Category Archives: Beer & cider

Beer we go again: E Smithwick & Sons

How did Smithwick’s rise from relative obscurity to become the largest ale brewer in Ireland?

Origins and the Edmond Smithwick era
The Smithwicks were a well-established and highly-respected Catholic family in Kilkenny, Ireland.

John Smithwick (1763 – 1842) entered into business as a wholesale and general grocer with premises on Kilkenny High Street. From modest beginnings Smithwick grew wealthy, and he leased a distillery at St Francis Abbey, Kilkenny, on behalf of his eldest son, Edmond Smithwick (1801 – 1876), from 1827.

St Francis Abbey is a ruinous former Franciscan abbey built in the early 13th century.

The brewery was built around the historic St Francis Abbey, as seen in this 2007 photograph

An adjoining brewery was acquired on lease from 1833. Ireland had relatively few breweries, numbered at just 207 in 1831, against 5,419 in England. Kilkenny was to prove an advantageous location for the production of beer, given that it was situated in one of the best barley growing regions in Ireland. The brewery soon overtook the distillery to become the predominant business.

Edmond Smithwick hosted Daniel O’Connell (1775 – 1847), the Catholic emancipation campaigner, in 1840. Amongst this fervour of nationalistic mood, there was a revival of a campaign for Irish consumers to purchase Irish-made goods. Smithwick himself argued that if the middle classes supported Irish industry, lower taxes would ensue, as there would be fewer unemployed to support.*

Highly-regarded by the community, Edmond Smithwick was elected Mayor of Kilkenny in 1844.

Edmond Smithwick greatly extended and modernised the brewery in 1851. He also hired a highly experienced brewer.

Edmond Smithwick funded an all-expenses paid trip for over 100 employees to the Great Exhibition of Dublin in 1853.

His brother, Daniel Smithwick (died 1869), established a bottling works.

Edmond Smithwick had commenced exports to the British Empire by 1855.

The business traded as E Smithwick & Sons by 1861.

Edmond Smithwick’s wife died in 1864, and Kilkenny witnessed one of the largest funeral processions it had ever seen. Edmond Smithwick was re-elected Mayor of Kilkenny in 1864 and 1865.

Edmond Smithwick had spent thousands of pounds on improvements to his site by 1867. It was one of the foremost industrial concerns in the south of Ireland. The brewery employed hundreds of people. Smithwick had a reputation as a fair employer who paid a good wage.

Edmond Smithwick acquired the precinct of St Francis’s Abbey for £3,100 in 1867.

Edmond’s sons take over the business
Edmond Smithwick died in 1877, and the business was continued by his three sons, John William Smithwick (died 1894), Edmond Smithwick (1839 – 1912) and Daniel Smithwick (1840 – 1883).

The business was incorporated as E Smithwick & Sons in 1890.

The brewery employed about 400 people in 1900.

John J Smithwick, the only son of Edmond Smithwick, died in 1911.

The market consolidates
The success of the company in the beginning of the twentieth century was credited to its chairman, Michael Buggy (1855 – 1935), a solicitor.

E Smithwick & Sons was one of only 25 breweries remaining in Ireland by 1917, and one of only 15 to brew stout, porter and ale.

James Sullivan & Co, a rival Kilkenny brewery with a production capacity of 20,000 barrels a year, entered into receivership in 1917, and the assets were acquired by E Smithwick & Sons in 1919. The purchase left E Smithwick & Sons as the sole surviving brewery in Kilkenny.

Richard George Forman (1895 – 1949) joined the company as head brewer after the First World War. He had trained as an analytical chemist in Edinburgh.

The brewery employees went on strike for four weeks in 1921, in protest at an attempt by management to reduce their 48 hours a week by 25 percent.

Strong growth under W A Smithwick
Walter Aloysius Smithwick (1908 – 1993) became a company director from 1931. He was responsible for introducing a large sales team to the business, which was to prove highly successful in increasing revenue. Smithwick’s products had national distribution by 1935. Over 400 licensed establishments in Dublin were supplied by 1937.

E Smithwick & Sons was the oldest and most important industrial concern in Kilkenny by 1937, and employed over 140 people in the city.

E Smithwick & Sons won first prize for best bottle conditioned beer in a British Commonwealth competition in 1937.** Shortly afterwards, the beer was rebranded as Smithwick’s No.1.

The Second World War hampered production, with output reduced to just 6,000 barrels in 1942.

