Local vs national brands

In the 1970s, business was driven by the idea that bigger was always better. And perhaps no industry demonstrated the application, and folly of this notion, better than the brewing industry.

Beginning in the Victorian era, two brewing names achieved national distribution in the UK: Bass Pale Ale and Guinness Stout. Guinness owned no pubs at all, but the popularity of the Bass and Guinness brands saw rival brewers stock their products in their pubs. Like bottled beers in pubs today, these were premium products, selling for a higher price than the local draught bitter.

In the 1950s, a Canadian businessman called Eddie Taylor began to market a Canadian lager called Carling in the UK. He bought small local brewers and amalgamated them under the  United Breweries banner. By 1960 he had 2,800 outlets. He stopped in 1967 when he created Bass Charrington, an entity that owned 11,000 pubs. The idea was to acquire breweries and tied estates of pubs as an outlet for Carling. By pushing just one megabrand in a fragmented industry, Taylor believed he could achieve a dominant position in the UK beer market. He was right: by the 1980s Carling was the highest selling beer brand in the UK, and it hasn’t slipped from that position since.

Taylor kickstarted a wave of consolidation in the UK beer market to form the Big Six brewers (plus Guinness). In the 1960s, marketing spend was put behind single keg ale brands such as Worthington E (Bass), Younger’s Tartan Special (Scottish & Newcastle), Courage Tavern Keg, Whitbread Trophy, Double Diamond (Allied) and perhaps the most notorious, Watney’s Red Barrel. The new keg ales were easier to look after, and had larger profit margins, and there ubiquity quickly spread.

Watney Mann ranked alongside the biggest brewers of Bass and Ind Coope/Allied. It was the most aggressive in promoting its main product. In 1971, it relaunched Red Barrel as Red, with a marketing campaign heralding the “Red Revolution”. The marketing campaign featured actors made up to look like Castro, Mao and Khrushchev sipping the product. Watney pubs were painted red.

A Watney pub interior

Meanwhile, as the brewers pushed these major products, they closed down small local breweries, and stopped brewing many of the popular local ales. This provocation eventually caused a consumer backlash. The new keg ales were fizzy, overpriced and bland. Local ales were often more flavourful, and besides, people preferred to have a choice. They resented being forced to drink something else. In 1968, the Competition Commission found that a single brewer, Courage, owned 80% of the pubs in Bristol!

CAMRA was formed in 1971 to resist the blandification of consumer choice. Today there are hundreds of microbreweries, and consumers haven’t had as much choice in beer since the Victorian era. The mass keg ale market (John Smith’s, Tetley, Worthington) is declining. The mass lager market is declining, with preference switching to smaller, premium brands such as Peroni Nastro Azurro, or cask ales. Carling is still the highest selling beer though.

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