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?
Via Twitter, we’ve been asked to provide more information on plans by the European Common Market in 1973 to “harmonise European brewing methods”, as mentioned in Fintan O’Toole’s book Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain.
Mr O’Toole quotes from a story in the Daily Mirror (25/06/1973) headlined EUROBEERMENACE:
A Common Market threat to British beer united labour and Tory MPs yesterday. The threat came in reports of a plan by Market authorities to ‘harmonise’ brewing methods in member countries.
Mr. William Wilson, teetotal Labour MP for South Coventry, and Tory Sir Gerald Nabarro both plan to raise the issue with Food Minister Joseph Godber “in the interests of the beer drinkers of Britain.”
Sir Gerald said: “This would be a disaster. Our beer is world famous for its strength, nutritional value and excellence.”
It’s not hard to work out what people thought harmonisation might mean: mild and bitter banned, German-style lager everywhere, by order of Brussels.
But there’s very little detail in the story and it reads like typical fuss-about-nothing tabloid reporting wilfully missing the point for the sake of causing outrage. (On the same page: NOWFRIEDONIONSAREBANNEDATWIMBLEDON.)
Sure enough, it didn’t take much digging to find a report from the Economist from two days earlier (23/06/1973) announcing that these proposals had already been abandoned by the time the Mirror ran its piece.
Beer geeks, however, were talking about at least one specific technical issue: in the discussion around harmonisation proposals, there was a suggestion that only female (seedless) hops ought to be used in brewing across Europe. In England, however, male hops were historically grown alongside female, and people had a vague sense that male hops… er… made our beer taste more virile? Or something.
Richard Boston wrote about this in his Guardian column for 29 September 1973:
You can imagine the consternation with which I received the ugly rumour that in order to conform with the practice of our Common Market partners the male hop was going to be routed out here too… I got straight on the blower to the Hops Marketing Board… and asked their spokesman if it was true… “Absolute balls,” he replied.
The Economist followed the Eurobeer story closely, reporting on its progress over the next few years, as in this particularly interesting piece from 2 November 1974:
Much nonsense is talked by European politicians about Brussels busybodies trying madly to standardise European food and drink. Britain’s Mr Harold Wilson is just about the worst offender. At long last it has provoked a European civil servant into putting the record straight. Anonymously, he is circulating a paper dissecting each complaint. Most are exposed as innacurate…
Plans for Eurobeer and Eurobread – now withdrawn for review – neither outlaw nor standardise national brews and loaves. The aim is rather to demolish protectionist barriers which impede the free sale of these products across national boundaries. Germany, for example, has strict rules which virtually mean that if a beer is not brewed in the German way it cannot be called beer. The Commission’s Eurobeer plan would make Germany open its market to imported beers, including British ales, which meet a common European standard.
In 1975, the UK Government held a referendum on continued membership of the European Community. The threat of Eurobeer came up repeatedly in referendum campaign materials such as this pamphlet from the Government itself. A Q&A with the Consumer Association in the Daily Mirror for 30 May 1975 answers our question head on:
Q: What does ‘harmonisation’ mean? Shall we be drinking Eurobeer?
A: Harmonisation means getting our standards in line with those of other countries to enable us to sell our products to them. There are two types in the Common Market:
TOTAL: When a Common Market law says that only products which comply with that law can be sold at all in the Common Market;
OPTIONAL: When individual countries can allow products which do not conform to the law to be sold in their own countries…
But if there is a regulation on beer or bread, this will almost certainly be optional.
Oddly enough, even though the EC/EU didn’t implement any such plan, by the late 1980s, lager was everywhere in England anyway, much of it brewed in the UK under the supervision of continental European brewers, and sold under continental European brand names. Market economics and consumer demand did what the EC didn’t.
The rather less politically charged extract below, from a chapter called ‘Over the Top’ about Saddleworth Moor, grabbed our attention for a couple of reasons.
