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.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Watney’s Red Bar­rel – how bad could it have been?”

The Beer of the Future, 1924

More lager, daintier glassware, beer at the dinner table… These were some of the predictions made by  brewing scientist Herbert Lloyd Hind in a talk given to a meeting of Scottish brewers on Burns Day 1924.

We came across this paper while research­ing our big two-parter and thought it deserved a bit of atten­tion in its own right.

As every­one knows, mak­ing pre­dic­tions is a mug’s game, but Mr Hind, as you’ll see, did pret­ty well.

Detail from a Whitbread advertisement, 1937, showing beer with food.

1. Beer must get prettier

The days are past when meals could be eat­en from wood­en bowls, and the days of the old pint pot are num­bered. There was noth­ing like the pewter pot when it was nec­es­sary to hide the drink from the eye to make its con­sump­tion pos­si­ble. Devel­op­ing taste demands that food be served with greater del­i­ca­cy, and that beer be offered in shin­ing glass which sets off its attrac­tive sparkle and con­di­tion to the utmost, and under con­di­tions in which it has noth­ing to suf­fer when com­pared to cham­pagne, or dark red wine.”

This might seem like a pre-echo of the so-called ‘wini­fi­ca­tion of beer’ – more an aspi­ra­tion than a reflec­tion of real­i­ty – but think about how beer has been pre­sent­ed in the last cen­tu­ry: glass became the norm, and even quite ordi­nary com­mod­i­ty beers have their own brand­ed glass­ware and pre­scribed pour­ing meth­ods.

Hind goes on to argue that British beer suf­fers in beau­ty con­tests because it lacks the sub­stan­tial, sta­ble foam of the Con­ti­nen­tal rivals. Which brings us to…

1937 adver­tise­ment for Bar­clay Perkins lager.
2. More lager, and a drift away from ale

In this coun­try beer drinkers have become so wed­ded to the flavour of top fer­men­ta­tion beer that they pre­fer it, and in many cas­es express dis­like for lager. The great major­i­ty, how­ev­er, of those who decry lager have nev­er tast­ed it as it should be, and gen­er­al­ly say they do not like such thin stuff, ignor­ing the fact that such a descrip­tion does not apply to good lager any more than it does to good Eng­lish beer.

Hind was cau­tious on lager but essen­tial­ly called it: tastes can change, he argued – British drinkers had already ditched “that acid beer that used to have a great sale in sev­er­al dis­tricts” – and Den­mark was an exam­ple of a coun­try sim­i­lar in cli­mate to Britain where lager had oust­ed top-fer­ment­ed beer.

In fact, he point­ed out, Britain was the odd­i­ty in hav­ing not embraced lager, and that per­haps the decrease in beer con­sump­tion in Britain could be put down to the fact that brew­ers weren’t giv­ing peo­ple beer they want­ed to drink:

[Those] coun­tries show­ing an increase [in beer con­sump­tion] were all lager-drink­ing coun­tries, or coun­tries where lager was grad­u­al­ly oust­ing top fer­men­ta­tion beers. If there is any­thing in this argu­ment it must fol­low that lager is bet­ter than ale

Oof!

He cer­tain­ly got this right, any­way: Britain did even­tu­al­ly embrace lager, and in a big way. Only now in the 21st cen­tu­ry is there any evi­dence of re-bal­anc­ing.

Macro shot of text and diagram: 'Yeast'.

3. Cleaner, more stable beer

Typ­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics of British beers are their hop aro­ma and the flavours pro­duced by sec­ondary fer­men­ta­tion. Chill­ing, fil­tra­tion and pas­teuri­sa­tion tend to remove these very much-desired flavours, so that chilled and fil­tered beer gen­er­al­ly suf­fers in com­par­i­son with nat­u­ral­ly con­di­tioned beer.

This is par­tic­u­lar­ly astute and sets up a debate that would dom­i­nate the fol­low­ing cen­tu­ry: how do we retain the essen­tial char­ac­ter of British beer while also tam­ing it for ease of pro­duc­tion, dis­tri­b­u­tion and dis­pense?

