Categories
marketing

Killian’s, Irish red ale and French beer drinkers, 1978

During 1978, Guinness got twitchy: a new beer was muscling in on their turf in France. Did George Killian’s Irish Red present a threat, or an opportunity?

From its London base at Park Royal, Guinness commissioned Market Behaviour Limited to go to France and investigate:

RESEARCH OBJECTIVES

1. To study the premium beer market sector in France. To explore beer drinkers’ attitudes towards the sector and the various brands of beer within that sector. (The research concentrated on the bottled beers within the sector.)

2. To explore attitudes towards Killian’s, and to find out which elements of the marketing mix are leading to its current success.

3. To undertake exploratory research into the idea of a new bottled beer to compete with Killian’s, positioned somewhere between the Spéciale and Luxe categories. To explore reactions to the new beer both with and without the Guinness connection.

The report they turned in in December 1978 is interesting not only because it provides more information on the creation of a new beer style but also because it hints at the craft beer culture to come.

The best place to start with the story of Killian’s is Martyn Cornell’s recent in-depth piece on its genesis at Zythophile. It was that which reminded us of the document we’ll be digging into in this post, which we got hold of via former Guinness head brewer Alan Coxon’s papers.

In summary, though, it was launched in 1974 by the French brewery Pelforth, based on a strong ale recipe bought from the Irish firm of Lett & Co., and presented to the French market as a traditional Irish ‘style’. It was a huge success which made other breweries keen to produce their own takes on Irish red ale. That included Guinness.

Commodity blonde vs. quality rousse

Guinness’s market research team focused on drinkers of what we would probably call premium beer – why, and when, did they consider it worth upgrading?

The majority of people seem to split their beer drinking into two main categories: firstly, occasions when the taste and quality of the beer are thought to be important enough for the drinker to exercise his choice in terms of the type of beer, (blonde, brune, rousse, Geuze) and the brand; and secondly occasions where the taste and quality of the beer are far less important and the drinker tends. to choose a cheaper brand of ‘blonde’ beer, almost as a ‘commodity’ product.

French beer drinkers appear to take more care in choosing their beer when they want to relax and when their objective is the enjoyment of the beer. On these occasions they tend to choose a slightly more expensive beer which they feel has a more identifiable taste than an ‘ordinary beer’. This would, for instance, be the occasion when the majority of drinkers of ‘rousse’ and ‘brune’ beers would switch from drinking an ordinary French ‘blonde’ to their favourite type of beer, and when confirmed ‘blonde’ drinkers would switch from an ordinary French ‘blonde’ to either a foreign ‘blonde’ beer or a better quality French ‘blonde’ beer.

However, most of the beer drinkers to whom we spoke tended to drink an ordinary French ‘blonde’ beer most of the time. The ‘normal’ beer to drink in the cafe/ brasserie/bistro is a ‘demi’ of the establishment’s draught ‘blonde’ beer, which is usually an ordinary French ‘blonde’. The important feature of this type of drinking is that, most of the time, the drinker is not aware of which brand of ‘demi’ he is drinking.

A few things strike us as interesting there:

  1. The perceived connection between the colour of a beer and its depth of flavour. We all know that pale beers can be flavourful, and that dark beers can be bland, but there is still a popular perception that darkness equates to intensity.
  1. The idea that people could identify as drinkers of quality beer some of the time while also enjoying necking “Whatever normal lager you have, mate,” on other occasions.
  1. That brand becomes more important with ‘savouring’ beers.

The research confirmed that, almost overnight, French drinkers had accepted the existence of a new style, even though only one example of that style existed:

The research seems to indicate that George Killian’s has been successfully introduced into the French beer market.

The majority of people accept [Bières Rousses] as a legitimate category and not just a description of George Killian’s beer… George Killian’s seems to have attracted beer drinkers because it aroused their curiosity through its unique positioning as a ‘rousse’ beer and because of its taste. Killian’s originally drew its drinkers from ‘blonde’ drinkers as well as ‘brune’ drinkers, but we feel that its major appeal now lies with ‘blonde’ drinkers who are seeking something more than a ‘blonde’ beer but who do not want the heaviness or the bitterness of a real ‘brune’ beer. We feel that a ‘rousse’ beer will not have great appeal to the majority of ‘brune’ drinkers as it lacks the bitterness and heaviness which are characteristics which these people look for in a beer.

