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?

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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.