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?”

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.


  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.

Guinness Confidential, 1977: Economic Crisis, Quality Problems, Image Issues

In 1977 Guinness commissioned consultant Alan Hedges to look into why sales of the bottled version of the stout were dropping off. His research revealed changes in the beer, and changes in society.

Hedges is, it turns out, some­thing of a leg­end in the world of mar­ket research hav­ing writ­ten an impor­tant book called Test­ed to Destruc­tion, pub­lished in 1974.

We guess from the odd con­tex­tu­al clue that he got the Guin­ness gig because he had worked for S.H. Ben­son, an adver­tis­ing firm that held the Guin­ness account in the 1960s.

He may well still be around – he was active in the indus­try in the past decade or two – so maybe he’ll pop up to tell us more if he ever stum­bles across this post. (That’s one rea­son we like to put things like this out into the world.)

This par­tic­u­lar item is yet anoth­er doc­u­ment from the col­lec­tion of Guin­ness paper­work we’re cur­rent­ly sort­ing through on behalf of its own­er. We’re not going to share the whole thing, just high­light some of the most inter­est­ing parts.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Guin­ness Con­fi­den­tial, 1977: Eco­nom­ic Cri­sis, Qual­i­ty Prob­lems, Image Issues”

The Mother lode: Attitudes to Beer, 1963

In 1963 Guinness hired Public Attitude Surveys Ltd to compiled research into the attitudes of drinkers towards stout, and the state of the beer market more generally.

The result­ing report feels to us like an impor­tant doc­u­ment, record­ing sta­tis­tics on dif­fer­ent types of beer, and dif­fer­ent types of drinker, based on gen­der, social class and atti­tudes to alco­hol.

It’s about Guin­ness but almost acci­den­tal­ly gives us great insight into the rise of lager, the death of mild, and so on.

Unless we’re mis­tak­en, this is a source that hasn’t pre­vi­ous­ly made its way into the pub­lic domain or oth­er­wise been much exploit­ed, though there were some con­tem­po­rary news­pa­per reports pick­ing up on its find­ings. We only have our hands on a copy because it came as part of the col­lec­tion of Guin­ness papers we’re sort­ing through on behalf of the own­er.

It begins with a sum­ma­ry of what was learned from pre­vi­ous ‘Nation­al Stout Sur­veys’ car­ried out in 1952–53 and 1958–59:

Guin­ness was marked­ly more depen­dent on the heavy drinker than Mack­e­son, the next most suc­cess­ful stout on the mar­ket… Recruit­ment to Guin­ness was not to any sub­stan­tial amount from sweet stouts… [And] Guin­ness was much more depen­dent on the old­er drinker – those over 45 – than Mack­e­son and the oth­er sweet stouts.

This helps us under­stand what Guin­ness was wor­ried about: that younger drinkers were turn­ing away from dark, bit­ter, heavy beers. That’s a prob­lem when your flag­ship prod­uct – more or less your only prod­uct – is a dark, bit­ter, heavy beer.

Graph -- main drink by sex

This is the first big splash from the doc­u­ment. It shows that in the ear­ly 1960s women hard­ly touched draught bit­ter or mild, and weren’t espe­cial­ly keen on the then fash­ion­able bot­tled ales either. But lager and stout – two oppo­site ends of the spec­trum you might say – were about equal­ly pop­u­lar with men and women.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “The Moth­er lode: Atti­tudes to Beer, 1963”

Bits We Underlined In… A Year at the Peacock, 1964

BOOK COVER: A Year at the Peacock

There was a rash of memoirs by publicans in the mid-20th century and Tommy Layton’s A Year at the Peacock is a classic example, full of detail, riven with snobbery, and ending in unhappiness.

Paul Bai­ley (no rela­tion) tipped us off to this one a few years ago but we only recent­ly acquired a copy and set about it with the high­lighter pen.

Lay­ton (born in 1910) was a restau­ra­teur, wine mer­chant and drinks writer gen­er­al­ly described using words such as “iras­ci­ble”, “eccen­tric” or “quirky”. His self-por­tray­al in this book con­veys that bad-tem­pered eccen­tric­i­ty, exhibit­ing a remark­ably objec­tive view of his own rather sour per­son­al­i­ty.

The book tells the sto­ry of how he came to take on a pub in Kent, hav­ing first noticed its poten­tial while pass­ing through on the way to France on a wine-relat­ed mis­sion. In his first con­ver­sa­tion with the incum­bent pub­li­can Lay­ton gleans some inter­est­ing nuggets of infor­ma­tion about beer,  a sub­ject about which he is ini­tial­ly quite igno­rant:

Whose beer do you take?” I con­tin­ued.

Frem­lins. The hop-pick­ers like it far the best,” he said.

Hop-pick­ers?” I replied. “I thought they were all in Kent.”

You are in Kent here,” he said. “The bound­ary is a bit fun­ny round here.”

Then he loos­ened up a bit and gave me a fat, pleas­ant smile. “Cor! You should have seen the crowds here on the lawns before they start­ed installing the hop-pick­ing machin­ery. Hun­dred upon hun­dreds of them, all drink­ing pints as fast as you could pour it out. Why, we had to take over a huge shed which has been spe­cial­ly licensed as an over­flow ser­vice.”

Lay­ton even­tu­al­ly bought the pub, despite grim warn­ings from Mr Christo­pher, the out­go­ing pub­li­can (“You take prac­ti­cal­ly noth­ing here in the win­ter, and pre­cious lit­tle more in the sum­mer.”) and set about reju­ve­nat­ing the old inn.