Walter Smithwick became chairman and managing director from 1947. He continued to practise as a solicitor in Kilkenny despite his commitments to the family brewery. Sales grew quickly under his dynamic leadership, and improved distribution saw annual production reach 50,000 barrels by 1952.

The Great Northern Brewery in Dundalk was purchased for £37,500 in order to supplement brewing capacity in 1954. The news was greeted positively, as it presented an opportunity for W A Smithwick to introduce his superior management skills to the acquired business.

Smithwick’s Brewery was registered as a public company with a capital of £500,000 in 1956. That year Guinness, the large Dublin-based brewery, took a stake in the business.

The Dundalk purchase was to prove problematic. Public taste increasingly favoured keg beer, and Smithwick’s lacked sufficient capital to convert the Dundalk brewery for this purpose. The Dundalk brewery was sold to Guinness, who invested to convert the plant to lager production.

E Smithwick & Sons held over 60 percent of the Irish ale market by 1960, a total of around 60,000 barrels a year. The four products were Smithwick’s No.1, a deep gold ale, Smithwick’s Export Ale, Smithwick’s SS Ale, and Smithwick’s Barley Wine.

Vintage bottles of Smithwick’s Barley Wine

Smithwick’s Barley Wine won the Olympic Gold Medal at the World Beer Olympics in 1963.

Takeover by Guinness and investment
Guinness acquired a controlling interest in Smithwick’s in 1964.

Smithwick’s had been slow to anticipate the increased demand for draught beer. It introduced a lager brand, which failed, in part because it lacked the marketing power of Guinness and rival English brewers. Smithwick’s was also struggling with the capital demands of investing in draught beer. Amidst these conditions, Guinness assumed full control of the company in 1965.

Walter Smithwick did not regret his decision to sell the brewery. He knew the business needed large amounts of capital if it was to remain competitive, and to fail to take the business public would have seen it struggle to survive. Smithwick understood that a workforce of 250 were dependant on the brewery for their livelihood.

A new brewhouse was established from June 1965.

Some Smithwick’s bottling had been transferred to Dundalk by 1968.

The Smithwick’s brewery was expanded in 1969.

Hop varieties in use in the early 1970s included Irish-grown Fuggles, Goldings and Bullion. Hop pellets were in use by 1985.

Budweiser was produced under licence at the Kilkenny brewery from 1987. A £1 million investment was made to enable lager production at the brewery.

Growth as an export brand
Kilkenny Irish Beer (c.5% ABV) was introduced, originally as an export-only product, from 1987. The Kilkenny name was chosen as opposed to Smithwick’s as it was easier for non-native English speakers to pronounce. The initial market was Germany.

Draught Smithwick’s for the Northern Ireland market was brewed at Dundalk by 1988. Smithwicks Ale bottling was transferred to Dundalk as part of a rationalisation drive from 1989.

Export sales of Smithwick’s and Kilkenny increased by over one third in 1994, with a large market in Canada.

Domestic sales of Smithwick’s declined every year from the mid-1980s, and ale comprised just ten percent of the Irish beer market by 1995.

A reduced-strength (4.3% ABV) version of Kilkenny Irish Beer was introduced to the Irish market from 1995. A Guinness executive explained that it was a different beer from Smithwick’s. It was a premium-priced product, and was intended to revitalise the declining ale category, and prevent the newly-launched Caffrey’s, a rival Irish ale from Bass, from taking market share.

Dundalk brewed all bottled and canned Smithwick’s, including the Barley Wine, by 1995.

Production of Smithwick’s beer for the domestic market had been transferred to the Guinness-owned Cherry’s Brewery in Waterford by 1997.

43,000 hectolitres (75 million pints) of Kilkenny Irish Beer had been sold across 53 different countries in 1999. The beer was sold in 1,860 domestic Irish pubs.

The Kilkenny Brewery employed 150 people in 2000. It was an efficient site, but was suffering from capacity constraints.

Smithwick’s Barley Wine was discontinued in 2001.

The front of the St Francis Abbey brewery, Kilkenny (2012)

The Kilkenny and Dunalk breweries were closed in 2013, with production relocated to St James’s Gate, Dublin, the home of Guinness.

Ale (all ale, not just Smithwick’s) held a seven percent share of the Irish beer market in 2017.

