BWOASA: Our first taste of yer actual Watney’s beer

This really was a big moment. We’ve tasted clones, read plenty, and written a lot, but we’ve never actually tasted Watney’s beer.

We’ve been cor­re­spond­ing on and off with Tom Unwin for years. He grew up near Jess and we inter­viewed his Dad, Trevor, for Brew Bri­tan­nia. When Tom came into pos­ses­sion of sev­er­al bot­tles of a strong ale pro­duced by Watney’s in 1987 to cel­e­brate the sup­posed 500th anniver­sary of the found­ing of the Mort­lake brew­ery.

(You can read the inevitable Mar­tyn Cor­nell take­down of that sto­ry here.)

We set aside a lit­tle time to enjoy the expe­ri­ence of drink­ing this beer, 137ml each, even though we sus­pect­ed it was going to be rank. After all, Watney’s beer wasn’t well regard­ed even when fresh, and this had been stored for 30+ years in a sub­ur­ban side­board.

The label told us that the beer had an orig­i­nal grav­i­ty of between 1096 and 1104 – quite a range, giv­ing us a hint that it was prob­a­bly around 10–11% ABV.

Pop­ping the foil cov­ered cap, we were treat­ed to the barest hiss, and found the inside of the lid cov­ered in rusty sludge. It had a slight, bub­bly head that drift­ed away in sec­onds.

There was a whiff of roast­ed malt, we thought, or per­haps even smoke, and then a big punch of sher­ry.

It tastes like Pedro Ximénez – raisins, prunes, a bit of bal­sam­ic vine­gar. There was also an almond nut­tin­ness and a lay­er of dark choco­late.

Run­ning through all of this, stop­ping it from quite being out-and-out pleas­ant to drink, was a beefy, Mar­mite line.

If you’ve read any oth­er tast­ing notes on old beers, none of the above will be sur­pris­ing. We prob­a­bly could have writ­ten them before we even opened the bot­tle.

Still, it was spe­cial, and an expe­ri­ence we can now tick off our wish list.

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.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Watney’s Red Bar­rel – how bad could it have been?”

Watney’s Pubs of 1966–67: Failsworth, Harlington, Lambeth, Stevenage, Wythenshawe

We continue to keep our eyes peeled for old in-house magazines from British breweries and most recently acquired a copy of Watney’s Red Barrel from February 1967.

It’s par­tic­u­lar­ly rich in pic­tures of mod­ern pubs, from Man­ches­ter to Lon­don. Let’s start with a trip to Wythen­shawe, a place we stud­ied in some depth when research­ing 20th Cen­tu­ry Pub, where we find the Fly­ing Machine and the Fir­bank.

The Fly­ing Machine was designed by Fran­cis Jones & Sons and built near Man­ches­ter Air­port, with “inte­ri­or dec­o­ra­tion fea­tur­ing vin­tage air­craft with some attrac­tive prints of biplanes”. Is it still there? Yes! But now it’s called the Tudor Tav­ern.

The Fir­bank was designed by A.H. Broth­er­ton & Part­ners and that’s about all the infor­ma­tion the mag­a­zine gives. That con­crete mur­al looks inter­est­ing, at any rate. The pub is still going, and award-win­ning, but has been the cen­tre of dra­ma in recent years with drug deal­ers attempt­ing to black­mail the pub­li­can.

The Brookdale, Failsworth.

Sad­ly there’s no exte­ri­or image of the Brook­dale in Failsworth, only this image of S.H. Thread­g­ill, M.D. of Watney’s sub­sidiary Wilson’s, receiv­ing a pint pulled by foot­baller Bob­by Charl­ton. This pub has been knocked down to make way for hous­ing.


The Long Ship pub in Stevenage.

The Danish Bar at the Long Ship pub.

Phwoar! The Long Ship in Steve­nage is a pub we first noticed in the back­ground of a scene in the 1968 film Here We Go Round the Mul­ber­ry Bush. It was the first Wat­ney Mann pub in the Hert­ford­shire new town and occu­pied the base of the South­gate House office block.