Hind goes on to argue that the British beer ought to be fer­ment­ed with pure yeast strains – that it was time to do away with the super­sti­tion and sen­ti­ment around Eng­lish brew­ing yeast:

[The] sweep­ing con­dem­na­tion some times passed on any sug­ges­tion to adapt pure yeast to Eng­lish con­di­tions is not jus­ti­fied. The only tri­als I know of were made many years ago and in con­nec­tion with beers whose dis­tinc­tive palate depend­ed on a sec­ondary fer­men­ta­tion. This dis­tinc­tive Bur­ton flavour I have seen pro­duced in beers as dif­fer­ent from nor­mal Bur­ton beers as bot­tom-fer­ment­ed stout by an inoc­u­la­tion in the bot­tle of pure cul­tures of Bre­tan­no­myces, as its dis­cov­er­er, Clausen, called the par­tic­u­lar Toru­la employed. Con­di­tions are now entire­ly altered. Sec­ondary fer­men­ta­tion in far the greater num­ber of brew­eries is a thing of the past, and the desider­a­tum now is to pre­vent the devel­op­ment of sec­ondary yeast. Under con­di­tions such as these, sure­ly it is time to reopen the inves­ti­ga­tion and endeav­our to put fer­men­ta­tion on a sounder and more cer­tain basis.

This point of view cer­tain­ly won out in the indus­try but, of course, drinkers did notice when Adnams changed and Boddington’s lost its com­plex­i­ty.

"Traditional Country Ales" window livery.

4. Traditional English methods don’t work for session ales

I think it will be admit­ted on all hands that the typ­i­cal Eng­lish nat­u­ral­ly matured pale ales left very lit­tle to be desired. They had a delight­ful appetis­ing flavour, and poured from the bot­tle with beau­ti­ful appear­ance and con­di­tion. The cask beers of sim­i­lar type were also excel­lent, but low­er grav­i­ties have been forced upon us, and the ten­den­cy towards a lighter kind of beer seems so def­i­nite that it is hard­ly like­ly that there will be any return to the old style. Endeav­ours to brew these lighter beers on the old lines are not alto­geth­er a suc­cess, as is evi­denced by the amount of beer on the mar­ket lack­ing in bril­liance or con­di­tion.

This is some con­tro­ver­sial stuff, or at least seems that way from this side of the real ale rev­o­lu­tion of the 1970s.

It’s become a point of faith that British brew­ing meth­ods are par­tic­u­lar­ly well suit­ed to pro­duc­ing low ABV beers, adding com­plex­i­ty to make up for the lack of oomph.

The answer to this con­tra­dic­tion – the desire for beers to be both lighter and clean­er – is, Hind argues, to adopt lager brew­ing meth­ods even for beers that aren’t pre­sent­ed as lager.

Which is exact­ly what, for exam­ple, Thorn­bridge does, using lager yeast for its pack­aged prod­ucts and tra­di­tion­al ale yeast for casks. (At least this is what we think Rob Lovatt, Thorn­bridge head brew­er, told us in a pub about four years ago.)

Keg fonts at a central London pub.

5. Keg!

Even though our meth­ods of man­u­fac­ture were ide­al, there is no pos­si­bil­i­ty of the invari­able appear­ance of the beer in the customer’s glass in con­di­tion that will sat­is­fy a con­nois­seur, or even a man with ordi­nary stan­dards of taste and per­cep­tion. The meth­ods of retail are hope­less­ly out of date. Though the brew­ers do all that is human­ly pos­si­ble, there are all too many chances of the beer being ruined in the publican’s cel­lar or at the bar… While bars are fit­ted with the usu­al types of pumps, and unlim­it­ed air is allowed to pass into casks, flat­ten­ing and destroy­ing the flavour of the beer, how can it be expect­ed that beer will serve well to the end of the cask ? The pos­si­bil­i­ties which are offered in this direc­tion by com­pressed CO2 col­lect­ed in the brew­ery have hard­ly been explored at all in this coun­try…

He real­ly nailed this one.

Almost a hun­dred years lat­er the same con­ver­sa­tion is still going, keg bit­ter hav­ing arrived then retreat­ed, while gas remains the key flash­point in Britain’s beer cul­ture wars.

