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.