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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A Brutalist Brewery: Arup and Carlsberg in Northampton, 1974

The March 1974 edition of the Arup Journal is an amazing artefact, offering a blow-by-blow breakdown of the design and construction of Carlsberg’s state of the art Danish brewery in Northampton.

You can read the full mag­a­zine here in PDF form, and it’s a love­ly thing in its own right – all white space and sans serif, as styl­ish as the build­ings it depicts.

Arup Journal, March 1974, cover.

Arup is an archi­tec­ture firm found­ed in 1946 by Ove Arup, born in New­cas­tle  upon Tyne in the UK to Dan­ish par­ents in 1895, and edu­cat­ed in Den­mark. Though he died in 1988 the com­pa­ny lives on, its name a byword for mod­ernism.

In 1970, Arup was com­mis­sioned by Carls­berg Brew­ery Ltd to design a new plant in Northamp­ton in the Eng­lish Mid­lands, just as the lager boom was begin­ning to bite. The cost of the project was £15 mil­lion; Carls­berg sup­plied the brew­ery equip­ment and defined the neces­si­ties of the space accord­ing to pro­duc­tion need; and Arup com­mis­sioned Dan­ish archi­tect Knud Munk to pro­duce a design that would “express the best in mod­ern Dan­ish archi­tec­ture”.

As well as lots of detail in the text the mag­a­zine also includes process charts…

Process chart of lager brewing at Carlsberg.

…inte­ri­or shots…

A control panel at the brewery.

…and lots of dra­mat­ic black-and-white pho­tog­ra­phy of the brew­ery build­ing at var­i­ous stages of con­struc­tion, set in the flat land­scape against dra­mat­ic skies…

The exterior of the brewery.
CREDIT: Col­in West­wood.

…which are either awe-inspir­ing or grim depend­ing on your point of view.

It’s fas­ci­nat­ing to think of this hulk appear­ing, with atten­dant talk of effi­cien­cy and automa­tion, at just the exact moment the Cam­paign for Real Ale was tak­ing off. This is about as far from all that imagery of wood­en casks, old inns and pewter tankards as you can get.

And the empha­sis through­out on the Dan­ish­ness of the project – Dan­ish brew­ers, Dan­ish archi­tect, offi­cial­ly opened by the Queen of Den­mark – while can­ny in terms of under­lin­ing the authen­tic­i­ty of the prod­uct was also at odds with the grow­ing sense that Local was some­how a sacred virtue.

We’ve been research­ing this build­ing and Carlsberg’s arrival in the UK on and off for years and this showed up in one of our peri­od­ic check-ins. There are times we wor­ry about the state of cor­po­rate archives and oth­ers when we feel like we’re liv­ing in the best pos­si­ble age, with digi­tis­ing get­ting cheap­er and com­pa­nies real­is­ing the val­ue of their own his­to­ry.

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.

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Bristol and the Berni Inns

The Berni Inn chain is fascinating for various reasons, not least because it originated here in Bristol.

This is some­thing that only real­ly dawned on us recent­ly as, tak­ing an inter­est in the his­to­ry of Bris­tol pubs as we do, we kept com­ing across ref­er­ences to Berni Inns in old guide­books and local his­to­ries:

HOLE IN THE WALL
Free House *** F
Queen Square
A Berni Inn, but don’t be putt off. Just make for the back bar, The Tav­ern Pub­lic. Here find beau­ti­ful­ly served Wad­worth 6X (yes, in a Berni) and Wor­thing­ton E in peak con­di­tion – both on hand­pumps. Sand­wich­es at rea­son­able prices also avail­able. Quite small friend­ly bar with com­fort­able seats, thick car­pet and jovial old locals.

Inso­far as we were much aware of Berni Inns at all, this kind of thing was not what we had imag­ined. For decades they were the punch­line to jokes about the tack­i­ness of aspi­ra­tional lifestyles in post-war Britain, famous for bring­ing prawn cock­tail and black for­est gateau to the mass­es. For exam­ple, here’s a song from Vic­to­ria Wood’s 2011 musi­cal That Day We Sang which hits all the famil­iar ref­er­ences:

There are no short­age of arti­cles sum­maris­ing the his­to­ry of the Berni Inn chain but – this one by Bris­tol-based writer Eugene Byrne is good, for exam­ple. The sto­ry is also cov­ered, with some love­ly archive footage, in this 2015 edi­tion of the BBC’s Timeshift.

To save you a click, though, here’s a pre­cis, based on Mr Byrne’s piece, the obit­u­ar­ies of Aldo and Frank Berni in the Guardian for 17/10/1997 and 01/08/2000 respec­tive­ly, and var­i­ous oth­er sources.

Frank Berni was born in Bar­di near Par­ma in Italy in 1903. He was brought up pri­mar­i­ly by his moth­er because his father was abroad in South Wales run­ning tem­per­ance bars. When he came of age, Frank joined his father in the fam­i­ly busi­ness in the UK. He was soon joined by his broth­ers, Aldo, born 1909, and Car­lo.

Frank and Aldo Berni.
Frank and Aldo Berni from Hotel and Cater­ing Review, March 1968, via Face­book.

In 1929, Aldo and Frank used a £300 inher­i­tance from their moth­er to buy a cafe in High Street, Exeter, which was suc­cess­ful enough to fund expan­sion into Ply­mouth and Bris­tol.

