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.

‘Beer Gets the Connoisseur Treatment’, 1968

For the Observer Magazine published on 7 July 1968, Cyril Ray (who we wrote about yesterday) assembled a crack team to taste beer.

Cover of The Observer Magazine, 7 July, 1968.The tone of the feature as a whole is a little uncertain: Mr Ray’s text argues that beer is really worthy of respect only to be undercut by an illustration (Watney’s pale in a wine basket) and sub-headline (borrowed for this post) which suggest there is something faintly ridiculous in the exercise.

Because he didn’t think it would be fair to ask professional tasters from brewery quality control departments to take part, he recruited Michael Broadbent, head of the wine department at Christie’s auctioneers, and Douglas Young, a professional tea-taster.

Michal Broadbent learned after a couple of lagers… to taste in mouthfuls rather than in his customary sips, realising that beer is meant to be quaffed, and that this is how it best shows its character. Douglas Young was soon isolating specific characteristics of each beer, and asking the brewer who looked after us, in Whitbread’s hospitable tasting-room, for the brewers’ phraseology with which to define them.

Continue reading “‘Beer Gets the Connoisseur Treatment’, 1968”

Cloning Watney’s Red

There’s one beer more than any other that we would like to be able to taste for ourselves: Watney’s Red.

We know it was terrible — we don’t doubt what we’ve been told by numerous people who were unlucky enough to taste it, including a former Watney’s PR man — but, like people who flock to watch The Room or Plan 9 From Outer Space, we are morbidly curious.

Note that we have specified Watney’s Red, not Watney’s Red Barrel. The latter had a bad reputation, but it was probably the former, launched in 1971, which really brought the wrath of beer geeks and triggered the ‘good beer movement’. It wasn’t merely a rebrand but a complete reformulation, with a nastier, cheaper recipe that produced a yet sweeter, fizzier beer.

We are hoping that, to coincide with our book launch, we can convince someone to brew us a clone, and the marketing people at Aurum Press liked that idea, so fingers crossed. At any rate, we’ll definitely give it a go at home using mini kegs and Co2 bulbs.

But first things first: what was the recipe? Here’s what we know.

  1. A press statement for Red issued in 1971 (according to Roger Protz) described the beer as having a ‘blander taste and a better head’.
  2. In his 1973 book The Beer Drinker’s Companion Frank Baillie described Red as ‘a well balanced keg beer with a burnt malty characteristic’.
  3. From correspondence with one former Watney’s production brewer, we know that Red ‘probably… used raw barley and added enzymes’, unlike Red Barrel.
  4. Dave Line claimed in his book Brewing Beers Like Those You Buy (1978) to have been given full details of many recipes by brewers; he does not give a recipe for Red, but his other Watney’s bitter recipes (for ‘Special’ and Starlight) use Fuggles hops.
  5. In April 1972, Which? magazine gave an original gravity (OG) of 1037.9 and an ABV of 3.67%. The Daily Mirror of 10 July 1972 had 1037.2 and 3.6%. When CAMRA tested it a couple of years later, they got 1037.8 and 3.4%.
  6. Ron Pattinson and Kristen England shared this recipe for Whitbread Tankard from 1971. It was made with around 72% pale malt, 4% crystal malt, 6% ‘torrified barley’, and then a lot of sugar. Can we perhaps assume a vaguely similar malt bill for Red? And similar hopping rates?

Does anyone have any other sources they can point us to?

(And we don’t mean modern home brew recipes based on guesswork, which is in turn based on the memories of a friendly CAMRA member….)

UPDATES 13/3/2014

  • On the advice of Steve ‘The Beer Justice’ Williams, we emailed Dr Kenneth Thomas who looks after the Courage archive where man of Watney’s records ended up. He told us:
[Although] I found extensive records still at the Truman brewery in Brick Lane, and at the former Mann’s brewery in Whitechapel, the former archives of Watney’s had, in the early 1980s, already been deposited on indefinite loan at either the London Metropolitan Archive in Clerkenwell, or at the City of Westminster Record Office in Victoria… So, if any brewing recipes exist for Watney’s Red, they will be somewhere within the collections either at the LMA or Westminster.

  • We also had another look at that 1972 edition of Which? magazine: their tasting panel observed that Tankard was paler and ‘fizzier’ than Red, and Red was by far the darkest of the beers sampled.

There’s a lot to learn from bad beer

Watneys Red Barrel beer mat.

Taking the time to drink bad beer is a useful way to calibrate the tastebuds, correct your perspective, and stimulate the tastebuds. Sometimes, it’s just about reminding yourself that bad beer is still beer and won’t kill you.

In this post, Ghost Drinker exposes a guilty secret: many bloggers and writers use Carlsberg Special Brew as shorthand for the worst type of strong-and-nasty ‘tramp brew’, despite never having tried it. (As adults, at least.) We’ve got two choices: get a can and give it a go, or stop referring to it. We’re inclined towards the latter. After all, we’ve always got Warka Strong to fall back on.

On a similar note, Gareth at Beer Advice points out how odd it is that a beer that ceased production in the 1970s, before many beer bloggers were born, remains one of the most talked about — that is, Watney’s infamous Red Barrel, the bogeyman of bad British bitter.

Red Barrel was (we think) renamed just ‘Red’ in around 1971. Frank Baillie’s Beer Drinker’s Companion (1973) describes Red as a ‘well balanced keg beer with a burnt malty characteristic’; and the analysis in this 1972 Daily Mirror article (via Ron Pattinson’s blog) suggest a respectable strength of c.3.6% abv — not as shockingly weak as we’d imagined from reading one polemic or another.

Does anyone who’s old enough to remember drinking Red Barrel want to suggest a beer available today that might give us an idea of its flavour and character? Maybe you even have some antique tasting notes in a crumbling notebook? Or perhaps we’ve already been there with our John Smith’s Extra Smooth experiments?

Maybe we’ll just brew a batch, if we can find a convincing recipe.

Bland is fine, homogeneous a problem

Three slices

In the past, we’ve been guilty of sniping at specific beers that annoy us with their blandness, but we now think that’s probably the wrong thing to fret over.

In April 1972, consumer magazine Which? surveyed the most popular keg bitters on the British market.

…none smelled very strongly in the glass — none was either unpleasant or very pleasant. As far as taste went, the overwhelming impression of our tasters was that none of the keg bitters had any very characteristic taste… we also carried out a standard laboratory test for hop — bitterness. These results confirmed how similar the keg beers were.

The problem here is the similarity between the products.

What we, as consumers, need to be wary of is a homogeneous market which offers us no real choice. Bland keg bitters might not be to your taste, but it’s no bad thing that they exist as part of a varied landscape which also includes stronger, darker, lighter, more flowery, lagered, Belgian, American and downright wacky beers.

We haven’t yet seen an original copy of Which? from April 1972 but, fortunately, Christopher Hutt quotes from this article at length in his The Death of the English Pub (1973).

Picture from Flickr Creative Commons: Three Slices by Nick Saltmarsh.