There’s a lot to learn from bad beer

Watneys Red Barrel beer mat.

Taking the time to drink bad beer is a useful way to calibrate the tastebuds, correct your perspective, and stimulate the tastebuds. Sometimes, it’s just about reminding yourself that bad beer is still beer and won’t kill you.

In this post, Ghost Drinker exposes a guilty secret: many bloggers and writers use Carlsberg Special Brew as shorthand for the worst type of strong-and-nasty ‘tramp brew’, despite never having tried it. (As adults, at least.) We’ve got two choices: get a can and give it a go, or stop referring to it. We’re inclined towards the latter. After all, we’ve always got Warka Strong to fall back on.

On a similar note, Gareth at Beer Advice points out how odd it is that a beer that ceased production in the 1970s, before many beer bloggers were born, remains one of the most talked about — that is, Watney’s infamous Red Barrel, the bogeyman of bad British bitter.

Red Barrel was (we think) renamed just ‘Red’ in around 1971. Frank Baillie’s Beer Drinker’s Companion (1973) describes Red as a ‘well balanced keg beer with a burnt malty characteristic’; and the analysis in this 1972 Daily Mirror article (via Ron Pattinson’s blog) suggest a respectable strength of c.3.6% abv — not as shockingly weak as we’d imagined from reading one polemic or another.

Does anyone who’s old enough to remember drinking Red Barrel want to suggest a beer available today that might give us an idea of its flavour and character? Maybe you even have some antique tasting notes in a crumbling notebook? Or perhaps we’ve already been there with our John Smith’s Extra Smooth experiments?

Maybe we’ll just brew a batch, if we can find a convincing recipe.

Time Was Never Called

The Valiant Soldier -- the pub where time was never called.

In 1965, the landlord and landlady of the Valiant Soldier in Buckfastleigh, Devon, shut the doors and retired to the flat above the pub. They left ashtrays full and unfinished pints on the bar, and never went back. Thirty years later, when the landlady died, the pub was rediscovered — a perfect, dusty time capsule of post-war drinking culture.

We visited on Friday afternoon. It was raining — thundering, in fact — and we had the place to ourselves. Walking across the bare, creaking flooboards of the bar with the archive sounds of the Light Programme drifting in from another room, we felt the hairs on our necks stand up. It was as if, at any moment, a long dead landlord was going to appear behind the bar and take our order.

We were reminded of the Shining or this episode of Sapphire and Steel.

The walls are covered with vintage advertisements for the Exeter City Brewery. The board over the fire place listed prices for bitter, best bitter, BB, HB, PA, XXX, mild, pale, brown and imperial ales. Two beers — Tun and Watney’s Red Barrel — were advertised as coming from a ‘container’. On the tables, half-finished games of dominoes and cards, cigarette packets and ticket stubs.

Interior of the Valiant Soldier pub.

That was the bar, of course; the lounge, with its flowery wallpaper and cushioned chairs, was altogether more genteel. The ladies seemed to have stepped outside, just for a moment…

In fact, the pub isn’t quite as it was found in 1996: it was emptied, cleaned and put back together, and there are some anachronisms where things found in the attic or cupboards were too good not to have on display.

Sadly, thanks to a vintage restrictive covenant imposed by Whitbread, no booze can be served on the premises. It would have been lovely to enjoy a couple of pints of mild in that bar.

The museum is open Monday to Friday from April onwards. There are buses to Buckfastleigh from Exeter but, for the full experience, why not get a steam train from Totnes?

Is old keg the same as new keg?

Watneys Red Barrel: detail of beer mat c.1968

In the ongoing discussions about whether CAMRA should or should not do more to support quality kegged and bottled British beer, one of the key sticking points is this: what makes the kegged beer of today any better than the bland kegged beer of the 1960s and 70s which provoke the campaign’s founding?

Or, to put that another way, is ‘new keg’ just the same shite as ‘old keg’?

Having read Martyn Cornell’s marvellous Beer: the Story of the Pint recently, we were prompted to contrast the motives of the makers of ‘old keg’ — big conglomerated breweries like Watneys — with those of the new breed of keg brewers.

Old keg: post-World War II, cask ale got weaker and became more temperamental until, to paraphrase Beer, a change of landlord or barmaid could be enough to push punters towards less exciting but more reliable bottled beer. Sales were dropping alarmingly. Kegged beer was the breweries’ response to that — a way of ensuring consistently adequate quality (less vinegar) but at the cost of excellence. The cask versions of their beer at the time were hardly earth-shatteringly brilliant either.

New keg: some smaller brewers, with a focus on flavour and quality, whether you agree with them or not, believe their beer tastes as good if not better without cask or bottle conditioning. (“Too fizzy” and “too cold” are subjective complaints). Others might prefer to cask-condition but, to expand their business, as an expression of beervangelism, or a bit of both, want to get their beer into as many venues as possible, and believe kegging will help them achieve that. Many of these beers are stronger, more intensely flavoured and much more varied than the cask conditioned beers commonly seen in the average pub.

What do you think? Are they the same thing?

Yet more vintage beer mats

Here are four British beer mats from the sixties (or early seventies?).

Two make dubious health claims for their product — Mann’s does you a power of good, while Mackeson’s looks good, tastes good and does good. The retro equivalent of “contains friendly bacteria”, maybe?

And these two are just beautiful. Helvetica ahoy on the Worthington mat? And the Watney’s design is pure Festival of Britain.