'Breathtakingly cynical': Pete Brown on AB InBev and Bass

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So after years of neglect, AB InBev is rumoured to be putting Bass up for sale. But if the reports are to be believed that's only half the story....

So after years of neglect, AB InBev is rumoured to be putting Bass up for sale. But if the reports are to be believed that's only half the story.

Regular readers will know that a lot of things get me angry. People come up to me and say "Ooh, I loved your latest rant in The Publican" even when I thought I was being reasonably mellow. But nothing has ever made me as angry as this.

I initially cheered the reports of Bass being sold, because I adore Bass - what it stands for, what it was and what it could be again - and believed it needed a change in ownership to fulfil its potential. But then I found out the reported terms of the deal, and I almost howled with rage. Here's why.

Bass is the greatest beer brand there has ever been. I don't mean it's the best beer ever brewed - that would be a silly claim to make for any beer. But in terms of its significance, its impact and its historical role in the development of beer, no other brand comes close.

Bass was not the first Burton India Pale Ale, but it was by far the most successful. Throughout the 19th century, while many brewers struggled to sell their beer a few towns away, Bass was known throughout the world. Its distinctive red triangle (the first ever registered trade mark in the UK) was globally famous a century before brands such as McDonalds and Coke would reach similar levels of ubiquity. Back home, it drove the growth of Burton-on-Trent to become the greatest brewing town the world has ever seen. It was painted by Manet, adored by Edward VII, Scott of the Antarctic and Buffalo Bill.

In its later years Bass was a good pint. A bit cantankerous, but rewarding to those publicans who persevered with it. It suffered in the years of mergers and acquisitions, standardisation and the move to keg ale and lager. By the time the real ale revival happened it was owned by big corporations that no longer understood it.

What is now AB InBev acquired Bass plc back when it was merely mild-mannered Interbrew. It had to sell most of Bass's assets to Coors, including half of Burton-on-Trent, but for some reason held on to the Bass brand itself. This immediately created an unworkable situation: a beer whose historic breweries filled much of Burton town centre was to be owned and run out of Luton.

The Bass Museum had to be changed to the Coors Visitors Centre, and under the sad ironies that govern corporate life, the famous red triangle had to be airbrushed, Stalin-like, from the town it had created. The irony was complete when brewing was moved back to Burton, to be contract brewed at Marston's.

There's nothing wrong with Marston's as a brewer. But with little or no marketing support from owners who freely admit a complete lack of interest in cask ale, Bass continued a sorrowful decline. In the rare pubs where it's still sold today, it's a deeply average pint.

When is a relic not a relic?

So, does any of this mean that a brand which

is now a dying relic should be saved? Well that depends on how you define the words 'dying' and 'relic'.

The thing is, in the rest of the world, where Bass has not been neglected and abused, it's still a highly regarded and successful craft beer brand - particularly in America. In New York, it's one of the best-selling bottled beers on the market, regarded as the distinctive, quality beer it should be at home. And that trademark will always be famous - it's simply inconceivable that it should disappear.

This all means that, during a time of renewed interest in crafted beer generally and cask beer in particular, there is a solid base from which to rebuild Bass as a premium ale brand that could even be capable of going places other ale brands cannot. It's got a legend, a cachet. If it had a solid cask ale business at its heart, in the English market, this would give it an even stronger platform to reclaim its glory days. This is why I've been hoping for years that AB InBev would sell Bass to someone who cares about cask ale.

So what has AB InBev reportedly done? Put the UK business up for sale, but keep the lucrative foreign business - and ownership of the trademark - to itself.

So for 15 million quid you buy - what? A recipe, the right to call your beer Bass, and a few handpump badges. You don't get the successful part of the business. You don't even get ownership of the brand you're brewing.

I can think of a dozen breweries that could buy Bass and restore it to be a global beer icon that could rival Guinness. I can think of no-one in their right mind who would go for the deal AB InBev is reportedly offering.

And surely AB InBev knows that.

Looking at the treatment of Bass from a UK perspective, it's like watching someone deliberately starving a horse, waiting until it goes lame, then insisting someone buys it from you as a working horse instead of shooting it.

I've seen some harsh business moves in my time, and in almost all cases I can balance my beery sentimentality with an understanding of the commercial realities which have forced such a move.

But this is a breathtakingly cynical move from a company which not only has no interest whatsoever in reviving the great beer it has inherited, but seems deliberately to want to prevent anyone else from making a success of it in a market they have no interest in. This cash-hungry company doesn't really care about Bass at all, but refuses to hand over the part of it that would make a realistic sale feasible.

And so, this country's greatest ever beer brand faces a weird kind of extinction in its homeland, with its future as a cuckoo craft beer in the American market seemingly assured. Doubtless it will be sold there on the basis of its provenance and history in the UK - a provenance and history AB InBev will doubtless be parroting abroad as it destroys it at home.

I'm not really allowed to swear in Publican columns, so I'll just say "Shame on you, AB InBev".

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