This week’s letter comes from a Mr R Protz of St Albans, who writes:
I took a snap of the clip for ‘E’ in the National Brewery Centre Bar y’day. I’ve included it in 300 More Beers … in the Best Bitter section but I notice it’s now labelled Burton Ale. What are your thoughts? Thanks,
The answer, of course, is that Roger is completely correct, Worthington ‘E’ is a pale ale or bitter with a strength that puts it in the “Best Bitter” category, and NOT a Burton Ale, which is a different style of beer altogether– darker and sweeter. (Nasty clash of 1920s and 1970s typefaces on that pumpclip there, too, but let’s move on …)
Indeed, back in the 19th century, Worthington ‘E’ was described as an India Pale Ale, as these two ads below from the early 1890s show. Apparently to distinguish themselves from all other brewers, Worthington labelled their brews with a strange and not particularly logical naming system. Their Burton Ales, strong, bitter-sweet and rather darker than an IPA/best bitter, were called G (the strongest, equivalent to Bass No 1), F (the second-strongest) and D (the third-strongest, in the 20th century sold as a mild) – they’re the ones called “strong ales” in the ads. It looks as if the beers, mostly, go up in strength from A mild through B and C and up to G – but what about M light dinner ale, and S and SS, which to most brewers would mean “stout” and “single stout”, but to Worthington mean their cheapest mild and their cheapest light dinner ale, respectively. And XE IPA looks to be weaker than the E …
One of the most interesting bits in that first ad is right down the bottom, “Special line – 570 dozen bottles Worthington’s East India Pale Ale (Winter 89-90)”. Bottled East India Pale Ale was the beer later known as White Shield, of course – the ad was published in April 1891, so those bottles were between 14 and 17 months old. Today that’s pretty much the end of the “best before” time on White Shield. Without a price, it’s guesswork if those almost 7,000 bottles were being sold because they were near the end of their shelf-life or because the age was a bonus …
The second ad, from 1892, also has some noteworthy features. For once in a Victorian beer ad we get a description of a couple of the beers, the M and SS dinner ales, “pale amber colour, extremely delicate flavour”. We also discover that Worthington was making an “ordinary” bitter under the conventional label ‘BB’ (for “best bitter”), and its porter, stout and double stout had fairly conventional names as well, XX, XXX and DS respectively. (Worthington also made an Imperial stout at one time with the perversely logical name ‘I’. although this had been discontinued by 1961 at the latest.)
The price of ‘E’ IPA, 60 shillings a barrel, in the 19th century would indicate, in most brewers’ price lists, an OG of at least 1080, but the Burton brewers always charged a premium for their IPAs, and its strength was actually down around the 1065 OG mark. That price per barrel meant that on occasions ‘E’ was actually advertised by retailers in the 19th century as “60-shilling ale” or “60-shilling bitter”. It retailed for the high price of two pence a (half-pint) glass, twice as much as ordinary mild ale, and the equivalent today of as much as £7.40 a pint.
‘E’ was Worthington’s equivalent of Bass “red triangle” pale ale, and after the two breweries merged in 1927, the two beers were eventually brewed to the same recipe: not that anybody told the drinking public, of course. Worthington ‘E’ and draught Bass continued to be sold in competition to each other as premium draught beers, despite being exactly the same brews (and bottled ‘E’ – ‘BE’ – was the same beer as bottled Bass Red Triangle).
By the end of the 1950s there was a growing trade in “keg” beer, pasteurised and pressurised, most of which started out as “premium” draught bitters and bottled pale ales. Flowers of Luton and Stratford, one of the pioneers, kegged its Flowers Original best bitter: Watney’s kegged its Red Barrel bottled premium ale. In response, Bass Worthington began “kegging” its own premium bitters. In December 1960, the new chairman of Bass, the former civil servant and wartime MP Sir Percy Grigg, told shareholders that
“in order to meet the demand which exists for a beer popularly known as keg or canister we are now producing our best pale ales in this form. There is no intention that these canister beers should supplant our Bass Triangle and Worthington E draught beers; our aim is rather to put ourselves in a position to supply a beer of character wherever and whenever it may be required.
By January 1964, after the merger in 1961 with the Birmingham brewer Mitchells & Butlers, chairman Grigg was able to say to shareholders:
There has been a spectacular growth in the sales of our canister beers although this to a certain extent has been at the expense of the traditional Bass and Worthington qualities. In producing a variety of canister beers, such as draught Bass, M&B Mild and Worthington ‘E’ we are able to offer a wide choice of excellent beers. Their acceptance by all age groups everywhere has been most encouraging.