It’s all about qual­i­ty, every­one agrees, and cask ale at point of ser­vice doesn’t always make a good show­ing for itself. “Look after it bet­ter!” say the purists; “Reduce the oppor­tu­ni­ty for user error!” answer the prag­ma­tists.

Mean­while, most peo­ple car­ry on drink­ing lager, obliv­i­ous and unin­ter­est­ed.

* * *

Hind’s pre­dic­tions are inter­est­ing because they’re not out­landish – robot bar­tenders! Pow­dered beer! – but care­ful, based on obser­va­tion, and on a knowl­edge of things already afoot in the beer indus­try in the UK, and espe­cial­ly abroad.

It would be inter­est­ing to read sim­i­lar papers from brew­ers active in 2018.

Don’t Worry, Be (Mostly) Happy

This post was writ­ten for #BeeryLongreads2018 and made pos­si­ble by the sup­port of our Patre­on sub­scribers. Do con­sid­er sign­ing up if you enjoy this blog, or per­haps just buy us a one-off pint.

For the last year or so we’ve been slowly chewing over a single big question: how healthy is British beer culture?

You might remem­ber, if you’re a long-time read­er, that we first wrote about the idea of healthy beer cul­ture in 2013, but that was a set of bul­let points. This post expands on those ideas with anoth­er five years’-worth of evi­dence, expe­ri­ence and think­ing.

We should con­fess that our start­ing point is one of mild frus­tra­tion at the per­va­sive idea that British beer – and beer cul­ture more gen­er­al­ly – is ail­ing. We see var­i­ous wor­ries expressed on social media, and in blog posts and arti­cles, each one dis­crete and per­son­al, but adding up to a mass of anx­i­ety. If you’re in this bub­ble it can feel like the end times.

To pro­vide fuel for this spe­cif­ic blog post we asked our Twit­ter fol­low­ers to tell us what, if any­thing, made them wor­ried for the future of British beer. Some state­ments echoed things we’ve seen said many times before, while oth­ers flagged issues we had not con­sid­ered. Quite a few effec­tive­ly can­celled each oth­er out, high­light­ing the absur­di­ty of think­ing about British beer as a mono­lith. There is no sin­gle idea of what healthy looks like, and no vic­to­ry that won’t feel like a defeat to some­body else.

In this post we want to focus on some of the most com­mon­ly expressed fears, ques­tion whether they have a basis in real­i­ty, and con­sid­er the the like­ly impact of those that do.

Let’s begin with a sta­ple of beer com­men­tary for the past 25 years or so: the  per­ils of the pur­suit of nov­el­ty.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Don’t Wor­ry, Be (Most­ly) Hap­py”

Nineteen-Seventy-Four: Birth of the Beer Guide

In 1974 the first edition of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide was published. We spoke to those who were involved in its genesis to find out how it came to be. Here is the story in the words of those who were there, a version of which first appeared in the summer 2017 edition of BEER magazine.

John Hanscomb
Ear­ly CAMRA mem­ber, and first edi­tor of the Good Beer Guide
We all knew we liked prop­er beer but the prob­lem was, we didn’t know where to drink – we didn’t know where the pubs were. There was Frank Baillie’s Beer Drinker’s Com­pan­ion but that was all about the brew­eries, not the pubs, although it did give you an idea of their trad­ing areas. And the brew­ers… The brew­ers wouldn’t give me any infor­ma­tion! I rang up one and asked them which were their pubs and which sold prop­er beer and they wouldn’t tell me because they thought I was from Watney’s or Whit­bread: ‘We don’t know who you are.’

Michael Hard­man
Co-founder and first chair of CAMRA
John Young [of Young’s brew­ery] was cham­pi­oning cask ale in a very seri­ous way, and had been hold­ing out for a decade before CAMRA came along. He thought of him­self as the only one left. Young’s had nev­er been a par­tic­u­lar­ly prof­itable com­pa­ny. They had some pret­ty dingy pubs, and a very ‘bit­ter’ bit­ter that was going out of fash­ion. In 1963, he’d been approached by Derek Pee­bles, a for­mer naval offi­cer, who said: ‘What you need is a PR cam­paign, and I’m the man to do it!’ What he did was put togeth­er the first ever com­pre­hen­sive list of Young’s pubs under the title ‘Real Draught Beer and Where to Find It’.

