You can’t have cops without robbers, or Batman without the Joker, and so the story of the revitalisation of British beer needs its bad guys too. Enter Watney’s.
Watney’s (or Watney Mann, or Watney Combe Reid) was the Evil Corporation which sought to crush plucky small brewers and impose its own terrible beer on the drinking public. It acquired and closed beloved local breweries, and it closed pubs, or ruined them with clumsy makeovers.
Its Red Barrel was particularly vile – a symbol of all that was wrong with industrial brewing and national brands pushed through cynical marketing campaigns.
This, at least, was the accepted narrative for a long time, formed by the propaganda of the Campaign for Real Ale in its early years, and set hard through years of repetition.
But does it stand up to scrutiny? What if, contrary to everything we’ve heard, Red Barrel was actually kind of OK?
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What We Want is Watney’s
We’ve been writing about Watney’s seriously since 2012. At first, we were interested because it was the ‘baddie’ in the origin story of the Campaign for Real Ale, which we were attempting to tell in Brew Britannia.
But then we began to find Watney’s fascinating in its own right, as an example of the kind of company that dominated Britain in the 20th century: big and acquisitive, sure, but retaining a quirky, paternalistic tendency at least up until the 1970s.
CAMRA, and Christopher Hutt especially, regarded its consistent, pervasive brand style as a problem – identical pubs, with identical fascias, in the same shade of red, wherever they were in the country. A visual manifestation of the uniform blandness of Watney’s beer, and the keg bitters of the Big Six more generally.
To those less engaged in the politics of beer, however, that brand is something to celebrate – a mid-century classic. Conceived with input from the Design Research Unit, an organisation with a cult following of its own, it has featured in gallery exhibitions and books as an example of the best 20th century design had to offer.
Even now, more than 40 years after the DRU brand design was abandoned, it is possible to recognise an old Watneys pub by remaining scraps of lettering and, if you’re prone to nostalgia, to feel moved by the direct connection to a brief period, roughly between the Festival of Britain and the Wicker Man, when bold modernism was baked into everyday life.
As for the red barrel itself, it truly deserves that overused description ‘iconic’. Whether in the form of a keyring, in perspex over the back door of an abandoned pub, or sitting as decoration on the bar of a bar with retro tendencies, it prompts recognition, delight, or derision.
The sticking point, though, is the beer – a byword for the horrors of 20th century monopoly brewing, the butt of endless jokes. But can it really have been that bad?
The Badness of Red Barrel
“They can’t have set out with an intention for it to be vile”, wrote brewer Henry Bealby in an email last week.
He is a childhood friend of beer historian Ron Pattinson and his brewery, Cat Asylum, based in Newark, specialises in historic recreations, including a cask ale based on a 1963 recipe for Red Barrel.
The history of Watneys Red Barrel, which also happens to be the story of keg beer in Britain, has been told a thousand times, but here’s a short version: it was launched in 1931 as an alternative to cask beer for venues not equipped to dispense it and then, after World War II, became a flagship product, marketed nationally in print and on television.
In 1970–71 the beer was reformulated and relaunched under the name Red. This is the beer, evidence suggests, that really did turn people against Watney’s, being sweeter and fizzier again. A contemporary internal training film unearthed by Nick Wheat put a positive spin on the change, but acknowledged it nonetheless:
What we’ve done is to give the beer a new smooth pleasant taste. We’ve also given it a much better head and altogether a more attractive appearance. Gone is any suggestion of bitter after palate; instead, there is a pleasant malty mealiness.… We’ve studied flavour, studied people’s reaction to flavour, and produced experimental beers, testing out all the variations we can think of in such things of sweetness or bitterness.
A pervasive advertising campaign that drew on the imagery of totalitarianism didn’t help either.
It was at this time that Watney’s became the focus of the nascent Campaign for Real Ale. Christopher Hutt, CAMRA’s second chairman, boosted CAMRA’s profile by engaging in a battle with Watney’s head of PR, Ted Handel, on the letters page of the Financial Times, and the first edition of the Good Beer Guide advised drinkers to ‘Avoid like the plague’.
The Watney’s Red (Barrel) brand was finally all but retired from the UK market in the late 1970s, a move widely seen as a retreat in the face of CAMRA’s relentless battering. It lingered on as an overseas brand, though, in markets where the politics of ‘real ale’ were less potent.
