Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Ale-aggro

Over the weekend, Boak & Bailey published a long and thorough blogpost on the story of Watney’s Red Barrel, which is well worth reading in depth. It has acquired a reputation as the examplar of all that was bad in British beer at the time of the formation of CAMRA, but was it really all that bad? Some say no, but others say yes.

Red Barrel was in fact replaced in 1971 by a significantly different beer just called Red, which was, as Boak & Bailey explain, deliberately made to be blander and even more lacking in character. Yet, in the popular imagination, many of the failings of Red are now mistakenly attributed to Red Barrel, which is the name that sticks in the mind.

I carried out a quick Twitter poll to see how many had sampled either. Given that you would have to be in your mid-fifties to have had the chance, a surprising number had, which is perhaps indicative of the age profile of my followers. Although the early years of my drinking career overlapped with the final days of Red, I have to say I’ve never sampled either, as they weren’t commonplace in the areas where I lived. By the time I moved to Surrey in 1980, where Watney’s pubs were thick on the ground, the standard keg offer was Ben Truman Export, which had taken the place of Red, alongside Watney’s Special Bitter.

It must be remembered that Red belonged to the category of “premium kegs” which were ubiquitous in the big brewers’ pubs at the time. Each of the “Big Six”had their own brand – Worthington E, Double Diamond, Whitbread Tankard, Courage Tavern and McEwan’s Export – while Greenalls had Festival. These beers were sold alongside ordinary bitter and mild (whether real or keg) and commanded a price premium of a couple of pence a pint. For a time they were seen as desirable, aspirational drinks in the same way as Peroni is now, but by the end of the 1980s they had pretty much entirely disappeared. Effectively, premium lager and the real ale revival combined to kill them off. In fact, it’s now difficult in mainstream pubs to find any kind of conventional, non-nitro, keg ale, so it’s not possible to recreate the Red Barrel experience. Perhaps the nearest I’ve come is mid-2000s non-nitro Smithwick’s in Ireland.

A parallel could be drawn with the Austin Allegro, which is often seen as representative of the bad side of the 1970s British motor industry in the same way as Red was to British brewing. This was introduced in 1973 as the successor to the Austin/Morris 1100/1300 series, which in its day was widely regarded as a modern and forward-looking product. Yet the Allegro offered no significant improvement, while at the same time doubling down on some of the earlier models’ bad points. Motoring writers remain divided as to whether it was actually quite as bad as its popular image, and there were certainly plenty of other clunkers around at the time. But it has certainly come to stand, in the same way as Red Barrel, as a prime symbol of 1970s British naffness.

20 comments:

  1. Yes, it's true that Red Barrel is carrying the can, so to speak, for the inferior Red. My beer of choice when I started drinking in 1972-73 was in fact Courage Tavern (in the Queens Head, Newark) which I also recall was essentially fizzy and sweet. McEwan's Export was utterly vile however.

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  2. Imported cars weren't much better though, were they? They almost all rusted to bits before our eyes.

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    1. Hmm. They rusted badly compared to today's, but the Mk1 Golf was launched in 1974. Better than the Allegro in pretty much every way. Not making the Allegro a hatch was a big mistake, for a start, but BL had decided Maxi was to be the only hatchback, and so the Allegro got compromised, again.

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    2. Lancia Betas and Alfasuds rusted in front of your eyes, but that wasn't general. Golfs were ahead of their time in rust protection.

      Imported cars had the important advantages of being more reliable and often better equipped, and the British manufacturers also suffered from the regular disruption of production due to industrial disputes.

      During the 1970s there was a surge in Japanese imports to the extent that eventually the Japanese were persuaded to accept a voluntary cap of IIRC 12% of the market.

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    3. I had a 1970s VW Passat. It drove nicely, but rusted just like the rest.

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  3. After Brexit we'll get Red Barrel back. No more European or CAMRA rubbish. It's what we voted for.

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    1. Yep. Tupperware parties and Green Shield stamps too.

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  4. The Allegro was a classic case of mis-managment by BL. Fitting the E-series engine gave it a high bonnet line, re-using a lot of other BL parts compromised other bits.

    From AROnline (which tells the story in full):

    "The initial designs for the Allegro were rakish, curvy and stylish. However, the need for the car use existing engine/gearbox packages, as well larger components from the BL parts-bin, resulted in design compromises being introduced."

    I had the dubious honour of driving a 1970 1750SS, complete with the Quartic steering wheel, in the 90s. It went very well, but cornering was best described as "interesting".

    I'm unsure if Red Barrel went through a similar prcess :-)

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  5. My memories of drinking in Manchester as a student in the last years of the sixties is that the reason we didn't drink these premium kegs is that they were too expensive: half a crown a pint was prohibitive, compared with two bob for a pint of Holts or Boddies or Robbies. But when a richer friend was in the chair I would enjoy a pint of Red Barrel.
    When I first became seriously interested in real ale in the seventies the objection wasn't so much to Red as such but to the homogenisation of the beer market and the fear that traditional draught - as cask was called back then - would disapear.

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  6. Sure it should be Ale-allegro?

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    1. The nicknames for the cars are coming back...the Ford Fiasco, the mAnglia, Concertina...All-aggro, of course..

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  7. Being just a child in the 1970s I never tasted Red Barrel, but I had many a glass from a Party Four or a Party Seven - also whilst just a child in the 1970s. They were made by Watneys weren't they? All I can remember about the Party 4s/7s were that the beer was flat, and they had a horrible rubber cap / stopper at the top.


    It's all coming back though, now that you can buy a 5 litre can of ale or lager from the supermarket, and have flat beer on tap in your living room!

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    1. My childhood memories of party 4/7 cans are of my dad struggling to open them, and the resultant spray of beer. No memory of the taste, i was quite young.

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    2. The Stafford Mudgie23 January 2019 at 05:12

      Party Four and Party Seven were Watneys brands but all the nationals and the larger regional breweries had cans of those sizes. Some might have had a "horrible rubber cap / stopper at the top" but I remember the Ansells ones coming with a metal can piercer.
      It's a long time ago now but I remember such canned beer and some bottles, including Worthington E, as dreadful and much worse than Watneys Red which I don't think was any worse than the other national keg bitters - and those heavily promoted premium keg bitters were certainly regarded as better than the weaker keg bitters such as Watneys Starlight.
      In the eight page Special Report about ‘Brewing’ published in the Times on Monday 26th April 1971 Ken Miles, Watney’s marketing manager, admits that people prefer traditional bitter provided that it is kept and served at its best “But this doesn’t often happen. The appeal of keg is its consistency – people know it will always taste the same, however badly it is kept or served”.

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    3. Boddingtons had the Bodkan, of course :-)

      My recollection is that you would pierce two holes at opposite sides of the top with a metal can piercer, so you could pour beer out of one while the other let air in to replace it.

      And surely the "minikegs" that are now popular are much the same idea updated.

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    4. The Stafford Mudgie23 January 2019 at 09:06

      Yes, your recollection of the metal can piercer is the same as mine.
      And, yes, the "minikegs" that are now popular are much the same idea updated but probably contain better beer.

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  8. The Stafford Mudgie23 January 2019 at 12:57

    Showing us a Red Allegro is the sort of attention to detail that we've come to expect from you.

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    1. Glad someone noticed :-)

      And its rather dumpy styling could be regarded as barrel-like ;-)

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  9. I last had Red Barrel about 4 years ago in a pub on Gibraltar. I just had to remind myself of the taste. Put it this way, I've had worse.

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