Friday, 14 June 2013

Secret history

The lifetime of CAMRA has seen the history and development of real ale in general very thoroughly documented. But other aspects of the British beer market haven’t received anything like the same attention. A good example came up recently on Tandleman’s blog – which breweries used to produce tank beer, and when did it finally disappear from the market? Or is it still going in some obscure parts of the club trade?

Which of the early own-brand lagers were top-fermenting “bastard lagers” (Robinson’s Einhorn certainly was) and which were actually more genuine bottom-fermenters? And when did the once commonplace sight of half-pint/275ml bottles at room temperature on shelves behind the bar disappear, and when did the brands involved bite the dust? I vaguely recall Robinson’s dropping their own bottled beer range around 1990.

Maybe it’s areas like this that beer historians need to be turning their attention to in the future.

And, even looking at the current situation, five-sixths of the British draught beer market isn’t cask beer. Which brands does that cover, who brews them and where can they be found? Do they include some rare and threatened obscurities now confined to dingy working men’s clubs and forgotten council estate boozers? There’s a remarkable dearth of information on the subject in the public domain. Perhaps for a new challenge some geeks should venture into uncharted territory and become “keg tickers”.

39 comments:

  1. It doesn't quite fit the current book project, but we're picking up a lot of information on this kind of thing as we go.

    We'll probably use it to produce a few blog posts. One on Sam Smith, ersatz German lager and 'top pressure' bitter is in the pipeline.

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  2. Rather than just dropping the warm bottles entirely, did they ever consider just sticking them in the fridge?

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  3. In some cases they might well have done - but you just don't see the 275 ml bottles of brown and light ale any more. If there is brown ale, it's probably Manns. And, not that I've been looking for it, but bottled Guinness seems to have largely died the death in pubs too.

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  4. Stuff like tank and 60s-70s keg are part of a history nobody wants to investigate yet. It's a bit like the popular perception of the 60s having all the young people in beads and tie-dye and being generally swinging, whereas actually it was probably a very small percentage of kids in London that were doing that (my mother said the 60s never reached Galgate).

    As it doesn't fit with the fashionable prevailing narrative of the 70s (shining knight CAMRA slays Big Six keg dragon), few people will research the history of unloved beers of the recent past. Give it a few years when everyone involved in 70s pubs is over 75, and it will suddenly become interesting in a "get it down before they drop dead" way.

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  5. I've seen Toby Bitter hanging on in a few places, exclusively drunk by very old men. A pub in Bristol sells Youngers Tartan. I've seen keg Ansell's Mild fairly recently although I believe it has now been discontinued.
    As far as the warm half-pint bottles are concerned, at least one pub in Bristol still has them (light ale and brown ale) and offers them as part of a light or brown split. I assume this is drunk by the old or beer nostalgists although I can see a market for hipsters in daft hats drinking such drinks ironically. Incidentally, I have noticed that some hipsters seem to prefer the dimpled mug to the straight glass. When I were a lad, the mug was an old man's glass.

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  6. Harvey's still sell beer in 275ml bottles in their tied pubs; in fact they produce quite a range. They seem to have invested quite heavily in this area, buying in new bottles in order to keep their bottling line running. These old-style, nominal half-pint bottles are returnable and thus much "greener" than the "one-trip" larger bottles used by the majority of brewers today.

    Check out this link to have a look at the range. http://www.harveys.org.uk/beers/bottled-beers

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  7. That's just the kind of nugget I'd like to unearth, Paul.

    When I first moved into this area and adopted the Nursery as my local, it struck me as unusual that Hydes did not do their own bottled beers, and instead stocked Whitbread products, including Forest Brown Ale. Does that still exist, I wonder?

    In those days many Hydes and Robinsons pubs also had 275ml bottles of White Shield.

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  8. "As it doesn't fit with the fashionable prevailing narrative of the 70s (shining knight CAMRA slays Big Six keg dragon), few people will research the history of unloved beers of the recent past."

    Not sure I agree.

    I don't think it's possible to write about CAMRA without researching and understanding Red Barrel, top pressure, tank beer, bottled beer, lager, the popular market, and so on. For the book we're working on, Boak and I are making a serious effort to reflect Watney's/the Big Six side of the story for balance.

    Even those writers who do subscribe to CAMRA's understandably simplified version of the story tend to acknowledge that cask ale is a small part of the market and has been for some time; and almost everyone who writes about beer acknowledges the nostalgic appeal and cultural importance of old keg/bottle brands, I think.

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  9. The reason the CAMRA narrative is so prevalent is that it is a club of interested sorts with a particular perspective and ongoing campaign that see the world from a particular angle.

    They didn't slay keg beer nor save real ale but ought to be given credit for a significant part of its revival.