Notes
* It remains unclear exactly which Mr Smithwick was speaking at this Kilkenny meeting, but Edmond Smithwick (1801 – 1877) is the most likely.
** The name of the awarding body was the Brewing Trade Review Bottled Beer Exhibition

Perry good: Babycham

Babycham was a highly successful pear cider drink that was established in Britain from the early 1950s.

Background
The Showering family had a long-established association with the innkeeping and brewing trade in Shepton Mallet, Somerset, dating back to the 18th century.

Albert Edward Showering (1874 – 1946), a small-scale brewer, owned three public houses in Shepton Mallet by 1928. He had four sons, and two of them, Herbert (1906 – 1974) and Francis (1912 – 1995) were to prove instrumental in the subsequent growth of the family business.

Arthur Edward Showering (1899 – 1979) took over the licence of the Ship Inn on Kilver Street, Shepton Mallet, which was owned by his father Albert, in 1921. The rear of the Ship Inn housed a small brewery.

Showerings was incorporated as a private company in 1932, with Herbert Showering as chairman. Cider production was established by this time. Albert Edward Showering retired in 1934.

Francis Showering, a trained chemist, was manager of the Showerings cider mill by 1939. He was a stocky, hard-working, no-nonsense West Countryman. He had been appointed managing director of Showerings by 1949.

Showerings won numerous awards for the quality of its bottled ciders throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Babycham introduction
Following years of research and development Francis Showering developed a new sterile filtration process that improved the shelf quality of perry (pear cider). The product was clear and sparkling, and reminiscent of champagne.

The sale of perry in Britain at the time was very small. The Showering brothers introduced the new product to the Bristol area and assessed its potential. Francis Showering determined to market the product towards women, and the Babycham trademark was registered in 1950. The product was packaged in 4 liquid ounce (118ml) “baby bottles”.

In order to prioritise the production of Babycham, brewing ceased from 1952, and apple cider production ended in early 1953. Babycham was launched nationwide from 1953 and demand immediately exceeded all expectations.

Herbert Showering was responsible for marketing the product, and advertising commenced from September 1953. Advertising was to heavily emphasise its similarity to champagne. Sales quickly boomed. Advertising agency Masius Wynne-Williams created the Chinese water deer mascot for the brand.

The Babycham deer outside the cider mill at Shepton Mallet (2008)

A significant factor behind the success of Babycham was that it appealed to the relatively underdeveloped female market. At the same time, bottled beers and ciders were becoming increasingly popular over draught drinks due to their more consistent quality. Furthermore, the brewers who owned much of the licensed premises in Britain readily introduced Babycham to their public houses, as it was not in direct competition with their beer.

Showerings found it was unable to meet demand for Babycham in the pre-Christmas period of 1954. Rather than compromise on product quality, which could have increased supply, strict rationing of Babycham was introduced.

In 1955 Babycham became the first alcoholic product to be advertised on British television. Around £300,000 was spent on advertising  between 1953 and 1956.

The success of Babycham turned the Showerings brothers into millionaires.

Acquisition trail
Showerings acquired R N Coate & Co of Nailsea, near Bristol, one of the four largest cider manufacturers in Britain, in 1956.

Tens of thousands of bottles of Babycham were produced every day by 1958.

Showerings was converted into a public company in 1959. Over 1,000 people were employed. By this time Showerings bought much of Britain’s perry pear crop, and had to import additional fruit from Europe.

Aided by heavy marketing expenditure, annual sales of Babycham had reached £8 million by 1961.

Showerings was keen to reduce its dependence on the Babycham brand. The family-controlled William Gaymer & Son of Norfolk was acquired for £150,000 in 1961. Gaymer was widely credited as the oldest cider producer in Britain, and was one of the largest, best known for the Olde English brand. However it had struggled against the greater resources of its major rival, H P Bulmer. The deal transformed Showerings into the second largest cider manufacturer in the world.

Allied Brewies and recent era
Showerings merged with Allied Breweries in 1968. Francis Showering was appointed chief executive of the wine and spirits division.

2.5 million bottles of Babycham were manufactured every week by 1969, utilising the majority of British pear production.

The Shepton Mallet plant had a production capacity of 90,000 bottles an hour, and Showerings employed around 500 people in the town.

Babycham overseas sales tripled between 1962 and 1971. Babycham was exported to 52 countries by 1971.

R N Coate production was relocated to Shepton Mallet from 1973.

