How did Newcastle Brown Ale become the highest selling bottled beer in Britain, and take significant sales in the United States?
John Barras & Co
Bells, Robson & Co established the Tyne Brewery on Bath Lane, Newcastle in 1867. It was said to be the largest brewery in the North of England.
Bells, Robson & Co entered into financial difficulty, and the business was acquired by John Barras & Co of Gateshead, after their own brewery site was subject to compulsory purchase by the North Eastern Railway in 1884.
John Barras & Co was managed by Charles John Reed (1820 – 1908), who had leased the brewery since 1861, after marrying into the founding Barras family.
Reed appointed Thomas Watson Lovibond (1849 – 1918) as head brewer and manager from 1887. Lovibond had received scientific training during an era when almost all brewers lacked such formal education. He was to have a significant impact upon the future success of the business.
John Barras & Co traditionally brewed mild ale, but under Lovibond’s direction, pale ale was being produced by 1889, in order to compete with rival products from Burton upon Trent and Edinburgh. Lovibond also introduced greater standardisation of product quality.
John Barras & Co merged with four local brewers in 1890: W H Allison of North Shields, J J & W H Allison of Sunderland, Swinburne of Gateshead and Carr Brothers & Carr of North Shields to form Newcastle Breweries.
All production was centralised at the Tyne Brewery, which was regarded as one of the largest and best equipped breweries in the North of England. As a result, the output of the brewery was doubled from 900 to 1,800 barrels a week.
Newcastle Breweries controlled an estate of nearly 300 public houses by 1897.
The amalgamation was to prove highly successful. Forster’s Bishop Middleham Breweries was acquired in 1910.
Colonel Porter and the introduction of Newcastle Brown Ale
James Herbert Porter (1891 – 1973) was born in Burton upon Trent, the son of a master brewer. He joined Newcastle Breweries as a trainee brewer in 1909. Porter was a highly courteous and mild-mannered man, a model of an English gentleman. He saw action during the First World War, and was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.
Newcastle Exhibition, a cask beer, was introduced from 1920.
Sales of bottled beer began to increase after the war, influenced by the inconsistent quality of cask beer. Colonel Porter determined to develop a bottled beer of his own. Newcastle Breweries opened one of the largest and best-equipped bottling plants in Britain in June 1925.
Colonel Porter, by now promoted to assistant brewer, and Archdale Mercer Jones (1881 – 1954), manager of the bottling works, laboured for three years to perfect the recipe for Newcastle Brown Ale. Porter created its distinctive taste by blending a strong, crystal malt-influenced aged beer with a light pale ale. Porter reflected, “I wanted something different but not far too strong”.
Newcastle Brown Ale was launched in April 1927. The sole ingredients were malt, hops, sugar and yeast and it had an ABV of 6.25 percent. It was filtered but was not subject to pasteurisation.
Newcastle Brown Ale would have been seen as a rival to Bass Pale Ale, a comparable beer in terms of strength and quality. Another similar beer, Whitbread Double Brown, had been launched in London just a month earlier.
Newcastle Brown Ale was to enjoy immediate success. It was a quality product brewed to vigorous scientific methods and high standards, and sold at a reasonable price. Colonel Porter had been promoted to head brewer by September 1927, in recognition of his efforts to improve product quality.
Newcastle Brown Ale was named as the best bottled beer in Britain at the 1928 Brewers Exhibition in London. Colonel Porter disproved the long-held notion that water from Newcastle was an inferior brewing liquor.
The blue star logo was introduced in 1928. Each point on the star represented one of the five businesses that had originally combined to form Newcastle Breweries.
The brewery produced six million bottles of beer a year by 1928.
Newcastle Brown Ale had seen its ABV reduced to around 5.5 percent by 1931.
Colonel Porter was promoted to the Newcastle Breweries board of directors in 1931.
Newcastle Breweries encountered material shortages during the Second World War, and as a result brewed lower strength beers out of necessity. However the company refused to compromise on the quality of Newcastle Brown Ale, which went unchanged, although sales were by necessity highly rationed.
Although sales remained confined to the North East of England, 300 million bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale had been produced by 1952.
Colonel Porter was appointed chairman of Newcastle Breweries in 1955.
The Tyne Brewery occupied 6.5 acres by 1956.
The crown cork bottle cap replaced the old screw cap from 1958 in order to help preserve freshness.
It was claimed that Newcastle Brown Ale was the highest selling bottled beer in the North of England by 1959. That year, “the one and only” was introduced as an advertising slogan.
Production of Newcastle Brown Ale had continued to grow and the brewer’s bottling facility had reached capacity. A new bottling plant entered into production from 1959.