Real Draught Beer and Where to Find It

John Hanscomb
The Young’s guide was undoubt­ed­ly an influ­ence, very much so. With Young’s you could guar­an­tee that all their pubs would have prop­er beer. John Young deserves a lot of cred­it.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Nine­teen-Sev­en­ty-Four: Birth of the Beer Guide”

Watney’s Red on Film, 1971

The above film was made by Watney Mann (Watney’s) to help their staff understand Watney’s Red, which replaced Red Barrel as the firm’s flagship keg bitter in 1971.

It was unearthed by Nick Wheat who col­lects British doc­u­men­tary and indus­tri­al films and writes occa­sion­al beer arti­cles for Dron­field CAMRA’s Peel Ale mag­a­zine. The copy above was made by pro­ject­ing the 16mm film onto a wall and point­ing his phone at it but it doesn’t look bad for all that.

From an arti­cle Nick dug up from Film User for July 1971 we know that it was one of three films pro­duced to help with the roll-out of the new prod­uct as part of what Watney’s called ‘Oper­a­tion Che­ka’ in ref­er­ence to the Bol­she­vik secret police. The suit of films cost £5,500 pounds to make (about £80k in today’s mon­ey) and this one is ‘Che­ka 2’ ‘Che­ka 3’, high­light­ed in this info­graph­ic from Film User:

Infographic depicting the roll-out of Operation Cheka.

The film itself is an amaz­ing rel­ic. It fea­tures var­i­ous plum­my senior exec­u­tives explain­ing, rather stilt­ed­ly, the think­ing behind the change, accom­pa­nied by footage of lor­ries and brew­ing plants around the coun­try (our empha­sis):

You see Red Bar­rel has been with us now for fif­teen years and is still the same. In the mean­time oth­er beers have come along in keg with new flavours, and meet­ing new ideas of taste. There­fore Red Bar­rel might be said to be old fash­ioned. So what we did was to study the whole sit­u­a­tion in great detail with our col­leagues in the group mar­ket­ing depart­ment. We want­ed to find out just what it was the cus­tomers liked, what their ideals were, what were the faults, per­haps, in ear­li­er beers, and alto­geth­er how we could make it right for the sev­en­ties.

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.

That con­firms what we’d heard from oth­er sources, and what we said in Brew Bri­tan­nia: that Red Bar­rel and Red were quite dif­fer­ent beers, with the lat­ter an alto­geth­er fizzi­er, sweet­er beer. But this would seem to sug­gest that, unless they’re out­right fib­bers, that peo­ple in the com­pa­ny gen­uine­ly believed they were respond­ing to pub­lic demand rather than cut­ting cor­ners for the sake of it.

There’s some sol­id his­tor­i­cal infor­ma­tion in all this, too. It tells us, for exam­ple, that Red was devel­oped pri­mar­i­ly at the Watney’s plant in Northamp­ton, for­mer­ly Phipps, and that the beer and point-of-sale mate­r­i­al was sched­uled to hit pubs in March and April of 1971.

There is also an awk­ward inter­view with Mr Hors­fall, a pub­li­can in… Eldon? Old­ham? Answers on a post­card. He had been tasked with sell­ing the new Red on the qui­et to gauge cus­tomer reac­tions to the refor­mu­la­tion and, though hard­ly jump­ing for joy, seemed to think his cus­tomers pre­ferred it, on the whole.

Arguably the most excit­ing part comes at the end: a reel of orig­i­nal TV ads from the time star­ring (we think) Michael Coles as a hard-boiled counter-intel­li­gence oper­a­tive tasked with stop­ping ‘the Red Rev­o­lu­tion’. These ads seem to us to be par­o­dy­ing Callan, a pop­u­lar TV pro­gramme of the day star­ring Edward Wood­ward, with the seedy side­kick ‘Friend­ly’ clear­ly a ref­er­ence to Callan’s ‘Lone­ly’.

Thanks so much for shar­ing this, Nick! And if any­one else out there has this kind of mate­r­i­al, we’d love to see it.

Updat­ed 22/03/2018 after Nick got in touch to say he thinks this is actu­al­ly Film 3.