Beer history

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.

16 replies on “There’s a lot to learn from bad beer”

Thanks for the link! I kind of think Watneys RB would taste like a mix of Stones bitter (or another, none nitro bitter) and Banks’s mild from cans. I have no evidence for this whatsoever of course.

Yes, I think Mudgie has it bang on. I tried this stuff (although my keg of choice in those days was Courage Tavern) and it was just sweet and fizzy with a slight burnt sugar back taste as I recall. Truly awful with no redeeming features at all.

¡Sounds good!

I was a regular drinker of Special Brew at one time. It was my gig-fuel of choice – knowing that there’d never be anything decent at the bar, and that I wouldn’t want to make more than two trips if I could help it, I made a rule of starting the evening (before or if possible during the support act) with a Special Brew and going back (after they’d finished) for a Red Stripe. Not being with it any more (I used to be with it, but then they changed what it was) I haven’t encountered this problem for quite some time.

And I thought – like Ghostie and indeed the Colombian blogger – that, drinking without prejudice, it was fine.

Red Barrel, though, was piss. The thing about Bleeding Watneys Red Barrel – and 70s keg bitter generally – was that it tasted exactly as if somebody had taken a kind of olfactory snapshot of the taste of a mouthful of cask bitter at one second in time, then reverse-engineered that flavour and applied it, Sodastream-style, to heavily-carbonated cold water. It tasted exactly the same all the way through, and it tasted as if the fizz had been added afterwards (which of course it had). It was beer-ade, in short.

Perhaps the thought of Red Barrel is like some collective folk memory that none of us have experienced but along with the gradually diminishing voices from those who drank in pubs in the 1970s will help us become this hive of collective memory — I remember Lyn McDonald’s books in which she interviewed veterans of WW1, perhaps there is a need to do the same for pubs and beer.

Me! I’ve experienced Red Barrel! I was under-age and I only had it once (courtesy of an uncle who thought he was doing me a huge favour), but I did drink it and remember it vividly. I particularly remember the disappointment – oh… I though I liked beer…

[…] a se stessi che la birra cattiva è ancora birra e non ti ucciderà). Il pensiero, preso da Boak & Bailey’s, mi ha colpito subito, semplice ma non […]

I can’t find my copy just now, but if you want to brew a 70’s keg bitter, I bet Dave Line’s “Brewing Beer Like Those You Buy” has a recipe. Dave was no beer snob – even Cookie likes him!

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