Keith Showering (1930 – 1982), son of Herbert, became chairman of Allied Breweries from 1975. Allied was the largest drinks business in Europe by this time.

Allied Breweries sold 144 million bottles of Babycham a year by 1977. The product was distributed across 90 percent of licensed premises in Britain.

Babycham was made with 25 percent apple cider by 1979. It had an alcohol content of 8.4 percent.

Babycham sales were successfully established in South Africa and the Far East and the product was exported to more than 70 countries by 1980.

The Shepton Mallet site employed nearly 800 people in 1986.

The Allied Breweries cider business was subject to a management buyout named the Gaymer Group in 1992. The deal valued the business at £140 million. 125 jobs were lost at Shepton Mallet.

Annual sales of Babycham had fallen to around one million bottles by 1993, and the deer mascot was retired.

The alcohol content of the product had fallen to six percent by 1993.

The Gaymer Group was acquired by Matthew Clark for £109 million in 1994.

Babycham sales suffered in the mid-1990s as alcopops grew in popularity.

Matthew Clark was acquired by Constellation Brands in 1998.

The Gaymer Group was sold to C&C Group of Ireland for £43.5 million in 2009. Constellation Brands retained the rights to Babycham.

The Shepton Mallet factory was bought back by the grandchildren of Francis Showering in 2016.

Message in a bottle: Newcastle Brown Ale

Newcastle Brown Ale became the highest selling bottled beer in Britain, and came to make 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.

Newcastle Breweries
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.

The Tyne Brewery was regarded as one of the largest and best equipped breweries in the North of England, and all production was centralised there. 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 the son of a master brewer in Burton upon Trent. 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 beers began to increase after the war, influenced by the inconsistent quality of cask beer. Colonel Porter determined to develop a high quality 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.

Newcastle Brown Ale was launched in April 1927. The sole ingredients were malt, hops, sugar and yeast and it boasted 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. Perhaps as a result, Colonel Porter had been promoted to head brewer by September 1927. Newcastle Brown Ale was named as the best bottled beer in Britain at the 1928 Brewers Exhibition in London.

The blue star logo was introduced in 1928. Each point on the star represented one of the five businesses that combined to form Newcastle Breweries.

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’s reputation as a high-strength beer earned it colourful nicknames on Tyneside, such as “lunatic’s broth” and “journey into space”. However an independent analysis in 1974 found the beer to have an ABV of five percent, and an original gravity of 1047.

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 quality and 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. Newcastle Brown Ale was the highest selling bottled beer in Britain by 1990.

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.

The Tyne Brewery borehole source lacked sufficient purity by 1993, so Scottish & Newcastle switched their supply to the Whittle Dene reservoir, to which gypsum and epsom were added before brewing.

Newcastle Brown Ale was a pasteurised beer by 1994. The pasteurisation process increases the shelf life of the product, but critics contend that it reduces the delicate aromas of beer.

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.

230,000 hectolitres (140,000 UK barrels) of Newcastle Brown Ale were exported to the United States in 1998. The majority of Newcastle Brown Ale production was shipped to the United States by 2001.

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 by 2006.

Bottling of Newcastle Brown Ale was relocated to the John Smith’s Brewery in Tadcaster, North Yorkshire, from 2007.

Heineken ownership
Scottish & Newcastle was acquired by Heineken, a Dutch brewer, in 2008.

Heineken closed the Federation Brewery in May 2010, and Newcastle Brown Ale production was relocated to the John Smith’s Brewery.

Caramel colouring, apparently used to darken and flavour Newcastle Brown Ale since its inception, was replaced with roasted malt from 2015, amid US health concerns.

Production of Newcastle Brown Ale for export was relocated to the Zoeterwoude Brewery in the Netherlands from 2017.

Recent years have not been kind to Newcastle Brown Ale. Global sales have dropped 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, and contains Centennial and Chinook hops.

Largest brewery in the world: historic claimants

In 1750 to 1760, John Calvert of London had the largest brewery in the world.

From at least 1780 until 1808 Whitbread of London was the largest brewer in the world.

In 1809 Barclay Perkins of Southwark, London became the largest brewer in the world.

In 1858 Allsopp & Son erected the largest brewery in the world at Burton upon Trent in the English Midlands.

By the 1870s Bass at Burton upon Trent was the largest brewer in the world.

By 1886 the Guinness site at St James’s Gate in Dublin was the largest brewery in the world.

