Beer history

The Ghost of Whitbread

It was once a dominant force in British brewing but Whitbread, as a brewery, no longer exists. The company runs hotels and coffee shops, but doesn’t have anything to do with beer.

Nonetheless, the name, and its connection with beer, lingers on.

A handful of the brands are still in production by various companies, under license from InBev who now own the rights. We’ve seen 275ml bottles of Light Ale in a convenience store in Clapton; bitter on the bar at an old pub in the East End of London; and, of course, supermarket four-packs of bitter and mild every now and then.

In Devon last year we saw a rusting advert for NEW Whitbread Tankard on the side of a boarded-up country pub.

And, on Saturday night, when someone nearby ordered a pint of bitter, as it was rung through the till, the word WHITBREAD appeared on its screen in glowing green letters for just a few seconds. Was it a ghost in the machine? No, sure enough, there on the bar, next to the lemonade, was a faded and chipped font for Trophy Bitter, which someone is evidently still making.

Whitbread’s other great legacy would appear to be its yeast: a kind of ‘stud’ which begat many of those currently in use by breweries all over Britain today. Wouldn’t it be nice to see someone brewing Whitbread’s long lost cask beers with it and bringing the name back from this odd form of suspended animation?

30 replies on “The Ghost of Whitbread”

I had some keg Whitbred Bitter in the posh surrounds of Luton Hoo a while back. Verily it did suck mightily, but was a nice extra piece of data supporting my thesis that “Irish Red Ale” is just shitty keg bitter.

My local was “one of theirs” until recently. I always felt the loss of soul (the brewing of beer) left the name as merely a religious symbol. Having said that, it still made a certain impact on me. I was glad my pub was taken over by ‘them’ rather than many other such industry entities. Exactly the response they wanted, I suspect! I would have given anything to have sat there drinking a Whitbread beer, rather than merely to have been sat on a Whitbread owned stool.

I was in a social club in the Forest of Dean about 2 years ago and saw a font for Toby Bitter. Fortunately they hadn’t had any for years so I ordered something else. I never thought anyone could be sentimental about that muck but strange things happen in the Forest…

Overheard, many moons ago:

“Just heard the guy next to me at the bar ordering Chass Barrington. Chass Barrington – I like the sound of that.”
“Just as well they didn’t serve Whitbread Tankard.”

Heh. We bought a Charrington glass in a charity shop last week which prompted a shop-wide debate about whether they’d closed or not. Huge fondness for these old brands.

And a couple of the Kernels? But it would be nice to see the logo on a pumpclip in a normal pub.

I’m interested in breweries trying to recreate old recipes, but the name? It should be retired with the brewery. I’m one of those people who gets sad when the corner Chinese restaurant closes down. (That actually happened–Chin Yen, five blocks away, without any warning. I go to get some take out, and it was closed for good…after decades of service. I digress.) The loss of a brewery like Whitbread is staggering, but keeping around the name does no one any good. It’s just sad, misleading, and a huge disservice to the beer Whitbread once brewed.

It’s history now; let it rest.

Depend what you mean by Whitbread beers. Most of the beers under the Whitbread banner were just renamings of the product portfolio of the various breweries they had taken over. Arguably the only “true” Whitbread beers were those that came out of the Chiswell Street Brewery and that shut way back in 1976. As Ron has pointed out a couple of those beers have already been recreated (and rather good they were too).

Not sure you’ve really thought this one through. I know you’ll get all huffy at this stage but this does have the feel of (yet another) slightly contrived blog post by you guys. It’s not compulsory to post every day you know.

That’s what I like about this blog – that some of the posts do have lots of loose ends for people to tug on in the comments. Sometimes the entire point of the post gets unravelled, but the discussion you end up with makes up for it.

Thanks, Phil. Yes, quite often we’ve had half a thought and want to bounce it about with likeminded nerds.

The Duchy Arms in Kennington has it on keg. I intend to go and have myself a light and bitter, since no other pub round here know what that is. Haven’t had a L&B since I was last in the Holly Bush in Bankside some years back…

What do you have for the ‘light’ part of it? (Come to that, what is light ale? When I discovered light mild after moving up North I jumped to the conclusion that light ale was the Southern name for it, but I’m not sure that’s right. Is Martyn still here?)

I assume ‘light ale’ is the same as ‘pale ale’ ie bottled bitter, but I don’t care enough to find out 🙂 It shouldn’t be the case, but it does taste different than having a pint of draught bitter.

Having had to put up with Whitbread Trophy (or Atrophy as we called it) when I moved to Sheffield in the 70′s, I won’t be looking forward to the return of Whitbread beers any time soon.

Atrophy! Another great nickname.
We ended up having a pint later in the evening when the Butcombe ran out. Rank. Isn’t the point of keg beer that it keeps longer? This must have been six months old.

My believe – though I don’t have any proof of this, and I’d be interested in what Ron’s records might show – is that a brewery’s Light Ale was normally the bottled ordinary bitter, the Pale Ale the bottled best bitter.

John Clarke is right, Whitbread Trophy would normally have been the local Whitbread brewery’s pre-takeover bitter, rebadged. Several were excellent – the Tiverton brewery’s, for example. The one you were drinking, Wildnorthlands, would probably have been brewed in the Exchange brewery, Sheffield, formerly Tennant’s.

Whitbread Trophy would normally have been the local Whitbread brewery’s pre-takeover bitter, rebadged

I’d either forgotten or never known that they used to do that – better in beer terms than the usual contemporary practice of concentrating brewing in as few places as possible, but still seems like vandalism. And ‘Trophy’ was a really sensitive, diplomatic name to use!

Is Whitbread the only one of the big British breweries still surviving as an independent company? Even if it’s not actually a brewery any more…

Can’t help but feel they got out of brewing a little prematurely. Can just see a little Whitbread branded bar in every Premier Inn…

It’s the only one of the Big Six still using its pre-beer-orders name, but both Mitchell & Butlers and InterContinental Hotels are directly descended from Bass without having been taken over by anyone else.

That’s an odd one: it’s not Whitbread branded, it’s not brewed by them, and yet, somehow, it’s definitely still a Whitbread beer in my mind. Is it now branded as Tennant’s again?

These days that would probably just get it confused with Tennent’s of Glasgow (and while we’re talking of extra-strong beers, Tennent’s have their own confusion to add in that they don’t own the Tennent’s Super brand anymore – InBev seemingly thought it prestigious enough that they wanted to keep it when they sold off the rest of the Tennent’s brands).

You mentioned the legacy of Whitbread yeast. Don’t forget the hops, WGV. Whitbread Golding Variety.

Alan – good point, hadn’t realised the Whitbread connection there. We’ve brewed with WGV as well! (they were very nice)

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