When we were researching Brew Britannia we spoke to many veteran drinkers and observers and few had kind words to say about Watney’s beer. One exception was Nick Handel, Ted Handel’s son, who even more than 40 years on bristled at the rough treatment his father, and the beer he represented, got at the hands of CAMRA in the early 1970s:
My father was working for a go-ahead brewing concern at a time of changing tastes and consumer needs. The battle with CAMRA was a small part of everything he had on his plate, but I did get the impression they were a bit of a pain. I think they used Watneys as a platform for their own propaganda and he had a tricky old time with them.
We also filed away a letter to the journal of the Institute of Brewing magazine (brought to our attention by Ed Wray) from a veteran brewer annoyed at what he regarded as lazy repetition of the myth of Red Barrel’s awfulness:
I have just read my copy of the October 2013 edition of B&DI The article which describes Watney’s Red Barrel as ‘infamous’ is truly crass. I worked for Watney in the late 60s and early 70s and remember that brew as a decent bitter, albeit in keg form… At Mortlake laboratory, we taste-testers prided ourselves in being able to detect which brewery the Red Barrel came from; all had characteristic nuances. A touch of diacetyl from Norwich, a hint of SO2 from Trowbridge or a slight whiff of DMS from Manchester. Alfie Gough’s Brighton version was as well hopped as Tamplin’s use to be, in true Sussex style.
All this only deepened our fascination: could there ever be a way to establish with any objectivity – that is, from sources without their own axes to grind – how Red Barrel tasted?
And then, one day in September 2014,such evidence did arrive, in the form of a black ringbinder: the Watney Mann Quality Control Manual.
For more than 40 years, this document had sat in the personal collection of Stewart Main, a retired brewer best known for his time in charge at Shepherd Neame. We had emailed him hoping for a few titbits of information, little expecting that he would have in his possession the motherlode.
The binder was packed with tables, lists, recipes, diagrams and detailed notes on how to brew and package each beer in the Watney’s portfolio circa 1965. What’s more, it came with a sheaf of loose-leaf additions bringing the manual up to date for the 1970s.
At last we had something concrete to go on.
Unfortunately, we are not brewers, or even terribly technical, so it took every ounce of our concentration to derive anything at all from the raw data. It certainly seemed to support the idea that the beer itself, the basic recipe, was perfectly respectable.
|Enzymic (acid?) malt||1%|
|Crystal malt (variable, for colour)||4.5%|
|Malt extract (in mash)||3%|
|Invert 3 (sugar, in boil)||2.5%|
We scanned the document and sent a copy to Ron Pattinson hoping that he’d be better equipped to interpret it than us, which he was, and did, most notably in this article for Beer Advocate.
Cross-referring to a set of brewing logs from the Watney’s (Usher’s) brewery in Trowbridge, he reached a startling conclusion – that Watney’s was in the habit of dumping stale beer into fresh beer to maximise profits:
I’ve seen thousands of brewing records from several countries, but these were the first to shock me. And the first where I haven’t thought, “I’d really like to try that beer.” CAMRA was right to tell readers to “avoid like the plague” in the first Good Beer Guide. Because Watney’s products were up to 20 percent muck: beer returned from pubs, sludgy stuff from the bottom of tanks and other crap lying around the brewery.
In the same article, though, he admits to having little firsthand knowledge of how Watney’s beers tasted “having taken CAMRA’s advice to heart”. Keen to hear from some people who had tasted Red Barrel, and/or Red, and hoping that perhaps 40+ years might offer some fresh perspective, we emailed some of the veterans in our address book and asked them one simple question: was Red Barrel as bad as everyone says?
Roger Protz, beer writer
I don’t think I ever sampled Red Barrel. It was the revamp, Watney’s Red, that I drank. I was working on a newspaper in East London and had two pubs nearby, one selling Young’s Bitter, the other Charrington IPA. I was bowled over by Young’s Ordinary and it turned me into a cask beer devotee. When ads for Watney’s Red were plastered all over London I thought I should try it and went to the nearest Watney’s pub. I thought it was dreadful and later described it as “liquid Mars Bars” – ‘sweet, gassy and lacking any noticeable hop character. In fairness to Watneys Red, I think Tartan Keg was worse!
Sue Hart, campaigner and pub crawler
In reality, it was no worse than Double Diamond or Whitbread Tankard, but it appeared to be everywhere and much more visible with its trademark than the others. They also did a beer called Starlight which was also keg but a tad more drinkable. It may even have been top pressure rather than keg.