It has a real­ly inter­est­ing archi­tec­tur­al pedi­gree: that great gor­geous mur­al is by William Mitchell, a sculp­tor cur­rent­ly enjoy­ing a revival. It was six­ty feet long and depict­ed Vikings return­ing to their home­land after a raid on Eng­land. Sad­ly it seems this mur­al was just torn off and chucked away when the pub was demol­ished.

Obvi­ous­ly the bars in the pub were the Viking bar and (pic­tured above) the Dan­ish lounge and grill room.

The archi­tect was Barnard Reyn­er of Coven­try.


The Gibraltar pub near Elephant & Castle in London.

The Gibral­tar in St George’s Road, Lon­don SE1, near Ele­phant and Cas­tle, also has a name design­er attached: archi­tect E.B. Mus­man, who made his name with grand Art Deco designs in the 1930s, such as the Comet at Hat­field and the Nags Head in Bish­ops Stort­ford. It replaced a Vic­to­ri­an gin palace on the same site. Mus­man actu­al­ly went to Gibral­tar to make the sketch­es on which the sign was based.

In recent years it became a Thai restau­rant before being demol­ished in 2012–13 to make way for, you guessed it, yup­pie flats.

Interior of the Jolly Marshman, Abbey Estate, London SE2.

Still in Lon­don we have the Jol­ly Marsh­man on the Abbey Estate, Lon­don SE2. There’s no exte­ri­or shot in the mag­a­zine, only this image of the bar with “bas­ket­work light shades and, cen­tre back, the colour­ful mur­al of a ‘marsh­man’”. It was designed by J. Barnard of L.D. Tom­lin­son & Part­ners.  It has gone.


The Gamekeeper, Harlington.

Out at the end of the Pic­cadil­ly Line near Heathrow Air­port some­thing a bit dif­fer­ent was afoot in the form of the Game­keep­er, the fourth of Watney’s Schooner Inns. It was a restau­rant sup­pos­ed­ly in the shape of a pheas­ant built behind an exist­ing old pub of that name. It was a steak­house with seat­ing for 82 peo­ple. The archi­tect was Roy Wil­son-Smith who also designed the more famous Wind­sock at Dun­sta­ble. Aston­ish­ing­ly, this one still seems to exist – worth a pil­grim­age, we reck­on.


The pic­ture at the very top of this post offers a bare glimpse of anoth­er Schooner Inn, the Leather Bot­tle in Edg­ware, which appar­ent­ly closed in 2002.

Motel #1, 1953

This isn’t about pubs, or maybe it is: in June 1953 Britain gained its first American-style motel, The Royal Oak, at Newingreen outside Dover, Kent.

The Roy­al Oak was, as the name sug­gests, an old inn, appar­ent­ly estab­lished in 1560 and rebuilt in the 18th cen­tu­ry. It was around this core that the new motel was con­struct­ed by entre­pre­neur Gra­ham Lyon.

Lyon was born in Lon­don in 1889 and worked with ear­ly auto­mo­biles as a youth. In the 1920s he was a pio­neer of coach trips to the Con­ti­nent, dri­ving tourists around in a 10-seater Ford Mod­el T chara­banc. After World War II he entered the hotel busi­ness, start­ing with The White Cliffs in Dover. Some­thing of an Ameri­cophile, his deal­ings with Amer­i­cans dur­ing and after the war gave him the idea that Britain was defi­cient in hotels designed specif­i­cal­ly for motorists and so, in 1952, approach­ing pen­sion­able age, he set off to tour the US vis­it­ing more than 2,000 motels on an epic road-trip. He picked the brains of Amer­i­can mote­liers and came back ready to imple­ment his own take in the British mar­ket.

Aerial view of the Inn and Motel.

Each room in The Roy­al Oak motel had its own pri­vate garage and en suite bath­room. The larg­er suites had their own sit­ting rooms. For between 21s and 27s 6d per per­son (about £30 in today’s mon­ey) you got a Con­ti­nen­tal break­fast, a radio, a tea-mak­ing machine, tele­phone, a water dis­penser, and your car washed and valet­ed.

Sitting room at the motel.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Motel #1, 1953”

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.