A Vicious Circle for Keg Bitter in the 1970s

Younger's Tartan beer mat.

In the early 1970s no-one was buying Younger’s Tartan keg bitter which meant it kept sitting around in pubs until it went bad. The brewery’s response? Mix it it back in and send it out again.

Good Company by Berry Ritchie.This story leapt out at us from the pages of a new acquisition for our library, Good Company: the story of Scottish & Newcastle, written by Berry Ritchie and published in 1999. As is the case with many brewery official histories the most interesting stuff isn’t the wigs and genealogy in the opening chapters, it’s the material on the post-WWII period. That’s because there were people around who remembered the events well but at the same time were no longer obliged to toe a corporate line because they were retired; and plenty of surviving paperwork, too. This passage, covering a vague period from around 1970 until the middle of the decade, seems remarkably frank:

Unfortunately, the popularity of Tartan turned out to be less than robust. Compared to English bitters, it was on the sweet side; the post-war baby-boomers to whom [board member Tim] Lewis had appealed so successfully liked this to begin with, but as their palates matured, they switched back to more traditional southern bitters. The big swallowers in the Midlands were never keen; Scottish & Newcastle’s salesmen made huge efforts to get its kegs into the large working-men’s clubs  in and around Birmingham, only to see them thrown out again after a month or so.

Worse than that, falling sales resulted in many tapped kegs being left on sale for too long, so their contents went off. That meant returns, which had to be sent all the way back to Edinburgh, because that was where Customs and Excise checked they were were bad enough to warrant a refund of duty. If not, the rejected beer had to be reblended, which did nothing for the flavour of the new brews. So much returned Tartan had to be recycled that it began to affect the reputation of the group’s premium beers.

Isn’t it amazing that this, which reads like CAMRA propaganda, is from a brewery sponsored publication? It’s funny to think, too, that ‘it’s all slops’ was for so long a standard criticism of cask ale, and mild in particular, when in fact the supposedly clean, space-age keg bitter was subject to just the same commercial pressures.

When people talk about the dangerous influence of ‘accountants’ on the quality of beer it’s just this kind of thing they have in mind. Why ‘had’?  They could presumably have just written off the duty payments and thrown the bad beer away. The decision to do otherwise seems remarkably short-termist but perhaps — very likely, in fact — at these volumes, on tight margins, the choice was between this or going immediately bust, or being taken over.

We’d like to think this kind of thing doesn’t go on so much today but with beer duty being yet higher than the 1970s we wouldn’t be surprised to find some 21st Century variant in play.

Funnily enough, Ron Pattinson has just posted about the use of ‘reprocessed beer’ at Younger’s in this period with reference to some archive paperwork. That makes us wonder if perhaps, rather than being mixed with itself, the comparatively light, bland Tartan was hidden in the folds of dark, even sweeter stout and brown ale where it would be harder to spot.

It’s also interesting, by the way, to see further confirmation of the idea that Midlands drinkers in particular were considered to have different tastes, as did young and older drinkers. We can’t help but think again of those soft, sweet New England IPAs.

8 thoughts on “A Vicious Circle for Keg Bitter in the 1970s”

  1. The odd thing about this is it makes it sound like customs and excise were some sort of arbiter of bad beer – this might explain a bit about what happened to beer in the middle of the 20th century.

    Alex

  2. Younger’s Special as it was first known was introduced in 1963 as a keg version of a previously cask ale by brewer Stirling Gardiner. It peaked in 1974.

  3. S&N did make a big push into the free trade in England in the 60s and 70s. In early editions of “North Yorkshire Ale”, their beers were often the most frequently found in the Yorkshire Dales.

    And remember that, in the early days of Wetherspoon’s, Younger’s Scotch Bitter was their staple cask beer, presumably because they could buy it cheaply.

  4. I have a recollection that in the 80s S & N owned about 10% of Wetherspoon shares and may also have supplied their lagers. I can’t find any references to this shareholding now but suspect it came from the FT, of which we used to take multiple copies where I worked at the time. Presumably the shares were sold either before or during Wetherspoon’s public listing in 1992.

    No doubt the best way to check is to ask Tim Martin (perhaps via Wetherspoon News, but it would be unlikely to win the Star Letter prize).

  5. It’s interesting that it didn’t sell in the English heartland of sweet bitters. But then my memory of it is of a fairly unpleasant beer, as with most key beers of the time. Scotch Bitter was little better, the equivalent of GK IPA. However, I did like No. 3, a fantastic dark beer, and their IPA was quite drinkable too. These were some of my first pints in Whitelocks in Leeds (also where Michael Jackson first drank).

  6. Oddly, when I was a novice drinker, my dad warned me off Younger’s Scotch Bitter, on the grounds that it was “too bitter”, which with hindsight comes across as a strange thing to say.

    1. I was similarly warned about Tetleys, and was introduced to that by drinking Mixed. Didn’t take me long to realise I liked both bitter and mild better on their own

  7. Tartan was a staple of most student bars and consequently drinkers in Reading around 1972/3 and no doubt my migration to Brakspear’s Bitter, Wethered’s and Morland’s is now explained.

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