Tommy Layton
Tom­my Lay­ton

A string of odd dis­cov­er­ies fol­low: the pub sold foul-smelling vine­gar and paraf­fin by the jug from casks stored in the cel­lar next to the beer; there was no bar, only  a hatch, so the per­son serv­ing had to stand for their entire shift; and the cel­lar froze in win­ter, but became a fur­nace in sum­mer.

As in the fic­tion­alised mem­oir We Keep a Pub a large part of Layton’s book is tak­en up with por­traits of pub­li­cans – in this case, the tem­po­rary man­agers he hires to do the actu­al day-to-day work of run­ning the pub, via an agency. Shep­herd is his clear favourite:

[He was] a thin mid­dle-aged man who to the inn at once, and the inn seemed to fit him to per­fec­tion. Beer was to him what wine is to me; a hob­by, a liveli­hood, and a darned good drink. Before inquir­ing about his accom­mo­da­tion, or food arrange­ments, and quite unaf­fect­ed­ly and in such a way one could not take offence, he went straight to the beer casks, pulled out the spig­ots, pulled him­self a glass of beer, held it up to the light and savoured it. An extra­or­di­nar­i­ly pleas­ant smile lit up his face as the bit­ter got his approval. He then did the same with the mild , and again he was hap­py.

Shep­herd patient­ly cor­rects all of Layton’s mis­takes, such as using optics designed for dis­pens­ing fruit cor­dials to hop-pick­ers’ chil­dren for spir­its so that every mea­sure was by default a dou­ble. He also edu­cates Lay­ton on the ben­e­fits of dif­fer­ent meth­ods of dis­pense, start­ing with a dis­sec­tion of “Beer from the Wood” served direct from casks on the bar:

It tastes much flat­ter, and the beer doesn’t retain its head,” said Shep­herd.

Actu­al­ly, the nau­se­at­ing white froth which appears on the top of a glass of ale is sup­posed to appeal to the beer-drink­ing pop­u­lace and pro­fes­sion­al brew­ers talk about ‘col­lar reten­tion’.

By and large Shep­herd was right; the advan­tages of below-ground cel­lars for beer in wood­en casks, in con­tradis­tinc­tion to the trou­ble-free beer dis­pensers in met­al drums under pres­sure, are irrefutable…

Among the advan­tages Lay­ton men­tions is that “There is no con­t­a­m­i­na­tion due to pipe smoke” – not some­thing we’d ever con­sid­ered giv­en the smoke-free days we live in.

If fur­ther con­fir­ma­tion was required that cask ale could some­times be a grot­ty prod­uct, Lay­ton pro­vides it in his account of the over­spill bowl which catch­es drip­pings from reused glass­es that cus­tomers insist must be filled right to the brim ever time:

[Over­spilled] beer from fifty dif­fer­ent mouths… is more often than note left in the bar all night and goes back into the casks for con­sump­tion the next day. I do not exag­ger­ate: this is what is hap­pen­ing all over Britain, and is a prac­tice that the Min­istry of Health… is try­ing to stop by forc­ing pub­li­cans to adopt a lined mea­sure so that the beer does not come up to the rim of the glass.

When he lat­er has a falling out with Shep­herd it is over his mis­han­dling of a recent­ly treat­ed cask: “I’d just topped that cask up with yesterday’s spillings… and they would have set­tled down nice­ly. Now they are all churned up.”

Lay­ton, hygien­i­cal­ly mind­ed and no lover of cask ale, is fair­ly warm towards con­ve­nient, clean keg bit­ters:

The beer in these con­tain­ers is brewed to appeal to the younger gen­er­a­tion; it is crisper and less oily than the cask stuff, and there are some who dis­ap­prove of it strong­ly. My friend Bri­an Fox, of the Vic­to­ry Inn, Arun­del, fumes with indig­na­tion at the thought of any free Mine Host stock­ing such swipes. But he is wrong; tastes change.

Else­where in the book you can enjoy Lay­ton express­ing his dis­dain for north­ern­ers and their dis­gust­ing cook­ing – “It may be all right up north… but down here we wouldn’t throw it to the pigs” – and rev­o­lu­tion­is­ing the pan­cake; if we’d read it soon­er we might have cit­ed it in the sec­tion of 20th Cen­tu­ry Pub on the devel­op­ment of the gas­trop­ub.

After snot­ti­ly order­ing around a suc­ces­sion of man­agers, treat­ing them more like his per­son­al ser­vants than skilled agency staff, and end­ing up with worse and weird­er char­ac­ters each time.

Even­tu­al­ly, he has some­thing of a break­down:

The truth was that the Pea­cock Inn, Iden Green was wear­ing my nerves raw. I became aware of this when I drove up to the inn and real­ized that I had been sit­ting in the dri­ving-seat for some min­utes sum­mon­ing up the willpow­er to get out and enter the house.

Seem­ing­ly out of nowhere, but per­haps an oblique reflec­tion of his men­tal state, one of the final chap­ters is an account of a tour of the sites of Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps on the Con­ti­nent.

It isn’t a great book. Lay­ton isn’t a great writer. The struc­ture is episod­ic, digres­sive, and repet­i­tive. But, still, if you want a snap­shot of life in a coun­try pub in the ear­ly 1960s, here it is, from bot­tles of brown ale to “seg­ments of gherkin” on the bar on Sun­day after­noon.

Our copy cost a fiv­er and will no doubt prove a use­ful addi­tion to the Arthur Mil­lard Memo­r­i­al Library.