James Lynch, chairman of CAMRA in 1978
In truth it was neither any worse nor any better than any of the other national keg brands. Bland, brown, devoid of any character and ridiculously fizzy. That said, I can clearly remember – just like I can remember where I was when I heard the news of JFK’s assassination – where I was when I first decided, after just one mouthful, that I was going to drink no more of a particular pint. That was in London in 1964. That wasn’t because of the condition it was in because, as a keg beer it would have consistent, albeit consistently characterless, but because it had nothing to offer. And that wasn’t Red Barrel but Double Diamond.
That offers some evidence, then, that Red Barrel was hard-done-by. And, as it happens, we have another data point to offer: we have tasted a version of Red Barrel ourselves – two versions, in fact, one pasteurised, the other not.
They were brewed for us in 2016 by Ed Wray, a professional brewer who, at the time, had access to a small pasteurising unit. He followed a recipe derived from the Quality Control Manual and handed over the finished products during a brief encounter at Paddington station.
Tasting those beers, with due ceremony, in the appropriate vintage glassware, was among the most thrilling experiences we’ve had in our many years beer-geeking. Of course it should have been kegged, not bottled, and Ed didn’t add slops, or drive the beers around the country in tankers, but, still, it was hard to find fault with either version:
It was delicious like a nice sandwich, not like five courses at the Fat Duck. Chewy, satisfyingly malty, fresh and definitely on the right side of the bland-subtle border. There was a slight cooked flavour, we thought, although maybe that was down to the power of suggestion. We imagine warmer, or if left sitting around in a pub cellar for six months, it might get a bit nasty. But, like this, we’d happily drink it every day.
With similar curiosity, Ron Pattinson approached his old friend, Henry Bealby, with a worked-up recipe for Red Barrel as it was c.1963. We didn’t get to taste that version but Henry shared some thoughts by email:
It was a beer I hardly ever drank in the 70s, except perhaps in a Party 7 can, but it fitted well with our mission of bringing back beers from the dead. I figured that they can’t have set out with an intention for it to be vile and thought the original recipe also might reflect the southern bitter style of the times. And indeed it did, reminding me and others of our first impressions of bitter when we strayed away from Nottinghamshire into the southern half of the country… There was a lot of scoffing about our intention to brew it but it all sold. Double Diamond next?
Revival of the reviled
Henry Bealby isn’t the only brewer risking ridicule by dabbling in these dark waters: in 2016, Brands Reunited, which specialises in acquiring expired brewery names and applying them to contemporary products, brought Watney’s back to market.
When the news broke, the reaction was mixed. Some either remembered Watney’s grim reputation, or remembered it indirectly through folk memory, and were appalled. Others found the idea hilarious, regarding it as a distinctly provocative, mischievous move at the height of a craft beer revolution led by the likes of BrewDog, and two fingers up at CAMRA at the same time.
The interesting thing is, though, that the new Watneys is using the name and the stag logo, but not the red barrel, or any of the DRU typography. And among its roster of beers, there is no Red Barrel – only a set of modern pale ales, brewed at Sambrook’s.
In an exchange of emails with Nick Whitehurst, one of the co-founders of Brands Reunited, we asked about the challenges of promoting beers with such a (sorry John Palmer) infamous name attached:
It’s true that Watneys had a bad rep in its latter years, but if you go back a bit further you find an amazing brand that was innovative and market leading… Many under the age of 40 haven’t heard of Watneys so they evaluate us like any new brand, many over 40 remember the brand as something their dad or grandad drank and remember it fondly, and some even worked for Watneys back in the day and remember it as a great business…
And is there any chance of Red Barrel making a comeback?
It’s not in our immediate plans but you never know… I think if we do we need to get it absolutely spot on as we will be inviting the world to judge us. For now, we are a small business trying to prove ourselves and to establish Watneys as a credible craft brand in a very competitive market… One thing we have just done is made some Red Barrel memorabilia. I get more requests for keyrings than anything else so we have just made some of those, and some Red Barrel pin badges.
There’s a tension in the way Brands Reunited markets its Watney’s branded beers: on the one hand, it wants to capitalise on nostalgia, but on the other it recoils from the negative connotations of the old name. The slogan “We’re back…. And taste nothing like we used to” is intended as self-aware self-deprecation but betrays doubt: is it proud of its heritage, or ashamed of it?
It’s fascinating that almost 50 years since anyone last ordered a pint of Red Barrel, a beer that probably wasn’t so dreadful in itself, that the brand still has a stink about it.