Monday, May 25, 2020

A History of Bass Ale in Oshkosh

Oshkosh was a lager town. Beginning in the 1850s and flowing straight through to the 1980s, lager beer was almost synonymous with beer here. Almost. Every now and then an ale would find its way into the mix. And the ale that had the longest lifespan here was England’s Bass Pale Ale.

The first mention of Bass’s Ale in Oshkosh comes in September 1885. This is already some 60 years after Bass & Co’s Pale Ale was first brewed in Burton-on-Trent. It was brought to Oshkosh by English ex-pat William H. Englebright, keeper of the Star and Crescent Sample Room at the southwest corner of North Main and Algoma. Englebright advertised his saloon as the Oshkosh "Headquarters for Bass' English Ale on draught." A giant sundial now resides where Englebright's saloon once stood.

From the 1886 Oshkosh City Directory.
Near the corner of Main and Algoma in the late 1880s.
The red arrow points to the entrance of Englebright’s Star and Crescent Sample Room.
The sundial now at Main and Algoma. Notice the crescent. How’s that for a coincidence?

The 1885 draft version of Bass Ale that Englebright was pouring was unlike any Bass any of us are familiar with. Like most long-lived beers, Bass has changed considerably over the years. In 1885, it was an aged beer, dry and bitter as a classic IPA, with a Brettanomyces character. It also had an odor about it. Bass of this period was known to carry what was called the "Burton Snatch", a sulfury, eggy aroma peculiar to beers made from the sulfate-rich waters of Burton. It wasn't just the water. Bass' fermentation and conditioning practices must have played a major role in the creation of that odor.

The brewery yard at Bass where the beer was aged in casks for months
while exposed to the elements, from bitter cold to scorching heat.

The Bass on draft at the Star and Crescent in 1885 was about 7% ABV and unlike any other beer then available in Oshkosh. Bass would probably have not been here at all if not for Englebright. I've been searching for examples of Bass pouring in other Wisconsin cities during this time. There was very little of it outside of Oshkosh. The Burton beer appears to have been something of a pet project for the Anglophile Englebright. Unfortunately, his enthusiasm wasn't contagious. The Star and Crescent closed in 1890. Bass Ale went with it.

A 1908 sketch of Bass Ale. The color is about the only remnant of the earlier Bass

Bass returned to Oshkosh at the turn of the century. In 1905, you could get it at the Little Cozy Sample Room at what is now 216 N. Main Street. The Little Cozy was sort of like the Ruby Owl of its day; a downtown restaurant with a bar and a healthy list of specialty beers. Bass was among them. But not on draft. It was now a bottled beer packaged by Thomas McMullen & Co. of New York. It was known as Bass White Label. The beer appears to have held steady in the intervening years. It was still around 7% ABV and there are a number of reports from this period indicating that the Burton Snatch was still in play.

Bass White Label, McMullen's bottling.

Bottled Bass was, at that time, the most expensive beer available in Oshkosh. A seven-ounce "nip" sold for 15 cents; or about $4.50 in today's money. A pint of Bass went for 25 cents. The next most expensive beer was Budweiser selling for 15 cents a pint.

And you no longer had to head to Oshkosh if you wanted a Bass. The beer had grown considerably more common in Wisconsin. Bottles of Bass could be found across the state, especially in cities where breweries were prominent. Places like Eau Claire, La Crosse, Rhinelander, and of course, Milwaukee. But, once again, folks in Oshkosh were not seduced by the charms of the Burton Snatch. By 1910 Bass was gone again.

Prohibition came and went and what little interest there had been in outré beers was washed away in a flood of Oshkosh-brewed pale lager. It wasn't until the 1960s that Bass Pale Ale made its way back to town. Englebright would not have recognized it as the same beer he'd championed 80 years earlier. While it was away, Bass had been stripped of much of what had once made it so unique. The 1960s Bass was just over 5% ABV, far less bitter, and lacking the infamous odor prized by connoisseurs. The ad below from the Old Town tavern suggests Oshkosh was getting the Bass Pale Ale that was bottled in London.

March 20, 1969 Oshkosh Advance-Titan.
By the time that ad appeared Bass and Co.'s Pale Ale was well into its decline. It's the typical story. In the 1960s, Bass Brewers Limited went through a series of mergers and acquisitions. The beer took a back seat to branding and the bottom line. Bass Pale Ale ended up being picked up by Coors in 2002, but in America, it's now made by AB/InBev which now produces Bass at its Merrimack, New Hampshire brewery. You can get a sixer of that in Oshkosh for less than $7, making it one of the cheapest pale ales on the market here. It’s a dull beer hardly worth bothering with. Unless that is, you're feeling the pull of history. I wouldn't be surprised if Bass goes missing again in Oshkosh before too long.

The label lies. Definitely not the world's first pale ale.

Notes & Sources

I've touched on William H. Englebright and his saloons before. Those posts are here and here.

There's excellent information concerning the permutations of Bass Ale over the year's at Ron Pattinson's blog, Shut Up About Barclay Perkins.

Gary Gillman at his blog Beer Et Seq has delved into the Burton Snatch.

Here's Ron Pattinson again getting into the notorious brewing water of Burton.

Here's more on Oshkosh's Little Cozy Sample Room.

Here's more on the Old Town Tavern.

Beer writer Pete Brown gets into the sad decline of Bass Ale.

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