Watney’s Red Barrel – how bad could it have been?

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?

This long post was made pos­si­ble by the kind sup­port of Patre­on sub­scribers like Matthew Turn­bull and David Sim, whose encour­age­ment makes us feel less daft about spend­ing half a week­end work­ing on stuff like this. Please con­sid­er sign­ing up, or just buy us a pint.

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Q&A: Harmonising European brewing methods, 1973

Newspaper headline from 1975Via 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 EUROBEER MENACE:

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: NOW FRIED ONIONS ARE BANNED AT WIMBLEDON.)

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.

"Ideal Suit in Lager" -- a hand with playing cards depicting lager brands.
Detail from the cov­er of Whit­bread Way No. 13.

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.

Saddleworth Pub Carpets, 1966

Graham Turner’s fascinating 1967 book The North Country paints portraits of towns and cities from Wigan to Durham, often stopping off in pubs and clubs on the way.

You might remem­ber us quot­ing from it before, on the sub­ject of Pak­istani migrants attempt­ing to inte­grate into pub life in Brad­ford in the 1960s.

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.

So:

  1. Car­pets were seen as tak­ing pubs downmar­ket, some­how? Mak­ing them more friv­o­lous?
  2. A reminder that pub car­pets aren’t a great old tra­di­tion – they’re a rel­a­tive­ly new devel­op­ment.
  3. 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.

Brewery Life, St Helens, 1920s: Free Beer and Vitriol

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.

Main image: the St Helens brew­ery in the 1930s, via the Brew­ery His­to­ry Soci­ety Wiki.

The Best of Us in 2018

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.

What fol­lows are some of our per­son­al high­lights. If you’ve appre­ci­at­ed our work dur­ing the year, do con­sid­er sign­ing-up for Patre­on (extra exclu­sive stuff) or just buy­ing us a pint via Ko-Fi.

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