By 1929 as many as 10 million glasses of Guinness could be sold in a single day.

In 2015 the Miller Coors facility at Golden, Colorado is the largest single-site brewery in the world.

Watney’s Red Barrel

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.

Brewing up a storm: a history of Samuel Webster & Sons of Halifax

Webster’s was one of the highest selling bitter brands in Britain by the end of the 1980s.

The Fountain Head Brewery was founded in 1830 by John Mitchell in Ovenden, a small village just outside Halifax, West Yorkshire.

Samuel Webster (1813-1872) took over the lease in 1838, aided by money lent by his uncle, Isaac Green. The annual rent was £100 (around £10,000 today). After one year, he obtained a 21 year lease on the brewery. In 1845, Webster bought his first pub, the Lane Ends in nearby Wheatley.

Webster had been raised as a Congregationalist, but as the faith frowned upon alcohol he switched his allegiance to the Church of England.

In 1851, Webster bought the brewery and a 26 acre farm for £2,500 (around £300,000 today). The first recorded use of the Fountain Head brewery name was also that year.

By 1860, Webster’s three eldest sons, Isaac, George Henry and Samuel Green, had been admitted into the business as partners, and the company began trading as Samuel Webster & Sons.

The brewery was valued in 1871 at between £18,000 and £20,000 (around £2 million today). By this time it was producing around 400 barrels a week and employed 17 men. The company had around a dozen tied houses and a substantial free trade.

Samuel Webster died in 1872. He had no public career, and his life was dedicated to his business. As such, he received no obituary in any of the local newspapers of the day.

The brewery was rebuilt between 1872-3. At least 49 houses were acquired between 1872 and 1878.

Webster’s became an incorporated company in 1890, with a valuation of £300,000 (equivalent to £33.6 million today). By this time it had an estate of 108 tied houses. By 1895 Webster’s had the largest number of houses in the Halifax area with 74, compared to 56 for Joseph Stocks and 55 for Thomas Ramsden.

The company’s flagship beer, Green Label, was launched in 1928. A filtered, bottled beer, it was in the local “light mild” style. A surviving example of this style is Timothy Taylor’s Golden Best. Beers of the style are characterised by a golden colour and a relatively low ABV.

In 1929, the company and its assets were valued at £468,833 (£26 million today). Accounting for inflation, the company was worth less than in 1890. This was because the temperance movement had gained significant traction in the Calderdale area, and the local authority would sometimes requisition pubs and close them down.

Due to these difficult trading circumstances, Webster’s acquired the Halifax brewer Joseph Stocks in 1933 for £64,000. Stocks brought with it some 90 tied houses.

By 1937, output was 40,000 barrels a year, with the brewery capable of supplying 1,000 barrels a week during busy periods such as Christmas and Easter. That year, the company ceased to use dray horses for deliveries, mainly due to the extremely hilly nature of the surrounding area.

By 1960, the board of directors were concerned about the possibility of a takeover bid. To prevent against this, they invited the national brewer Watney Mann to take a 25 percent stake in the company. From this period, Webster’s brewed and sold Watney’s Red Barrel draught keg beer throughout their estate. Lager was introduced to the estate from 1962, following agreements with Ind Coope and Tuborg of Denmark.

Local television advertising began in 1961, on Granada.

Because of the popularity of its light mild, Webster’s had never needed to produce a bitter beer. However, as it began to expand outside of its traditional trading area, this gap in it portfolio became more apparent. In April 1961 the company launched Pennine Bitter.

The company closed its maltings down in 1963, as it was able to buy malt externally at a lower price than it could produce for itself.

In 1966 the company took over J Hey of Bradford and 73 houses for £1 million (£16.3 million today). By 1967, Webster’s had an estate of 320 tied houses and 12 off licenses, with a market capitalization of £6 million (£95 million today).

In 1973 the company embarked on a £2 million expansion programme. New brewery buildings and plant cost £650,000, and a chilling and filtering department expansion cost £250,000. The refurbished brewery was built along the same lines as the J W Cameron brewery in Hartlepool.

That same year, Watney Mann offered £18 million for the 73 percent of Webster’s that it did not already own. The idea was to make Webster’s a poison pill to make Watney too large for Grand Metropolitan to acquire. The takeover was friendly, with the approval of the Webster family, who still owned 20 percent of shares. Watney’s poison pill strategy was unsuccessful however, and it was itself acquired by Grand Met later that year.

