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.
POLL: Have you ever drunk Watney's Red Barrel or Watney's Red?— Pub Curmudgeon 🍻 (@oldmudgie) January 21, 2019
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.