Watneys Red Barrel

Watney's Red Barrel, Beer mat, 1960s

Perhaps the most well known beer of the 60s and 70s, the much maligned Watneys Red Barrel, can trace its origins back to the 30s; in fact Watneys claimed 1931. Red Barrel was originally developed as an export beer that could be transported for long distances by sea.

Red Barrel, like all keg bitter, was filtered, to remove the yeast. It was then pasteurised and carbon dioxide was added. The "keg" was linked to a tank of carbon dioxide which effectively forced the beer up from the cellar. There was no need for the traditional long-handled beer pump. Keg was usually served chilled and was fizzy, with froth on the top.

Red Barrel was tentatively trialled at the East Sheen Lawn Tennis Club where Watneys' Master Brewer, Bert Hussey, was a member. He was convinced that once sampled it would be instantly popular. By the early sixties, Watneys were able to claim that it was the country's most popular keg bitter. It was also the first.

Red Barrel today is regarded with distain; in the 60s it was a premium product. Watneys negotiated a contract with BEA for Red Barrel to be supplied to passengers. Given that air travel, especially on scheduled flights, was still a privilege of the few, this must have been quite an achievement for Watneys and must say something about the quality image that the brand then had. Watneys were also able to sell Red Barrel at all bars on the new luxury liner, the QE2.

Roll out Red Barrel, beer mat, 1969

As well as supplying to non-traditional outlets, Watneys also had a fair share of the Free Trade market, selling over one million barrels of beer, mainly Red Barrel and Watneys Pale Ale. So their products must have had some sort of following outside Watney Mann pubs where it might have been the only choice. Against this, however, "Which" reported on 1972 on keg bitters and their view was that there was little to choose between one keg and another. All were bland tasting and fizzy. There was also little reason for preferring keg over traditional beers such as Watneys own Special Bitter, which was somewhat cheaper. Keg, though, had the image and at the time, people preferred its consistent quality. More traditional brews were considered downmarket.

Part of that image was a strong advertising campaign and Watneys were very astute at linking their products with the pop world. The Liverpool group, The Scaffold, famous for drinking to "Lily the Pink" drank to Watneys Pale Ale. Watneys Red Barrel was promoted with a television campaign and a slogan "Roll out the barrel". The campaign was supposed to suggest that drinking Red Barrel would promote "good fellowship, friendliness and happiness associated with beer drinking". Long live the Watneys Red Revolution (Photograph Edward Hahn Photography, 1971)

Join Watneys Red Army

For the seventies, Watneys decided to change the name of Red Barrel to just Watneys Red. Advertising was based on the Russian Revolution. This billboard, left, is from London in the summer of 1971. Khrushchev, Mao and Castro all enjoying a pint of Watneys Red!

Does anyone remember "Join Watneys RED army"?!

Watneys' other brews

Red Barrel was by no means Watneys only product. Watneys Special Bitter had been available in London for many years. In 1969 they took the decision to market it nationally in all Watney Mann houses. It was a traditional draught bitter, cheaper than Red Barrel.

The late sixties was a time of rapid change in the brewing industry. New trends seemed to come and go quickly. Draught stout was quickly gaining a following. Watneys tried to compete head to head with Guinness for a time with a trial of Colonel Murphy's Stout. It did not prove successful. They had to accept that Guinness had cornered the market and sell draught Guinness in their houses.

An agreement with Carlsberg Lager in 1969 was, however, more successful. Watneys were surprising latecomers to the lager market. Carling Black Label had been on sale in the UK at Bass Charrington houses for several years and Whitbread linked up with Heineken as long ago as 1961. However, Watneys jumped at the right time and joined the lager market before it really took off in the 70s.

Another feature of drinking in the late sixties and early seventies were strong ales available in small bottles. The most well known is Whitbread's Gold Label - "Strong as a double scotch, less than half the price". Watneys produced two beers in this category "Export Gold" and "Stingo" barley wine.

Watneys Party Four and Watneys Party Seven

Watneys Party Seven

Of course that other well known name from the 60s was Watneys Party Seven. Its smaller brother Party Four had been available for some time when in 1968 Party Seven was introduced. As a promotion Watneys sold a Sparklets Beertap with a free voucher for a can of Party Seven for 59s 9d. Watneys Party Seven initially sold for 15s. You could have your own bar at home! Read about 70s Party.

Watneys Party Seven became a staple for parties in the seventies and was available until the early eighties. The beer mat (left) was to encourage customers to take home a Party Seven for later!


Whitbread Tankard, Whitbread's keg bitter, c1970

Competitors

Watneys were by no means the only brewer in the sixties and Red Barrel was by no means the only beer. Most of the major breweries had their own keg bitters. Whitbread entered the keg market with Tankard in in 1957. By the early 70s the following keg bitters were on the market.