No group of people in the valley are in more demand than the members of the Boarshurst Silver Band. George Gibson, a large, enormously jovial man with a great red face who plays the ‘basso profundo’ and also teaches brass in the local schools, reckons to be out either playing or teaching ‘very near every night’… [He] said over a pint at the King William [that] finding players was not any particular problem – “you find me twenty-four instruments and I’ll find you twenty-four kids”. The King William, incidentally, is one of the pubs in Saddleworth which has treated itself to wall-to-wall carpeting, an extravagance which [local character] John Kenworthy thinks has changed them from forums of discussion into mere drinking places. At one end of the bar were a group of the men we had been drinking with the night before at the Gentleman’s [Club], now deeply engrossed in a catholic selection of racing papers. At the other were half a dozen men in overalls.
Carpets were seen as taking pubs downmarket, somehow? Making them more frivolous?
A reminder that pub carpets aren’t a great old tradition – they’re a relatively new development.
And, carpets aside, a reminder of how class segregation can happen even without physical boundaries.
In case you’re wondering, by the way, the William IV is still there, and still trading as a pub.
What was life like in a large regional English brewery in the years between the wars? Fortunately for us, Charles Forman asked someone, and recorded their answer.
We picked up a copy of Industrial Town, which was published in 1978, from a bargain bin somewhere and have previously flagged its commentary on spitting in pubs.
The observations of a nameless brewery worker, born c.1902, are no less interesting, describing life at Greenall Whitley’s St Helens outpost:
In the brewery the day turn used to be on at six in the morning. You had to get malt out, which came in hundredweight sacks, and put it in the dissolving tanks. You got a dipstick out which stated the quantity of water that was wanted to dissolve the malt in. When you go that quantity you let them know on the mash tuns where the malt is left. The mixture is pumped up to the coppers, where they used to put the malt and hops to boil. There were three copper boilers altogether – the biggest one held 500 barrels.
When they’re satisfied they’ve got enough hops, they shut that manhole and put the steam on to get it to a certain heat for boiling the brew. They’re supposed to boil it just over an hour, but sometimes you were waiting for empty vessels, so you had to boil it longer. There were only two of us there, so you couldn’t go away and leave it.
There is a bit more detail of the brewing process given – the brewery employed hopbacks, and sent the beer into vessels at 70°F before fermenting for a full week.
One especially interesting detail (well, to us; well, to Jess) is a brief discussion of excise inspections:
There’s a certain gravity to work to in the beer. Once they get it to the gravity they want, you can’t do anything till the excise officers come along and check it… On the job, if you got it wrong, there’d be an enquiry about it. If it was too high, they’d break it down with boiling water to make sure it was the right gravity that they’re tied down to.
Cleaning is the less sexy side of brewing but, by all accounts, takes up a huge amount of most brewers’ time. The subject of this oral history recalls cleaning vats as a job for brewery juniors: “It was repetition work – just do the job till it’s done. We used sand and mixed it up with with vitriol…”
But what was Greenall Whitley’s beer like in the 1920s? It’s always exciting to find historic tasting notes of any kind, but this one is only brief and vague: “The beer was all right”.
[They] had different strengths. They don’t brew any stout now – it’s only bitter and mild. We used to get beer free at half past ten and half past two in the afternoon. The chap dished it out in the cellar. You’d have to take a can with you. Two pints a day, that’s what it used to be. One chap got sacked for pinching it – they were very keen on that.
You can pick up copies of this book for very little and if you’re interested in St Helens, industrial history, or working class life, it’s certainly worth a couple of quid.
As the year winds to a close, it’s time to reflect on where we’ve been and the stops we made along the way.
In the real world, we’ve had a hectic year, with beer blogging as a grounding mechanism – something absorbing and challenging that isn’t (quite) work.
Though it’s felt at time as if we’ve been less productive than in previous years, looking back over our ‘month that was’ round-ups, we realise just how much we wrote this year, and how much of it is bloody decent.