Reading that, we can’t help but think of the success of Camden Hells and similar ‘mainstream upgrade’ beers. If the majority of drinkers like standard lager, giving them something a bit more characterful, but not too scary, is a good way to win market share.

The researchers also reached the conclusion that beer was primarily drunk in France as an accompaniment to a night out with “the lads” (their phrase). On almost every other occasion, wine, spirits, coffee or other drinks were preferred. Beer was also seen as almost exclusively a drink for men; when asked why women might drink beer, one respondent said:

Par snobisme essentiellement. Vous ne pensez pas qu’elles le font pour fair plaisir a l’homme? (To be fashionable, essentially. Don’t you think that they do it to please the man?”)

Another interesting finding was that Killian’s was popular with drinkers in France despite being French, and despite being a Pelforth product. An imported product, with Guinness’s name attached, would surely be able to steal some of Killian’s thunder.

The result of all this activity was, we think, the launch of a stronger version of Smithwick’s under the name Kilkenny – hey, that sounds a bit like Killian! – on to the French market in the 1980s.

Categories
Beer history

Dial-a-pint, Bolton, c.1977

If photographer Don Tonge hadn’t snapped the shot above, we’d probably have no record of Dial-a-Pint, Bolton 31922.

We came across it last week in a Twitter thread, without credit. In fact, worse, someone had gone to the trouble of carelessly snipping Mr Tonge’s credit off the picture, leaving just a few scraps of letters in the bottom left corner.

A brief digression: nostalgic photo accounts that do this kind of thing are awful. They often know who took a photo or, with reverse image search and the like, could easily find out. They choose not to credit because (a) they might get told to take it down and (b) they want to keep shares and likes for themselves rather than the original creator.

So, if you’ve ever @-ed us into a Tweet with a cool picture and wondered why we weren’t more enthusiastic, it’s probably because of this.

Anyway, back to Dial-a-pint: we asked Mr Tonge if he could remember when and where it was taken. He said: “I can only imagine it was someone doing homebrewing and trying to be entrepreneurial. Bolton mid 1970s.”

So, nothing precise.

What additional information can we glean from the photo? We know that the van was registered in 1972.

And as our pal @teninchwheels pointed out, the gawking man is wearing a Starsky cardigan; Starsky & Hutch was first broadcast in the UK in 1976 so we can probably assume this picture dates from around 1977. (Could we even guess that his mum knitted it for him from this Sirdar pattern for Christmas 1976?)

1977 would also tie in with the height of the real ale craze when all sorts of people were setting up beer-related businesses.

That phone number ought to tell us something, right? Bolton 31992. Well, so far, it hasn’t. We can’t find any current Bolton numbers with those digits, or any historic classified ads in local papers.

Ah, yes… Searching newspapers let us down on this occasion. You can usually rely on finding a smirking story about anything beer related but we couldn’t dig up anything searching dial-a-pint, beer delivery, or related terms.

There is always one last goldmine to explore, though: Facebook local history chat. This photo has been shared quite a few times, including by Mr Tonge himself, and Jan Taylor asks an interesting question in one comment: “Is this the back of Kingholm Gardens?”. And do you know what, it could well be. Someone else suggests Cramond Walk. Consensus seems to be that it’s Halliwell, anyway.

So, for now, we have no way to be sure what was going on here. Our guess is that it was someone delivering cask ale to drink at home, probably a spin-off from an off-licence.

If you were knocking about Bolton in 1970s, or have access to local sources we don’t, and can provide more information, please comment below.

Image © Don Tonge. You can find it in his book Shot in the North available here at £29.

Categories
20th Century Pub london pubs

Watney’s Birds Nest pubs: go-go girls and truncheons on the dancefloor

In 1968, the giant brewing firm Watney Mann attempted to lure young people back to pubs with a brand new concept, the ‘Birds Nest’, which turned ordinary boozers into swinging discotheques. And for a while, it worked.

First, some context: in the post-war period, brewers were struggling to make money from pubs and were desperate to make them relevant to a new generation of drinkers.

In the 1950s, they started with smart new buildings with modern decor; then they moved on to novelty theme pubs; and finally, in the late 1960s, along came concepts like the Chelsea Drugstore.