Dur­ing World War II Frank and Car­lo were interned as ‘ene­my aliens’ while Aldo, who had a British pass­port, was at first called up, and then assigned to Home Front work because of his poor health.

After World War II Frank and Aldo acquired Hort’s, an upmar­ket cock­tail bar and restau­rant in Bris­tol. Tom Jaine sug­gests in his obit­u­ary of Frank Berni that they might have got the mon­ey to fund this bold move from repa­ra­tion pay­ments for Blitz dam­age to their pre-war prop­er­ties which just hap­pened to be in the most heav­i­ly bombed cities in the West Coun­try.

Like motel entre­pre­neur Gra­ham Lyon the Ber­nis sensed that there were inter­est­ing things going on in Amer­i­ca that British peo­ple, exhaust­ed and bored by wartime aus­ter­i­ty, might be ready to wel­come.

Frank Berni vis­it­ed the US in the ear­ly 1950s and came away inspired by Amer­i­can steak bars which made mon­ey by care­ful­ly con­trol­ling mar­gins while main­tain­ing the appear­ance of gen­eros­i­ty and good val­ue. He was also impressed by the con­sis­ten­cy of chain restau­rants which were capa­ble of serv­ing iden­ti­cal steak meals in iden­ti­cal sur­round­ings any­where in the US.

When meat rationing end­ed in Britain in 1954, they pounced, tak­ing on The Rum­mer, a his­toric pub in cen­tral Bris­tol.

Berni Inns logo, 1964.

In a short essay for The 60s in Bris­tol (ed. James Belsey, 1989) Mary Ack­land offers some details we’ve not come across else­where:

The Rum­mer is a rab­bit war­ren of a place with cel­lar bars and rooms large and small as well as a his­to­ry as an inn which dates back to the 13th cen­tu­ry. They called in a clever design­er, Alex Waugh, who cre­at­ed sev­er­al restau­rants and bars under one roof and cul­ti­vat­ed an olde worlde, lived-in, almost shab­by look. No-one need feel out of place in this atmos­phere! Alex Waugh made a famous remark to the Ber­nis when he arrived. “If you’ve got cob­webs, keep ’em. If you haven’t, I’ll make you some.” Now that was very clever for 1955.

The Rum­mer was the pro­toype”, she writes; “The Rev­o­lu­tion quick­ly fol­lowed.” There were nine Berni Inns in Bris­tol by 1964, clus­tered around the city cen­tre.

The Berni Inn mod­el seemed to answer a need for acces­si­ble lux­u­ry. On the one hand, steak and wine felt sophis­ti­cat­ed and posh British peo­ple brought up on fish’n’chips and brown ale. On the oth­er hand, every­thing about The Rum­mer was designed to make eat­ing out unin­tim­i­dat­ing.

The Rummer, 2018.

For starters, the fact that they her­mit-crabbed their way into pubs, retained a pub-like char­ac­ter, and called them­selves Inns, gave peo­ple some­thing to latch on to. (See also: gas­trop­ubs.)

Then there was what Mar­tin Wain­wright called “the cru­cial role played by chips as a bridge between tra­di­tion­al fare and the glam­orous… world of sir­loin and black for­est gateau”.  (Even if they did call them ‘chipped pota­toes’ on the menu.)

Final­ly, there was the sim­plic­i­ty of the offer as sum­marised by Mary Ack­land:

The broth­ers planned down to the last detail. They were deter­mined that every last wor­ry about eat­ing out would be removed… The fixed-price, lim­it­ed item menu ensured that cus­tomers knew exact­ly how much they would be pay­ing. The wine list was cut to just 16 names, eight red, six white and two rosé.

The lim­it­ed menu wasn’t only easy for cus­tomers, it also meant that the kitchens could be run with min­i­mal equip­ment by inter­change­able staff using a metic­u­lous man­u­al.

A menu.
SOURCE: Ron­nie Hughes/A Sense of Place.

The chain went nation­wide until there were 147 branch­es all over the coun­try, all fol­low­ing the same for­mu­la. Frank and Aldo sold up to Grand Met­ro­pol­i­tan in 1970. The chain con­tin­ued to oper­ate until the 1990s when Whit­bread bought 115 Berni Inns and, decid­ing that the brand was effec­tive­ly dead, turned half of them into Beefeaters.

Know­ing a bit about the Berni­fi­ca­tion of Bris­tol helps makes sense of the 21st cen­tu­ry pub scene in the city. Many of those famous, his­toric, poten­tial­ly bril­liant pubs are appar­ent­ly still recov­er­ing from their long stretch­es as part of a food-focused chain. We don’t think we’ve ever heard any­one rec­om­mend The Rum­mer or The Hole in the Wall, and the Llan­doger Trow, though it has its charms, is essen­tial­ly the bar and break­fast lounge for a Pre­mier Inn.

It goes with­out say­ing that we’d like to hear your mem­o­ries of Berni Inns but espe­cial­ly the extent to which you recall them feel­ing like pubs, or oth­er­wise.

Read­ing the descrip­tions of plush fur­ni­ture, wood­en tables, and chips with every­thing, we can’t help but won­der if most pubs aren’t Berni­fied in 2018.

Main image, top: a detail from an adver­tise­ment for Berni Inns in Bris­tol on the back of the pro­gramme for the Bris­tol 600 Exhi­bi­tion pub­lished in 1973.

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.

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