Cloning Watney’s Red

Watney's Red Barrel (detail from beer mat).

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 thoughts on “Cloning Watney’s Red”

  1. 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.

    1. 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.

  2. 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.)

    1. 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.


    1. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

    1. 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?

      1. 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?

        1. 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.

  5. 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?

    1. 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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