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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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.

Complete Guide to Bristol’s Pubs, 1975

Cover of The Complete Guide to Bristol's Pubs.

Fred Pearce wrote a series of paperback pub guides in the 1970s including this 52 page run around the pubs of Bristol.

We first heard of it when we were researching Brew Britannia and Robin Allender (@robinallender) kindly sent us a scan of the section referring to the Royal Navy Volunteer. Then, in January, Garvan Hickey, one of the landlords of our local, The Draper’s Arms, kindly let us borrow his copy.

We’ve now scanned it and took the PDF out for a test drive around Redcliffe last Friday night. It was great to be able to look up the pubs we were in and see how, if at all, they might have changed.

We’re still not 100 per cent sure when it was published but we know from Andrew Swift that a partner volume covering Bath came out in 1976 so that seems like a reasonable assumption and is consistent with the contents. (Update 05/06/2018: Having acquired our own copy we found inside it a sheet of revisions from April 1976 which confirms the publication date of the guide as September 1975, per Sue Hart’s suggestion in the comment below.)

Now we want to share a few nuggets that highlight what we’ve lost, and perhaps gained, as pub culture has changed in the past 40-odd years.

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