You can read more about the Drugstore in 20th Century Pub (copies available from us) but, in brief, it was Bass Charrington’s imaginative bid to reinvent the pub at what was then the heart of trendy London, the King’s Road.

With space age fixtures and fittings in gleaming metal, it combined shops, cafes and bars in one place and is perhaps best-known as one of the locations for Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 sci-fi film A Clockwork Orange.

The Drugstore opened in July 1968; Watney Mann launched its first Birds Nest in Twickenham in February that year, a low-risk location for an experiment.

They renamed The King’s Head, an almost brutalist post-war booze bunker at 2 King Street, installing a state-of-the-art steel dance-floor, light-show projectors and a high-end sound system.

They also installed an in-pub telephone network so that if you saw someone you liked the look of, you could dial their table and have a chat across the room.

It was an immediate success, at least according to contemporary press, such as this report from the Kensington Post from 17 January 1969:

[The] Twickenham Birds Nest has become the “in” inn for young people from all over southern England, would you believe? And packed every night, would you also believe? This came about largely through the ‘rave’ buzz getting around among 18-25 year-olds – inspired by the fun experienced there by early young customers – that ‘The Birds Nest’ scene was really different. Guys and dollies were even making the trip from Chelsea to Twickenham, would you believe, so loud was the buzz of approval.

This pilot inspired Watney to launch an early example of a chain, with the second Birds Nest opening a short distance from the Chelsea Drugstore and the similarly trendy Markham Arms, taking over The Six Bells.

The Chelsea Birds Nest.

Source: Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Libraries.

If Twickenham was an experiment, with a soft launch, the Chelsea branch got the full works when it came to PR with an extensive press campaign and advertising.

As part of that, we find a frank admission of one of the key points behind the concept and its name: if you went to a Birds Nest pub, there would be women to chat up. Dolly birds. Right sorts. Goers. And so on.

In fact, a headline in the Kensington Post boiled the concept right down: A PUB WITH GOOD COFFEE AND BIRDS ON THEIR OWN.

The argument was that with no cover charge, the provision of soft drinks and coffee, and the offer of simple ‘continental-style’ meals, the Birds Nest would be more appealing to young, single women – and thus, of course, to young men.

This second Birds Nest was done out to a higher spec, too. An internationally renowned interior designer, Thomas Gehrig, was imported from Munich:

His work in The Birds Nest could be said to have shades of a German Beer Garden. Here again, the perimeter of the room provides fixed seating arranged in bays to contain 6-8 people with tables and this perimeter seating is raised about 1 ft. 2 ins. above general room level. Over this fixed seating is a pitched roof supported on carved timber posts and the roof covering is cedar shingles. The bar counter is unusual in that it has no back cabinet as in a traditional pub. Use has been made of cherry wood wall panelling above the fixed seating. The dance floor (the only part of the room not carpeted) is surrounded by small tables seating two people at each. There is a supervised cloak room. (Ibid.)

Birds Nests were soon opened in old pub buildings all over London and the South East of England, from Paddington to Basingstoke, and each was launched with a press blitz.

Typically, a famous DJ or two would cut the ribbon and make an appearance in the first week – Simon Dee, Tony Blackburn, Dave Lee Travis and other names associated with the then brand new pop station BBC Radio 1.

Publicity photos from Watney Mann also bigged up the presence of “gorgeous go-go girls”, loading the clubs with models and dancers on those opening nights. When the Basingstoke branch opened, male model and choreographer Leroy Washington danced to “the latest 45s” in what amounted to a pair of Speedos. The message being, of course, that sexy times awaited you at the Birds Nest.

Not everyone welcomed this new development.

“Most of these houses are ill-lit, are painted black, have walls of black felt, and look like Wild West bunkhouses or brothels,” said one Watney’s tenant aggrieved at the move to managed houses. “They have been opened just to grab a quick fisftul of dollars from the permissive society.” (The Times, 30 January 1971.) Amazingly, he seems to have thought this description would put people off.

The other thing that made Birds Nest pubs different, and appealing, was the constant background of pop music, and especially soul – perhaps part of what prompted the antipathy towards ‘piped music’ within and around the Campaign for Real Ale? Again, from the Kensington Post for January 1969:

A super programme of recorded music is put out every evening from 7.30 until last orders. Every type of popular music will be presented including jazz and folk. On Saturdays and Sundays there will be special record programmes during lunch-time opening hours. At all times, when The Birds Nest Show programmes are not being presented, specially recorded background music will be played. The DJs, both male and female, form part of a team being trained specially for this and future Birds Nests.