    70% of the market is keg lagers, the biggest ale brand is John Smiths Smooth and only recently has cask ale overtaken keg ale with 17% versus 13% of the ale market. Much of the real ale market is cottage industry brands of variable quality lacking any product distinction from others, but real ale enthusiasts seem to like that. Some punters seem to think 6 different pumpclips of grog they would be unable to distinguish between in a blind taste test is a "choice" heh ho. They like a pint of something new.

    There hasn't been a group interested in the declining brands of the 70's, so no one has written much about them. My suspicion isn't that they were as terrible as some make out, but it is only a guess as I have never drank double diamond or red barrel.

    Maybe it is a project you ought to take up, Mudge. Do some research around the working mans clubs and keg pubs. See if there is enough to fill a book.

    One thing you will discover is that many working mans clubs are quite nice and smart places. As far removed from the grim 1950's image as a modern pub is. The punters enjoy them, like the prices and like mainstream brands. A cheap pint of Carling and a game of darts isn't a bad night out.

    Some of the older brands still live there because older people on fixed incomes that remember yesterdays prices think social clubs better value than pubs and frequent them. If you've been a member for a number of years you get free lifetime membership when you reach retirement.

    Join one for a year, it tends to be around the tenner mark, give or take a quid.

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  10. The question of whether Red Barrel was really all that bad is one that bothers us, because we can't know for sure.

    What we've got is:

    * the recollections of CAMRA veterans who *obviously* thought it was horrid, so we have to take those with a pinch of salt
    * numbers which show, without doubt, that it was sweeter and weaker than big brewery cask bitters of the same period (Daily Mirror and Which? magazine consumer reports and lab tests)
    * and evidence that it was continually brought down in strength not because of consumer demand, but because it saved the brewery money. (Minutes of the Directors' Board.)

    We've been told by one person (can't remember who) that John Smith's (not Smooth) is the nearest equivalent still on the market. (Actually, is it still on the market?)

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  11. "Traditional" (i.e. non-nitro) keg is hard to find nowadays. A few years ago I visited Northern Ireland and had the misfortune to have a pint of Smithwick's which seemed to me to be not that far off historic descriptions of Red Barrel.

    One of the features of "traditional" keg was its ability to be extremely gassy yet at the same time often demonstrate poor head retention.

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  12. Wasn't there some change to inferior ingredients in the late 60's or early 70's to Red Barrel? Didn't play a part in it's demise?

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  13. It was rebranded as "Watneys Red" in the early 70s - one of the most expensive and disastrous marketing exercises in history.

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  14. Red Barrel certainly was I bad I used to brew it at Watneys Whitechapel Brewery. There was not one single Watney product that I could drink and enjoy

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  15. When I went away to college in 1972, nearly all beer, including real ale, was served through electric pumps. Sometimes you'd only realise you'd got keg when you were given a pint lined with bubbles. But even in those days, we always avoided Watneys Red Barrel, which had a reputation for being weak, tasteless and expensive.

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  16. I wonder if there is a clone recipe of the original Red Barrel? I suspect there is a serviceable beer, if quality ingredients are used. I also wonder what it would be like on cask.

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  17. As someone who started drinking in the early 70's, I must have drunk all the "Big Six" keg beers in my time. Courage Tavern, Allied Double Diamond, Bass Charrington Worthington E, Whitbread Tankard, Younger's Tartan and yes, even Watney's Red!

    When you're an impressionable 17 year old who doesn't know anything about beer, but you've seen these beers advertised, then you go with them. Back then there wasn't much in the way of point of sale material for a brewer's ordinary cask mild or bitter, so it was a no-brainer to opt for the keg brands.

    From memory, none of them were undrinkable, but they were rather gassy and left one feeling somewhat bloated, especially after two or three pints! They were also slightly on the sweet side, but that's not something which would bother an inexperienced beer drinker with an immature palate.

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  18. Watney's Red was virtually undrinkable if you were used to good beer. It was brewed with a large percentage of raw barley , rather than malt, then industrial enzymes were added to help break the raw barley starch into sugar. I brewed it for 2 years believe me

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  19. Anybody remember Watneys Starlight? Christ that was horrible

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  20. When I started drinking my pint of choice was Courage Tavern (drunk in the Queens Head in Newark). Can't remember what is was like apart from dim recollections of a full bodied sweetness. I only tried Red a couple of times and it was just sweet and fizzy. Mudge beat me to it in comparing it to Smithwicks and I think he's right there.

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  21. "Watney's Red was virtually undrinkable if you were used to good beer." - I was only 17 at the time Mike, so I didn't really know any better. Fortunately there weren't many Watney pubs in the part of East Kent where I grew up.

    Besides, it wasn't that long before I discovered the delights of cask-conditioned Trophy Bitter, (based on the old Fremlins Three Star Bitter in our part of the country), and I never really looked back.

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  22. Btw, Mike it's interesting to read your recollections about Watney's use of industrial enzymes to convert the starches in raw barley into fermentable sugars.