In 1978 a new lager plant was started, built for £4 million and capable of producing 9,600 barrels a week. Initially it brewed only Carlsberg, but later Budweiser and Foster’s.

By the early 1980s, Webster’s had an annual production of around 400,000 barrels, and the brewery employed around 600 people. With Grand Met’s nationwide distribution, Webster’s turned into a national brand. In 1986, Grand Met closed down the Wilson brewery in Manchester and moved production to the Fountain Head brewery. In 1987, Fountain Head capacity was extended from 1 million to 1.3 million barrels a year.

Grand Met divested its brewing assets in 1990, and Webster’s became part of Courage. By that year Webster’s had an annual revenue of around £100 million and claimed 7 per cent of the national bitter market. As Courage owned the similar and more popular John Smith’s ale brand, marketing of Webster’s was de-prioritised. In 1990, Smith’s was ranked fourth in the bitter market, while Webster’s was sixth.

After Scottish & Newcastle acquired Courage in 1995, Webster’s was further sidelined as S&N also owned a third Yorkshire ale brand in Theakston’s. By 1996, three times more John Smith’s was being sold than Webster’s.

By 1996, the Fountain Head brewery was operating at less than 50 percent capacity. It was closed in November of that year, with the loss of 186 jobs. Webster’s production was moved to John Smith’s in Tadcaster. In 2004, S&N sold the company to Silvan Brands, who moved production to Thomas Hardy in Burtonwood. Decline continued: sales fell from 80,000 to 40,000 barrels between 2001 and 2007. Cask conditioned production ceased in 2010.

Remarkably, as of 2018, Webster’s Yorkshire Bitter is still hanging on as a keg bitter brand. Webster’s Green Label appears to have been discontinued around 2014.

Why can’t you get Black Sheep Best Bitter at Wetherspoons?

Black Sheep Best Bitter logo
The “flagsheep” beer. Sorry.

Black Sheep Best Bitter is the the flagship product of the Black Sheep Brewery of Masham, North Yorkshire. I live in the brewery’s heartland, and the product is sold in pretty much every pub here. Provenance is nothing new: many regions have a local beer that they love: Newcastle Brown Ale, Sharp’s Doom Bar in the South West, Deuchars IPA in Scotland, Bass and Pedigree in Staffordshire and Derbyshire. Black Sheep Best Bitter is ours.

How did Black Sheep become so ubiquitous? For one thing, it’s local, which always helps. It’s independent from a major corporation and is family owned: people like that aspect.

The product is really good: it’s deliciously hoppy, with a hint of demerara sugar and a crisp, dry finish that leaves you wanting another.

It has strong marketing that is quirky and ideosyncratic. It emphasises the rural nature of the product because sheep feature prominently in its advertising and through the brewery tour. It is respectful of tradition, yet modern and unfusty. Outside its home county, it has the “brand Yorkshire” behind it, which has connotations of quality, value, craft and tradition.

Black Sheep products such as Ale, Riggwelter and seasonal beers are available in bottles in your local supermarket. The Ale is also available in cans. But the flagship Best Bitter is never found in supermarkets. This is deliberate, to ensure that you can only find Best Bitter in the pub. That the product has not been subjected to commodification in this way makes it seem special and premium. Best Bitter has to be sought out, which raises its value in the eyes of the consumer. It makes business sense as well, as I’m sure there are higher profit margins from selling to pubs than to supermarkets. It means that pubs are able to compete against the might of the supermarket: they can offer an exclusive product. In that sense, it’s also a moral standpoint.

For the same reason, Black Sheep refuse to sell Best Bitter to the J D Wetherspoon value pub chain. In my local market town of Richmond, almost every pub sells Best Bitter, for around £3.10 a pint. If the local Wetherspoons stocked it they would be selling it for £2.29. Why would anyone pay more at one of the other pubs if Wetherspoons were selling it cheaper? This works in the pubs favour as they don’t have to compete with Wetherspoon prices directly. It also helps Black Sheep as they surely sell a lot more beer at higher margins if 8 pubs in town stock their beer, rather than one.

The only other major cask ale brewer in the county who don’t bottle or can their flagship beer is Theakston (if you class their higher selling Best Bitter as their flagship product, rather than the better known Old Peculier). Theakston are also located in Masham. It makes business sense to me. I wonder why other brewers don’t follow their lead.