not much to object to, but not much to draw you back for more either.  I looked on the Liverpool Organic Brewery's website about the new Higson's, but could find nothing there about it.

To my palate, neither of these beers reflect the ones fondly remembered from their 70s heyday, but this is not necessarily because they aren't as good:  it might be that our tastes have moved on and what used to seem wonderful in an era when there was so much mediocre beer around now faces much stiffer competition, or perhaps after more than 20 years we can't really remember tastes and smells as accurately as we'd like to think.  Who knows?  There is nothing wrong with either of these beers, but neither is outstanding in today's beer world.


  1. Yeah, haven't seen any sight of the Higsons yet, but surely it will make an appearance at the Waterloo Festival this weekend?

  2. It's definitely listed and I will try it again there.

  3. It's certainly my subjective view that most of the beers that were available in 1980 are noticeably less distinctive than they were then. Some breweries have in fact admitted smoothing out some of the rough edges in an attempt to gain wider acceptability.

    But, on the other hand, it's often said that as you grow older your tastebuds become less sensitive, and it could also be the case that exposure to a wider range of beer flavours changes your perspective. Back then, your normal day-to-day drinking could easily be confined to a small handful of beers, so anything out of the ordinary would inevitably taste "different".

  4. I used to frequent the Bass houses on Merseyside that were leased to Higsons and sold both beers. Other than the Liverpool pubs, there was also the Magazines in New Brighton and the Crown & Cushion in Birkenhead. I think there was one in Chester too.

    I tried the new Higson's in the Cock & Pullet last week. The original had a pungent sulphorus nose. The new has just a touch. It's not as bitter as the original although there was some dryness in the finish. The colour looked about right. Strangely. I developed a slight headache later that evening. I'm not normally prone to headaches but the old Higson's used to give me a dreadful hangover after as little as four pints.

  5. Have had it several times in The Vernon and the White Star and would agree it's nothing like the original. As I recall Higsons had a cistinctive taste and you'd easily recognise a pint in a blind tasting. Not that I ever did though I sometimes got blind drunk on it!

  6. While you can trace a link in terms of corporate organisation and brewing heritage between the current incarnation of Draught Bass and the 1970s original, I'm always rather sceptical of new breweries trying to recreate old beers such as Higsons. They may be perfectly good beers in their own right, but I doubt whether in many cases they have much similarity in terms of ingredients and brewing methods with the originals.

  7. CM: I tend to agree. One exception is Cains of Liverpool - they revived an old name but created new beers, which were pretty good until a couple of years ago, when (so I've been told) credit problems caused them to use whatever ingredients they could lay their hands on.

  8. There was a time a few years back when Cains was almost the "national beer" of Liverpool. However incompetent/corrupt management by the Dusanj brothers seems to have brought them low :-(

  9. When you talk about the Bass you're comparing to the original Draught Bass in the 70s, you're not talking about the standard Bass you can get now in the US, right? What product is it you're talking about?

    1. The cask Bass sold in the UK is a different beer from that sold in cans and bottles, even brewed at a different brewery. I presume that exported to the US falls into the second category.

      While I wouldn't claim it's the same as it was in the 1970s, I'd say the Marstons-brewed cask Bass is still a very enjoyable pint when well-kept.

  10. I am talking about the Bass that is currently sold on draught in the UK. I have no idea what is sold in the USA, so I can't comment on that. The brewers of Bass in the UK tell us that the beer is the same as it always was, but I'm not convinced.


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