Bass King’s Ale 1902

My obsession with old beer continues. At Dramboree this year I had the chance of trying a pair of bottles that I’m honoured to have tasted. First up: Bass King’s Ale from 1902.

Last year, I got to taste Bass Prince’s Ale, brewed in 1929 and surprisingly drinkable despite its 83 years in bottle. When researching the inevitable blog post, a few other ancient beers from the same lineage appeared, including Bass King’s Ale.

Bottles of Bass King’s Ale appears fairly regularly at auctions, thanks to there having been quite a lot of it brewed and also quite a lot cellared. According to Mike Peterson, 400 barrels (36 gallon casks) were brewed, which is 115 thousand pints. In a similar way to the Prince’s Ale, the new king, Edward VII, visited the brewery in Burton and started the mash:

The most interesting event in the history of the town in modern times was the visit of H.M. the King to Lord Burton at his seat at Rangemore on the 22nd February, 1902, when his Majesty inspected Bass and Co.’s Brewery and pulled over the levers which started a special mash of 400 barrels of extra strong ale, which for fifty years or more will be known as the “King’s Ale.”
–Burton and the Licensing Bill, source: Shut up about Barclay Perkins

While Edward VII was crowned in 1902, it was in August, months after the beer was brewed, and the beer wasn’t done as a tie-in with the coronation. It almost seems like the king popped round to get a brewery tour while visiting his mate for the weekend. Which I very much like the idea of.

Apart from a small release in 1905, most was cellared until the 1911 coronation of George V. The brewery issued some bottles, but the independent bottlers who handled Bass also received casks, and they released the beer as well. Bass monopolised the King’s Ale name, and the others labelled it as Royal Ale – it is a much rarer bottle.

Bass King's Ale 1977 recorking label
The label explaining the 1977 recorking.

There was some more launched in 1929 (a tie in with the Prince’s Ale?) but the main secondary release was in 1977, celebrating Bass’s bicentenary. These bottles were mostly rebottled, recorked and resealed, and had a label on the front letting folks know. They are also mostly sealed with black wax, rather than the red of earlier releases, which is another giveaway in case someone has removed the label to try and pass it off as an earlier bottling.

I can’t find anything about what the beer was, but the mentions of ‘strong ale’ suggest that it was a variant on Bass’s flagship No.1 Strong Ale, or (more likely) just a batch of it.

Bass King's Ale Cork
The cork: in surprisingly good condition

The bottle I tried was a black-waxed, 1977-rebottled edition, complete with note on the front letting us know that it was. Unfortunately, it hadn’t survived all that well – these corked bottles are well known for becoming oxidised, and this one had definitely progressed down that road. Then again, it was brewed 116 years ago…

Nose: Branston pickle, Bovril and Marmite – the holy trinity of sandwich spreads, but more than one in your beer at the same time isn’t a great sign. Sharp, fruity pickle and sherry, with dark and heavily oxidised savoury notes.

Palate: Lot of stewed plum, touches of ash and gentle but rich sourness. Dry oloroso sherry notes. More Branston.

Finish: Lingering sherry with chocolate malt ashiness.

Not one to drink more than a few sips of, but other bottles seem to have fared a bit better than this one. If you get a chance, try it.

Many thanks to Angus MacRaild for opening and sharing this.


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