Tag Archives: CAMRA

Watney’s Red Barrel

What is the story behind one of Britain’s most reviled brands?

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Watney, Combe & Reid was the second largest brewery in the world after Guinness. Among British industrial companies, only Imperial Tobacco was more highly valued.

Watney launched Red Barrel for export to India in 1931. 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 in 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 in 1962. In 1966 Red Barrel was brewed in Ireland for the first time, at the Murphy’s Brewery in Cork.

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.

In 1972 Watney Mann was acquired by Grand Metropolitan 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.

By the early 1990s Watney’s Red had been discontinued in Britain 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. Ironically, these beers were also owned by large national brewers.

The Watney brand today only exists as a brand of strong ale in Belgium. Mann’s Brown Ale is available nationally throughout the UK.

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.