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.

8 thoughts on “A Vicious Circle for Keg Bitter in the 1970s”

  1. The odd thing about this is it makes it sound like cus­toms and excise were some sort of arbiter of bad beer – this might explain a bit about what hap­pened to beer in the mid­dle of the 20th cen­tu­ry.

    Alex

  2. Younger’s Spe­cial as it was first known was intro­duced in 1963 as a keg ver­sion of a pre­vi­ous­ly cask ale by brew­er Stir­ling Gar­diner. It peaked in 1974.

  3. S&N did make a big push into the free trade in Eng­land in the 60s and 70s. In ear­ly edi­tions of “North York­shire Ale”, their beers were often the most fre­quent­ly found in the York­shire Dales.

    And remem­ber that, in the ear­ly days of Wetherspoon’s, Younger’s Scotch Bit­ter was their sta­ple cask beer, pre­sum­ably because they could buy it cheap­ly.

  4. I have a rec­ol­lec­tion that in the 80s S & N owned about 10% of Wether­spoon shares and may also have sup­plied their lagers. I can’t find any ref­er­ences to this share­hold­ing now but sus­pect it came from the FT, of which we used to take mul­ti­ple copies where I worked at the time. Pre­sum­ably the shares were sold either before or dur­ing Wetherspoon’s pub­lic list­ing in 1992.

    No doubt the best way to check is to ask Tim Mar­tin (per­haps via Wether­spoon News, but it would be unlike­ly to win the Star Let­ter prize).

  5. It’s inter­est­ing that it didn’t sell in the Eng­lish heart­land of sweet bit­ters. But then my mem­o­ry of it is of a fair­ly unpleas­ant beer, as with most key beers of the time. Scotch Bit­ter was lit­tle bet­ter, the equiv­a­lent of GK IPA. How­ev­er, I did like No. 3, a fan­tas­tic dark beer, and their IPA was quite drink­able too. These were some of my first pints in White­locks in Leeds (also where Michael Jack­son first drank).

  6. Odd­ly, when I was a novice drinker, my dad warned me off Younger’s Scotch Bit­ter, on the grounds that it was “too bit­ter”, which with hind­sight comes across as a strange thing to say.

    1. I was sim­i­lar­ly warned about Tet­leys, and was intro­duced to that by drink­ing Mixed. Didn’t take me long to realise I liked both bit­ter and mild bet­ter on their own

  7. Tar­tan was a sta­ple of most stu­dent bars and con­se­quent­ly drinkers in Read­ing around 1972/3 and no doubt my migra­tion to Brakspear’s Bit­ter, Wethered’s and Morland’s is now explained.

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