A Vicious Circle for Keg Bitter in the 1970s

Younger's Tartan beer mat.

In the early 1970s no-one was buying Younger’s Tartan keg bitter which meant it kept sitting around in pubs until it went bad. The brewery’s response? Mix it it back in and send it out again.

Good Company by Berry Ritchie.This sto­ry leapt out at us from the pages of a new acqui­si­tion for our library, Good Com­pa­ny: the sto­ry of Scot­tish & New­cas­tle, writ­ten by Berry Ritchie and pub­lished in 1999. As is the case with many brew­ery offi­cial his­to­ries the most inter­est­ing stuff isn’t the wigs and geneal­o­gy in the open­ing chap­ters, it’s the mate­r­i­al on the post-WWII peri­od. That’s because there were peo­ple around who remem­bered the events well but at the same time were no longer oblig­ed to toe a cor­po­rate line because they were retired; and plen­ty of sur­viv­ing paper­work, too. This pas­sage, cov­er­ing a vague peri­od from around 1970 until the mid­dle of the decade, seems remark­ably frank:

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the pop­u­lar­i­ty of Tar­tan turned out to be less than robust. Com­pared to Eng­lish bit­ters, it was on the sweet side; the post-war baby-boomers to whom [board mem­ber Tim] Lewis had appealed so suc­cess­ful­ly liked this to begin with, but as their palates matured, they switched back to more tra­di­tion­al south­ern bit­ters. The big swal­low­ers in the Mid­lands were nev­er keen; Scot­tish & New­castle’s sales­men made huge efforts to get its kegs into the large work­ing-men’s clubs  in and around Birm­ing­ham, only to see them thrown out again after a month or so.

Worse than that, falling sales result­ed in many tapped kegs being left on sale for too long, so their con­tents went off. That meant returns, which had to be sent all the way back to Edin­burgh, because that was where Cus­toms and Excise checked they were were bad enough to war­rant a refund of duty. If not, the reject­ed beer had to be reblend­ed, which did noth­ing for the flavour of the new brews. So much returned Tar­tan had to be recy­cled that it began to affect the rep­u­ta­tion of the group’s pre­mi­um beers.

Isn’t it amaz­ing that this, which reads like CAMRA pro­pa­gan­da, is from a brew­ery spon­sored pub­li­ca­tion? It’s fun­ny to think, too, that ‘it’s all slops’ was for so long a stan­dard crit­i­cism of cask ale, and mild in par­tic­u­lar, when in fact the sup­pos­ed­ly clean, space-age keg bit­ter was sub­ject to just the same com­mer­cial pres­sures.

When peo­ple talk about the dan­ger­ous influ­ence of ‘accoun­tants’ on the qual­i­ty of beer it’s just this kind of thing they have in mind. Why ‘had’?  They could pre­sum­ably have just writ­ten off the duty pay­ments and thrown the bad beer away. The deci­sion to do oth­er­wise seems remark­ably short-ter­mist but per­haps – very like­ly, in fact – at these vol­umes, on tight mar­gins, the choice was between this or going imme­di­ate­ly bust, or being tak­en over.

We’d like to think this kind of thing does­n’t go on so much today but with beer duty being yet high­er than the 1970s we would­n’t be sur­prised to find some 21st Cen­tu­ry vari­ant in play.

Fun­ni­ly enough, Ron Pat­tin­son has just post­ed about the use of ‘reprocessed beer’ at Younger’s in this peri­od with ref­er­ence to some archive paper­work. That makes us won­der if per­haps, rather than being mixed with itself, the com­par­a­tive­ly light, bland Tar­tan was hid­den in the folds of dark, even sweet­er stout and brown ale where it would be hard­er to spot.

It’s also inter­est­ing, by the way, to see fur­ther con­fir­ma­tion of the idea that Mid­lands drinkers in par­tic­u­lar were con­sid­ered to have dif­fer­ent tastes, as did young and old­er drinkers. We can’t help but think again of those soft, sweet New Eng­land IPAs.