John Rowell & Son of Gateshead was acquired in 1959 to bring the total number of Newcastle Breweries controlled premises to around 700.
Scottish & Newcastle
Newcastle Breweries merged with Scottish Brewers to form Scottish & Newcastle in 1960. Colonel Porter was appointed vice chairman. Newcastle Brown Ale was a leading product of the new company, alongside McEwan’s Export and Younger’s Tartan Special. The merger afforded Newcastle Brown Ale a wider network for distribution.
In the early 1960s Scottish & Newcastle began to produce Newcastle Brown Ale in brown bottles instead of clear ones. This was to protect the beer from UV rays, which can have a negative impact on taste. However drinkers complained about the change, and the decision was swiftly reversed.
Newcastle Brown Ale had been introduced in cans by 1964.
Distribution of Newcastle Brown Ale throughout the Midlands and the South of England had begun by the late 1960s. The beer found particular favour among university and polytechnic students.
The Tyne Brewery produced over one million barrels of beer a year by 1972, however increasing national sales of Newcastle Brown Ale saw the facility struggle to meet demand.
Newcastle Brown Ale had earned a near legendary reputation in its local area by the mid-1970s. Domestic sales of Newcastle Brown Ale peaked in 1974, after which sales of bottled beers began to enter into a steady decline. The appeal of bottled beer had been its consistency, but with the increasing distribution of keg beer its unique selling point was lost.
By 1977 a total of 7.5 million barrels of Newcastle Brown Ale had been produced since it was introduced in 1927.
Newcastle Brown Ale was the highest selling packaged ale in Britain by 1980. It was sold in over 97 percent of off licences in England and Wales and more than 90 percent of supermarkets and grocers.
It is believed that Newcastle Brown Ale ceased to be a blended beer from the early 1980s onwards.
Newcastle Brown Ale was known as “Dog” on Tyneside by the 1980s, arising from the “going to walk the dog” euphemism, which implied a visit to the pub.
A new £3.5 million bottling plant was opened in 1984, the fastest in Europe. The Tyne Brewery had grown to cover 14 acres by 1985. 1,200 people were employed there in 1988.
Scottish & Newcastle was the fifth largest brewer in Britain by 1988.
Newcastle Brown Ale had settled on its current ABV of 4.7 percent by 1989.
Newcastle Exhibition was the highest selling draught ale in the North East of England by 1989.
A resurgence for Newcastle Brown Ale
Newcastle Brown Ale underwent a resurgence in the late 1980s and early 1990s with increased distribution in the South of England, as well as a strong presence in student union bars. Marketing efforts dissociated the drink from its working class roots and repositioned it as a premium product. The product was sold in thirty countries.
Scottish & Newcastle took direct control of its United States product distribution from 1990 onwards. Major European import rivals such as Bass, Guinness and Heineken had strength on the East Coast, so Scottish & Newcastle established its American headquarters in San Francisco.
American sales increased by 300 percent between 1989 and 1991, and a further 75 percent in 1993.
25 percent of Tyne Brewery output was dedicated to Newcastle Brown Ale by 1994. 120 million pint bottles (not including cans) of Newcastle Brown Ale were produced every year.
Newcastle Brown Ale had gained significant traction in the United States, with over a million cases of the beer sold in that market during the 1994-5 financial year.
Scottish & Newcastle acquired Courage in 1995 to become the largest brewer in Britain.
The United States represented the largest market for Newcastle Brown Ale by 2001, with annual sales of over 300,000 hectolitres. However sales in Britain were “well down”, according to a Scottish & Newcastle executive.
The Tyne Brewery was closed in May 2005. Production of Newcastle Brown Ale was relocated to the Federation Brewery in nearby Dunston, Gateshead.
Newcastle Brown Ale was among the top fifty highest-selling beers in the United States in 2006.
Bottling of Newcastle Brown Ale was relocated to the John Smith’s Brewery in Tadcaster, North Yorkshire, from 2007.
Scottish & Newcastle was acquired by Heineken in 2008.
Heineken closed the Federation Brewery in May 2010, and production of Newcastle Brown Ale was relocated to the John Smith’s Brewery.
Caramel, used to darken and flavour Newcastle Brown Ale since its inception, was replaced with roasted malt from 2015, amid United States health concerns.
Production of Newcastle Brown Ale for export was relocated to the Zoeterwoude Brewery in the Netherlands from 2017.
Global sales of Newcastle Brown Ale declined from nearly seven million cases in 2014 to around two million cases in 2019.
Production of Newcastle Brown Ale for the United States market was relocated to the Heineken-owned Lagunitas Brewery from 2019. The recipe was subjected to significant changes, including the addition of Centennial and Chinook hops.