Watney, Combe & Reid was the second largest brewery in the world by the turn of the twentieth century. It was also the second most valuable public company in Britain after Imperial Tobacco.
Watney introduced a new beer in 1931. Named Red Barrel, it was produced for export to the Indian market. It was a keg pale ale, designed to withstand tropical heat and a lengthy shipping period. The beer proved a success among British expatriates and travellers, and was soon found on Royal Navy ships, Cunard liners and Middle East oilfields.
Sales in Britain began from 1935, at the Sheen Lawn Tennis Club. The keeping properties of a keg bitter proved ideal for the intermittent trade of a sports club.
By 1935 the company employed 5,000 people.
In 1958 the company merged to become Watney Mann.
By 1959 Red Barrel was the most widely-distributed keg bitter in Britain. It was often produced by local brewers under licence.
Red Barrel was the highest-selling keg bitter in Britain by 1961. It was brewed with Norfolk malt and Goldings hops, and was naturally matured for several weeks.
Red Barrel was first exported to northern France and Belgium from 1962
By the early 1970s, Red Barrel growth had begun to slow, and the product was losing market share to keg rivals such as Double Diamond and Whitbread Tankard, which were cited as having superior marketing campaigns.
In April 1971 the product was reformulated and re-launched as Watney’s Red. The new product was slightly sweeter and had a creamier head. It also supposedly offered greater “drinkability”.
Watney’s Red was accompanied by a £500,000 marketing campaign. The lost market share was regained. Watney’s Red accounted for around 20 to 25 percent of the brewery’s sales. Over 100 million pints of Watney’s Red were sold in 1972.
Watney Mann was acquired by Grand Metropolitan in 1972, in what was then the largest takeover in British history.
The Watney’s Red recipe was changed twice in 1973, increasing the ABV both times.
Watney’s Red had been discontinued in Britain by the early 1990s, and could only be found in France and Spain. The popular version of this story claims that the vigorous campaigning of CAMRA helped to destroy the sales of keg bitter.
What is true is that people began to turn towards beers which they deemed local. Preference switched from the national keg bitters to ones which had a local personality such as John Smith’s, Tetley and Webster’s.
The Watney brand survives today as a brand of strong ale in Belgium. Mann’s Brown Ale is available throughout the UK.