It turns out that Watney’s training programme for in-house DJs was somewhat influential, for better or worse, giving James Whale his start in radio and cropping up in accounts of the birth of UK dance music.

And those at-table phones weren’t just designed for chatting up your fellow drinkers – you could also use them to call the DJ with requests, or to order a risotto from the kitchen. (Please use your phone to order from your table, via the app…)

In 1975, Watney’s went as far as launching their own Birds Nest record label. The first releases were ‘Give Yourself a Chance’ by Agnes Strange and ‘You Can Sing With the Band’ by Taragon.

Another part of the formula was the deliberate choice of young managers.

For example, Eric Robey, who ran the Basingstoke branch, was 20 and his wife, according to a report in The Stage for 18 February 1971, was “rather younger”.

WATNEY MANN have vacancies for Young married couples as MANAGERS or to train for future management of their Birds Nests

SOURCE: Coventry Evening Telegraph, 28 August 1970, via The British Newspaper Archive.

We asked an old friend, Adrian, if he remembered drinking in any of these pubs and he did, specifically the branch at 17 York Road, Waterloo, in around 1970:

The main attraction was, all the tables had phones on them, and all the tables were numbered, so if you saw somebody you fancied, you could bell them. Lots of fun. Must have made hundreds of calls but can’t remember receiving any! Saturday nights could be [rowdy] in the football season. Normal clientele, Chelsea and Millwall boot boys, could be lively when Portsmouth or Southampton fans were about. Bar and toilets downstairs, that was where the music was – mix of skinheads and rude boys; upstairs, the genesis of suedeheads.

Other accounts associate the Birds Nests with skinheads, too – a long way from the image Watney’s seemed keen to put across.

In 1972, a bouncer at the Basingstoke branch, 26-year-old Frank Stanley, was charged with assaulting Keith Baker with a truncheon, splitting open his skull. In court, he said he’d been issued with the truncheon by the management and that in his six months working the door, he’d been involved in around 150 fights: “I have been beaten up on two occasions and once we had a fight involving 20 men.” (Reading Evening Post, 6 April 1972.)

Behaviour at the Harrow branch, at a pub formerly called The Shaftesbury, prompted residents to petition to have the disco’s licence revoked in 1975. They said crowds were piling out after midnight, racing cars around Shaftesbury Circus and generally making a nuisance of themselves – especially on Monday nights. (Harrow Observer, 30 May 1975.)

In a 2012 post online, Denis Cook recalled his time DJing at the Harrow Birds Nest: “I played a variety of stuff, but it became that I started playing more Funk & Reggae, and within a short time you couldn’t get in… One day, the manager took me to one side and said he wanted me to change my music, as too many black guys were coming in. I refused and quit.”

With a growing image problem, with more ‘proper’ discos and nightclubs emerging, this corporate chain version began to feel like a relic of the swinging sixties.

So, inevitably, the Birds Nests began to pop out of existence.

The Birds Nest in Chelsea, one of the chain’s pioneers, had its disco identity toned down in a refit as early as 1971, in a bid to draw mature drinkers back. It closed in 1983 and became a ‘Henry J Beans’ bar and grill. That’s probably as good a full stop as you can ask for on a story like this.

What’s fascinating to us is that an institution can have been so prominent in the press, so ubiquitous in the culture, and then completely disappear from the collective consciousness.

But that’s pop culture for you.

This post was made possible with the support of Patreon subscribers like Mark Landells and Jason B. Standing, whose generosity helps us pay for our subscription to the British Newspaper Archive and, of course, gives us the nudge we need to spend the equivalent of a full day researching and writing.

Categories
20th Century Pub Beer history Brew Britannia

Brew Britannia: new evidence in the case – CAMRA Branch Bulletin

The monthly newspaper What’s Brewing has been the semi-public face of the Campaign for Real Ale since the early 1970s; but the Branch Bulletin, intended to be private, tells the same story without any PR gloss.

We were lucky enough to come into possession of a near-complete set of these newsletters, sent from CAMRA HQ to local branches, thanks to Sue Hart, a veteran of The Ring and a long-time CAMRA activist.