You’ve got to love that line about “this to a certain extent has been at the expense of the traditional Bass and Worthington qualities”, code for “it horrifies our brewers to be making this stuff but…”. Grigg also announced that the company has introduced “a new luxury line”, the high-gravity Bass Gold Triangle, “designed to meet the most discriminating tastes”, which looks to have sold at two shillings a nip, or third of a pint – more than twice as expensive, ounce for ounce, as bottled Red Triangle pale ale. It does not seem to have lasted long.
Although “canister” Bass ale remained in the line-up, the company – which became Bass Charrington in 1967 – pushed Worthington ‘E’ as its major keg bitter. Curiously, as this advertisement from The Times in 1970 shows, the bottled version of ‘E’ was still called an India Pale Ale. It was almost as odd an echo of the past as that Toby jug in the Chas Barrington logo, which was originally the badge of Hoare’s brewery in Wapping, East London, taken over by Charrington’s in the 1920s. Apart from that, the whole emphasis was on modernity: only keg draught beers, on show, no handpumps, no Charrington beers (apart from Carling Black Label and Tennents, the lager brands Charrington had brought to the marriage). That year the Bass Charrington chairman, Alan Walker, formerly the boss of M&B, told shareholders: “Worthington ‘E’ again increased its share of the ale market, the demand for Keg Worthington ‘E’ being particularly strong.”
Through the 1970s, Worthington ‘E’ was one of the leading keg beers, simply because Bass Charrington, as the biggest pub owner in the country, with more than 11,000 outlets, had so many bartops to put it on. A survey by the Daily Mirror in July 1972 found it the strongest of the six “national” keg beers, at 1037.8 OG and 4 per cent abv, but its price, 14 to 17p a pint – equivalent to perhaps £2.85 to £3.46 today – was more expensive than anything else except Carlsberg (3.1 per cent abv), at 18p a pint, and Carling Black Label (4.3 per cent abv), at 16 to 20p a pint. Batham’s bitter, for comparison, was 1043.2 OG, 4.7 per cent abv and 13p a pint. (Bottled Worthington ‘E’ was a more respectable 1047.1 OG, 5 per cent abv, and 9p for a half-pint bottle.)
Like all the leading keg beers, however, the rise of the Campaign for Real Ale was not good for Worthington ‘E’, and it became a “skunked” brand, like Watney’s Red Barrel, shorthand for all that was hideous about mass-produced, over-priced, over-fizzy national beers. It looks to have been replaced as Bass’s keg bartop offering by another of those beers advertised back in the late 19th century, Worthington Best Bitter (which as one point was being advertised on television by a series of ads apparently based on Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow Advertising agencies with brewery accounts seem to have a fascination with the era of Brigadier Gerard: Whitbread used Stephen Fry (and the marvellous Tim McInnerny, in a vaguely early 19th century military romp for its own Best Bitter, and Charles Wells, of course, is currently using Rick Mayall as “the Bombadier”. Is it because they can thereby associate their brand with something macho and military, but at the same time less threatening than the horrors of 20th or 21st century war?). Keg ‘E’ looks to have survived until 1994, at least, but eventually the brand faded away.
Until, that is, Steve Wellington was put in charge of the Worthington’s brewery at the National Brewery Centre in Burton upon Trent. Steve had the run of the old Bass brewing books, and seeing entries such as “540 barrels of Bass/E” from the 1960s, decided that since he couldn’t brew Draught Bass – because Interbrew had kept the rights to that brand name when it sold the former Bass brewery to Coors in 2000, and Draught Bass is now brewed under licence by Marston’s – he could justifiably brew exactly the same beer under the name Worthington ‘E’.
‘E’ continued under Steve’s replacement at the Worthington’s brewery, Jim Applebee, and I’m guessing that it will continue to be brewed under Ian’s new replacement, Stephano Cossi, formerly of the Thornbridge brewery in Derbyshire. I doubt there was a brewery buff in Britain that did not cheer when they heard Stephano was taking over at Worthington’s: he did some terrific work at Thornbridge, including one of my personal top-10 beers, Bracia, a lovely, lovely beer. But Stephano, if you read this – do get the marketing department to stop calling ‘E’ a Burton Ale. It ain’t – it’s a genuine 19th century IPA.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for new beers to brew, can I suggest a resurrection for Worthington ‘G’? I’m guessing that because Interbrew/AB InBev still owns the Bass trademark, the Worthington brewery can’t brew a top-of-the-line genuine Burton Ale under the name Bass No 1. But it can certainly brew the same beer under the name Worthington ‘G’, which was the Worthington equivalent of No 1, undoubtedly brewed, after the Bass-Worthington merger, to the same recipe to No1 (and which also disappeared some time before 1961). That would definitely be a welcome return for another classic beer.