Beer history homebrewing

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.

13 replies on “Cloning Watney’s Red”

Never tasted it myself – by the time I started visiting any Watney’s pubs it had been replaced by Ben Truman. But several people have expressed the view that the closest thing you’ll find today is non-nitro keg Smithwick’s in Ireland.

Closer to (your) home, Whitbread Bitter is non-nitro and very much in the same line as Smithwick’s and Wellpark-brewed Bass, so seems likely to be similar to Watney’s Red.

You’re crazy.

Listen to some decent folk music – Shirley Collins or Nic Jones or June Tabor, Spiers and Boden at a pinch. Look out at the sunshine, or the moonlight, or that particular grey in the clouds that you get at this time of day. Leave the music going, even though you’re not sure you like the next one. Breathe in, breathe out. Feel knots in your shoulders that you didn’t even know you had melting away.

Then stop the next song halfway through and listen to this instead. Listen to it twice. Reach out to switch on the radio, then stop because you’ll only hear that song again – that or something very, very similar. Be sad.

You have just tasted Watney’s Red.

(Serious point: Watney’s Red in and of itself was just a forgettable, mediocre keg bitter. The reason why Watney’s Red mattered was the ecosystem it was part of, or rather the trashing of the ecosystem being carried out by Watney’s and the rest of the Big Six.)

I had one form or another of it in export form in America, but I can’t recall the taste I think Smithwick’s pre-nitro is close.

What always fascinates me is, this is only 40 years ago or so. There must be many retired Watney technical staff around who know exactly what the Red Revolution was. Surely one can track them down, perhaps there is a pension association, or the like.


I was going to suggest jumping on a Ryanair flight to Ireland and sampling Smithwicks which is a dead ringer for the old Watney Red.
But then I saw Mudgie had beaten me to it.
Given that most Irish people seem happy necking Heino and cold Guinness it’s so bad that even they draw the line at Smithwicks.

i wonder if it would be a bad as advertised if it was brewed today with modern techniques and using high quality ingredients. If I was cloning, I would stick to the Red Barrel not the Red. Red sounds ghastly.

Red Barrel, as I keep saying, started life as a premium bottled IPA-style beer, before it became kegged. Red, I suspect was nothing like it. Certainly I drank a lot of Watney’s beer in Brighton in the very early 1970s, and it was vile – actually, eventually, undrinkable, even to my uneducated teenage palate. Even Newcastle Exhibition was better, and that wasn’t very good.

It’s on record and stated clearly in lots of sources that Red was a completely different beer, but the idea that it was only a rebrand of Red Barrel seems persistent. Contemporary scepticism about ‘new and improved formula’ marketing, perhaps?

I think by that time Watneys was the absolute Bete Noir, and trust had completely broken down, not unfairly, perhaps…….

I remember the final session at one of the old Alexander Palace GBBF’s, and the only stand that had *any* beer was Watneys, with their (horrible) London Bitter, and those CAMRA alcoholics who couldn’t bring themselves to leave were crowded around, drinking stuff they would normally have condemned as rubbish.

The fact that many of the old guard CAMRA guys are obviously alcoholics is never mentioned – I wonder why?

At one place I worked in the 1980s there was a guy who was known to be an alcoholic. God knows how he held down a job – you only had to look at him to see that he was in a bad way. I never had to work with him (thankfully), but I got the impression he essentially shambled through the day from one furtive drink to the next, starting each day addled from withdrawal and endng it addled from drink.

At another place (same decade) there was a guy who was in the pub every lunchtime, usually for at least an hour, and went back in most days on his way home. He didn’t chat or socialise much, even when the rest of us were in; he just worked his way through a series of pints of Greenall Whitley bitter and played the fruit machine, sometimes for half an hour at a time. I remember once I saw him win the machine’s top jackpot, £50. When the fuss had died down he started feeding it back in. I asked him why; he said he wanted to see what would happen.

In retrospect I’d call the second guy an alcoholic, and a gambling addict come to that. But nobody ever called him those things at the time; we were aware that he might be a bit too fond of his beer and his slots, but he didn’t seem that far from the norm. And actually, considering that most of us were drinking two or three pints most lunchtimes, he wasn’t that far from the norm. As recently as 30 years ago, “alcoholic” meant “hipflask in the jacket pocket and suspiciously frequent trips to the Gents”; it didn’t mean “six pints a day instead of three”.

In another place I was asking people who knew the late Tony Capstick for memories of his time as a folksinger. Capstick eventually drank himself to death, and in his performing days (10 or 20 years earlier) he was already known as a drinker. At one point my questioning must have started to sound a bit naive (gosh, so was he drunk all the time? how did that work?); there was a certain amount of virtual throat-clearing and look-here-sonnying, and somebody said “What you’ve got to remember is that the whole folk scene in the 1970s was basically afloat on a sea of beer.” And CAMRA all the more so, presumably. If you could stick it away, great. If you stuck it away every day, good for you. If you stuck it away every day to the point of feeling physically uncomfortable when it ran out… well, it’s all good fun. Not like you’d turned into an alcoholic or something.

“if any brewing recipes exist for Watney’s Red, they will be somewhere within the collections either at the LMA or Westminster”
In which case, Ron might well know?

He’s on tour in the US at the mo, but seem to recall him saying he hadn’t found any Watney’s brewing logs. We can’t find them in the catalogue and didn’t stumble upon them when we were looking at board papers there a while ago. We’ll need to set aside a week, I think, and have every box out of the stacks.

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