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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Magee Marshall of Bolton is Making a Comeback

Beer advert: Magee Marshall & Co, Bolton

Yet another brewery that closed in the mid-20th century is making a comeback.

We heard this news from an unusu­al source: a librar­i­an in Bolton. He told us, mat­ter-of-fact­ly, that some of the com­pa­ny records for Magee Mar­shall, which oper­at­ed in Bolton from 1853 to 1970, are cur­rent­ly unavail­able because they had been acquired along with the trade­mark by some­one who is start­ing a brew­ery.

We wrote at length about this kind of thing in an arti­cle for Craft Beer Ris­ing mag­a­zine a cou­ple of years back (link to flip­py-flap­py pre­tend paper inter­face) but here’s a rel­e­vant chunk:

At first, Truman’s re-launched with a straight­for­ward, dark­ish bit­ter called ‘Run­ner’, brewed in Essex and using an inau­then­tic yeast. This led to accu­sa­tions that it was mere­ly a logo being slapped on off-the-shelf prod­uct… This is the kind of ques­tion all revived brew­eries must face: is this real­ly Truman’s? Or is it a mere oppor­tunis­tic trib­ute act?

Magee Mar­shall is a par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing case because, if the papers we were able to read in Bolton are any­thing to go by, its beer was­n’t uni­ver­sal­ly admired. It was nick­named ‘crick­ets’ piss’ accord­ing to one note in the Mass Obser­va­tion papers that lay behind the famous book; in anoth­er doc­u­ment, a pub land­lord is record­ed as say­ing, ‘A man who can drink Magee’s mild must be able to feed on rats.’ So we’ll give this new enter­prise some lee­way in regards to authen­tic­i­ty.

Bring­ing back these old names, tram­pled under foot by the Big Six half a cen­tu­ry ago, is, we think, some­thing of a noble cause, regard­less of moti­va­tion. We’d cer­tain­ly have enjoyed the time-trav­el­ling thrill of order­ing pints of Magee’s at the Hen & Chick­ens last week if it had been avail­able. (And if Hen­ry Hall had been on the wire­less, even bet­ter.)

Non-Craft Sub-Brand

In a weird inversion of the usual arrangement, a self-consciously-‘craft’ brewery has just launched a retro ‘real ale’ sub-brand. Well, sort of.

If you’ve read Christo­pher Hut­t’s 1973 book The Death of the Eng­lish Pub then you’ll know the sto­ry of Bullard’s of Nor­wich: along with the city’s oth­er brew­ery, Stew­ard & Pat­te­son, it was tak­en over by Wat­ney’s in 1963, and both brew­eries’ own bit­ters were replaced by a gener­ic Nor­wich Bit­ter. Then, in 1968, Bullard’s brew­ery was closed down.

Near­ly 50 years on, Red­well (per­haps best known for its dis­pute with Cam­den over the trade­mark ‘Hells’) has acquired the rights to the Bullard’s brand and revived it for a line of cask ales designed, in part, to appeal to those who have fond and lin­ger­ing mem­o­ries of the old brew­ery.

Red­well isn’t brew­ing on the old Bullard’s site, or using the orig­i­nal brand­ing and, unlike oth­er revived brands (Joule’s, Phipps, Tru­man’s) there has been no attempt made to recre­ate his­toric recipes, or even to ‘take inspi­ra­tion’ from them. Bullard’s old yeast strain has­n’t been brought out of retire­ment, either, so, there’s real­ly not much of the orig­i­nal brew­ery here beyond the name.

And here’s why we said ‘sort of’ in our intro­duc­tion: the pack­ag­ing still uses the C‑word – ‘Craft Beers Brewed in Nor­wich’ – and the first prod­ucts on offer are East Coast Pale Ale, ‘brewed with new world hops’, and a ‘hop bomb of an IPA’.

This isn’t, there­fore, the per­fect irony we’ve been wait­ing for – a trendy craft brew­ery aping the look of, say, Shep­herd Neame, in order to mar­ket cask mild and best bit­ter on the sly – but it’s still, we think, an inter­est­ing devel­op­ment.

For more details, and some spiky local reac­tions, check out this sub­stan­tial piece on the launch in the East­ern Dai­ly Press.