Thursday, 26 November 2009

Not just here for the beer

A little piece I did for the FT about Watneys Red Barrel, the allegedly appalling taste of which is now lost to history:

In 1936, the East Sheen Lawn Tennis Club complained to the London brewery, Watneys, that its beer was not keeping until the weekend, when most of its customers came in. Watneys, which had been working on a prototype beer called Red Barrel intended for troops in India, swiftly redirected it to the less exotic surroundings of leafy Surrey. Red Barrel was a new type of beer: keg.

Unlike traditional cask beer, keg is no longer alive and fermenting: it is chilled, pasteurised and pumped with carbon dioxide to make it last longer. At first, keg was sold in just a few clubs that opened only at weekends. In the 1950s, however, it was rolled out to ordinary pubs, and by the mid-1970s, three-quarters of Britain’s pubs served no cask ale, only keg beer and lager.

Since brewers controlled most British pubs at this time, keg beer was often the only option for pub-goers. Brewers liked keg because it was easy to keep, but most customers either disliked it or were indifferent. The slogan “I’m only here for the beer”, used to sell Double Diamond in the early 1970s, was rarely true of any keg beer.

Watneys Red Barrel was the most reviled brand of all. Many drinkers hated not only its taste but the marketing that accompanied it, from irritating advertising jingles to entire pub refits. In 1971, in a misguided search for radical chic, Watneys urged beer-drinkers to “Join the Red Revolution”. Pubs were painted corporate red, bar staff wore red socks and posters featured lookalikes of Chairman Mao, Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro supping Watneys.

That same year, the campaign against keg beer began with the foundation of Camra: the Campaign for Real Ale. Camra attacked the “mass-produced fizzy pap” of keg bitter and especially Watneys, which it nicknamed “Grotneys”. The invention of keg beer was an important moment in the industrialisation of the beer industry. But thanks to the efforts of more discerning drinkers, it failed to kill off cask ale – as shown today by the thriving number of real ale pubs and beer festivals, and the continued strength of Camra.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Ah, lipsmaggers!’ says Professor Stanley Unwin. ‘Elbone on bard, glistling glarps of Brewmastery frop and malty. Downit gulley’n throcus. Ah, deepjoy! As I always say, for the best picket in a blewflade – Flowers Brewmaster.’ (Advert in the Daily Express, 24 July 1962)

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