We’ve spent the past couple of weeks digging and digesting which gave us the urge to go back to our 2014 book, Brew Britannia, and 2017’s 20th Century Pub and fill in some gaps with new information.

Pub preservation

In 20th Century pub, we wrote about the birth of the pub preservation movement as the rhetoric of Christopher Hutt’s 1973 book The Death of the English Pub turned into practical action.

We focused on the Pub Preservation Group and the work of Jenny Greenhalgh, Peter Lerner and crew, from the late 1970s onward, but here’s evidence that the work began in earnest a little earlier.

The earliest of the branch newsletters we have, from May 1975, includes a paper by Mike Dempsey of the East London Branch, a lawyer by profession, setting out what looks like the basis of much of the pub preservation activity that followed.

The paper establishes how the listing system works, how it might apply to pubs and how CAMRA members might go about using the system to prevent brewers (and especially the Big Six) from demolishing or altering pub buildings.

Here’s his concluding argument:

Pyrrhic Victories
The fact that you may have succeeded in having a building included on the statutory list does not mean that your battles are over. The first thing that the owner of the pub will do when he learns of the Secretary of State’s decision is to apply to the local authority for Listed Building Consent to carry out the works which he intended to carry out in the first place. This means that you have got to put in hand the suggestions made in paragraph 4 above, and make sure that representations are submitted to the local Council at the appropriate time. Do not, therefore, be lulled into complacency as a result of your initial successes. You will only have succeeded when the pub reopens for business, unspoiled and preferably serving real beer, but there are, of course, many pubs which are worthy of preservation even if their beer is not. In these cases, the beer will have to be the subject of your next campaign.

Categories
beer festivals Beer history

CAMRA Beer Festival, 1979: The Great Debauch?

Part of the reason for keeping up a blog and presence on social media is that the ongoing conversation draws new information out of the woodwork, such as the late Nigel Graves’ note on the 1979 Great British Beer Festival.

Nigel Graves was born in 1955 and died in 2004, at the age of 49. In 2014, his friend, Tim Sedgwick-Jell, edited an anthology of his writing as something by which friends and family might remember him.

As it happens, Tim reads our blog (or, at least, subscribes to the newsletter) and recently got in touch to ask if we’d like a copy of Far Be It From Me to be Hyperbolic because pubs, beer and beer festivals were frequent topics for Nigel’s writing. (If he’d lived a little longer, might he have started a beer blog?)

The bulk of his notes on beer and pubs are in one chapter – snippets, diary entries, letters and so on.

There’s a fiery letter to Wetherspoon corporate HQ, for example, sent in July 2000 after he was told he couldn’t bring his children into the Temeraire in Saffron Walden:

I believe your company was originally established to provide a type of pub modelled on that in George Orwell’s essay ‘The Moon Under Water’ and I know that several of your early pubs were given this name… Perhaps you would like to consider the following passage from this essay:

“The great surprise of the Moon Under Water is its garden… Up at one end of the garden there are swings a chute for the children…”

For balance, in another piece he acknowledges that the general relaxation of the rules on kids in pubs then underway was great when you were with the kids, but less so when you wanted a session with “the lads”.

The extract that really grabbed our attention, though, was a diary entry written when Nigel was around 24 years old, giving an account of the 1979 CAMRA Great British Festival:

I actually went to the CAMRA organised Great London Beer Festival a few weeks ago. The usual unfriendly interior of the Alexandra Palace was as unalluring as ever, but had the added drawback of being cram-packed full of drunken wallies behaving as if they’d never tasted beer before in their lives, and demonstrating just about every [unattractive] male characteristic imaginable. Because of the tube-train conditions, it was impossible to sample any interesting new brews, or real cider, so I spent the evening drinking Ansells (wow, thrill!), avoiding steaming pools of puke an dodging spotty adolescents reeling around in search of the Gents. Great – I might as well have spent an evening in The Carpenters, or almost any other pub for that matter.

We like this because, as with the original CAMRA national festival in 1975, the official PR (necessary to gain a licence, of course) had it that the festival would consist of well-behaved connoisseurs gathering to sample beers in moderation. Pools of puke was not part of the image.

How many more valuable first-hand, contemporary accounts of key moments in British beer history are locked away in diaries, letters and company newsletters?

Or, worse, how many such accounts were taken to the tip or burned a week after the funeral?

Main image derived from a photo by Nicolas Lysandrou via Unsplash.