    Did Watney's ever carry out trials on continuous fermentation? the other supposed "Holy Grail" of cutting brewing costs. I know that some breweries looked at this back in the early 70's, but I don't know whether this was here in the UK, or somewhere abroad. I did read though that the finished product was virtually undrinkable!

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  23. It was reputed to have been used at the long-defunct Bass brewery at Runcorn. What a folly that turned out to be - I don't think it even lasted twenty years!

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  24. Continuous fermentation was tried large scale in Britain but ran into problems and was discontinued. It's only currently used large scale in New Zealand, and the beer is foul.

    I can also say that light ale on shelves hasn't totally died out round my way either, Courage Light Ale is still on the shelves of a few pubs I drink in. I also saw someone drinkig bottled Guinness in a pub recently, though I don't know if it had come from the fridge or not.

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  25. Yes Watneys used continuous fermentation at the Mortlake plant in London. The scientific idea was fine but was was plagued by problems of infections by wort bacteria and immense flavour problems. They spent about 5 years trying to perfect it then abanded it

    Curmodgeon yes it was used there as well following the Watneys technique, the reason why Runcorn did not last was labour / Union problems, a very militant work force which cost them all their jobs in the end

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  26. Sorry guys, not sure I trust your judgement. As you would all describe delicious ice cold fizzy Carling as crap, I can no longer trust anything else you all say is crap.

    Left pondering whether the much maligned red barrel was in fact one of the greatest under appreciated beers. A craft keg before its time. The greatest beer never to win an award.

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  27. @Cookie, interesting point. I never actually got to try Red Barrel as it was just before my time in drinking terms but I did try Starlight which, as I said above, was vile. Perhaps we should persuade some craft keg brewer with ironic facial hair to obtain the recipe and make some, so that we can all make a final judgement.

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  28. That would be me then as I have the required facial hair. Problem is I don't have the recipe. From memory was 60 % Pale Ale Malt 40% Raw Barley, a bit of torriefied barley for colour, enzymes. The hops were all British 2 hop additions one at boil one in hop back. Can not remember the varieties though

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  29. I think it was a decent kegged bitter but the move to unmalted barley and various chemicals ruined it. Talk about corporate irresponsiblilty.

    I would like to see two things. Someone brew red barrell on cask for the UK and I would like one our micros to brew it on keg. Of course the highest quality ingredients must be used.

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  30. Yes but using the highest quality ingredients would not get you the same beer so any comparison would be false.

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  31. I remember (I think) in 1973 in Douglas IoM having a pint of Red Barrel in the bar of a sea front hotel. I remember as I was chucked out for not being a resident, it being after 11 o'clock. No idea what it tasted like, though I do remember on the same holiday having Worthington E and Double Diamond which I quite liked.

    I was interested in beer even then, but there were more pressing attractions. English girls!

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  32. Of course in those days you'd get all-malt real ale in all the 100-odd Okells and Castletown tied pubs on the Island, but very little of it on Douglas Promenade.

    Having said that, I remember visiting the IoM in 1984 and finding the beer nothing special and the pubs in general grotty and run-down.

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  33. I'd regularly buy half-pint bottles to take home at the end of the night usually barley wine or White Shield, which was only available in pubs. Barstaff often took some persuading to sell them unopened, only giving in if you offered to pay an extra 10p to cover the deposit on the bottle.

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  34. "I remember (I think) in 1973 in Douglas IoM having a pint of Red Barrel", bit ironic really as I am brewing on the IoM now and was one of the last persons to brew "Watneys Red" the son of Red Barrel

    yes you woulsd indeed get all malt Okells and Castletown an rember brewed in accordance with IoM purity laws. Okells would not have been allowwed to brew Red as it had Raw barley

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  35. Probably right John but it would be nice if they could find the recipe for orginal Red Barrel. It was Red that started using unmalted barley and enzymes.

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  36. Good point. You would think there will be a recipe somewhere. This is what Andrew Campbell had to say about Red Barrel in The Book of Beer, published I think in 1956:

    "...a medium-strong pale ale, a little below the gravity of the national beers*, not very bitter, yet not sweet"

    I think that might be a polite way of saying pleasant but dull.

    * by which he meant the likes of Draught Bass

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  37. Yes but that would be cask beer of course, long before Watneys went down the route of raw adjuncts and enzymes and of course abandoning cask all together in favour of Keg and Tank Beer. So the recipe has changed dramatically over the years. How is one to know what the recipe really is

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  38. "The hops were all British 2 hop additions one at boil one in hop back. Can not remember the varieties though"

    A hop back addition? Already sounds 1,000,000 times better than most draught lagers today...

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  39. Curmudgeon,
    missed your point about our bitter in 1984. You are probably correct. I wasn't head brewer then so had to do what I was told.

    Maybe you should retry Okells Bitter in Rigbys in Liverpool.

    But I'm guessing you probably have

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