  • Watneys Red
  • Whitbread Tankard
  • Ind Coope Double Diamond (Allied)
  • Younger's Tartan (Scottish and Newcastle)
  • Worthington 'E' (Bass Charrington)
  • Courage Tavern

As well as keg bitter most of the major players offered a "best" as an alterative. These beers were often cheaper than the kegs. Once again these a few of the most well known:

  • Whitbread Trophy
  • Courage Best
  • Watneys Special
  • Younger's Scotch Ale

Postscript

Retrowow reader Nathaneal wrote:

Watneys was known to me mainly because of a skit by Monty Python or their predecessors, about "bleeding Watneys Red Barrel"

I just about remember the sketch now. It was known as the "Travel Agent's Sketch", all about the joys of going abroad and finding fish and chips and Watneys Red Barrel. See Travel Agent/Watneys Red Barrel for the full text.

More on keg bitter:

Add your comments on Watneys Red Barrel

"iremember party seven and party four mainly in 1976 the hot summer, lovely." frank crabtree 08/04/2011
"I found this site because I wanted to know what Watneys Red Barrel was. Geddy Lee mentions it in a live recording of "Working Man" by RUSH. Cool site you have. But I feel compelled to critique the article. You start the article with "much maligned" and then proceed to describe how great it was and how good their sales and marketing were -- so what happened? Why the much maligned? - did it get bought out by Anheuser Busch or suffer some other horrible fate? Cheers." Patrick 20/04/2011
"Hi Patrick, Thanks for the comment. Watneys Red Barrel, along with other keg bitters was not a great product. It was marketed heavily, because these beers suited the breweries, as they kept better. CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) was formed in 1971 to counteract the spread of keg bitter.

Eventually fashions changed and beers such as Red Barrel disappeared. Their passing was not particularly mourned, but nevertheless they were part of our culture in the 60s and 70s.

I hope this helps." Steven 20/04/2011
"I can remember drinking Watney's Red Barrel on tap in Gainesville, Florida starting in about 1986. As bad as you make it sound....I must say I enjoyed it quite regularly.

Is it still produced at all?" Tony Dillon 29/05/2011
"i quite enjoyed watneys red barrel in the 70s. ...i also used to enjoy ''youngers tartan on draught''. i have not seen it for many years now. is it still available in scotland i wonder?." dai arthur 07/06/2011
"By the mid 1960s Wilson's Brewery of Manchester, by then a subsidiary of Watney's, was brewing Red Barrel for sale in their pubs and others in the north of England. I went on a tour of Wilson's during that time and was offered a pint of CASK conditioned Red Barrel in their sample room. Yes! they did cask condition small amounts of that brew for hospitality purposes. It was a fine beer tasting totally different to the kegged stuff. The Watney's Red keg beer introduced in 1971 was a totally different brew, weaker, sweeter and overall far worse than the Red Barrel it replaced. Its introduction only hastened the demise of the Red Barrel image and eventually of Watney's themselves." George Drew 28/06/2011
"While stationed at RAF Alconbury in the very early 70's I used to buy the Party Seven . Enjoyed it, brought one back home while on leave." Bazooka Joe 09/07/2011
"where can I find colour pictures of watney's delivery trucks/dray waggons, especially with the red barrel on the cabroof" john sansome 14/07/2011
"The advertising for Watney's Red Barrel and Watney's Red was great and Watney's owned half the pubs in Southampton when I started drinking in 1968ish. It wouldn't say tasting it was a bitter disappointment, because it wasn't bitter at all compared to rival beers, just insipid and terribly gassy. Never having liked Coca-Cola or Pepsi it wasn't the tipple for me.
Fortunately there were plenty of Marston, Thompson & Evershed boozers in my locality too, so I was able to educate my taste with one some of the best beers in the country." Dave Juson 11/08/2011
"Anything out today (2011) that taste's like Watney's Red...my friends and I loved Watney's...I would kill for an ice cold Watney's Red on tap!" Jeff Michaels 20/09/2011
"Watney's Red was a favorite of mine. 3 pints left you with the same satisfied feeling as a Thanksgiving dinner. The closest thing I found is an authentic Black-n-Tan (not the premixed version). In a previous search for what happened to it, I found many English reviews equating it to the English version of our Milwaukee's Best." Mike Gravell 11/10/2011
"I have a great Watneys Red Barrel Bar Light shape of the barrel in working order, my Gran passed it on too me totally love it." Mark 04/11/2011
"When I lived in UK,in the 60,s Watneys Red Barrel Beers were very popular,and was my favourite beer along with Brickwoods India Pale Ale." Michael J Garrett 03/12/2011
"Red barrel was a passable bitter. Watneys Red, which seemed darker & sweeter was imo the lowest point in brewing history. The launch/ promotion night we called it 'Watneys Dead' The landlord was not impressed! The next week 'Ushers Best Bitter' on handpump appeared on the bar....Heaven..." Clive 12/12/2011
"Used to drink Watney's Red often in the 70's at a pub in Houston, Texas." Garry Patton 06/01/2012
"Hi, I was just doing some research in to my family and came across your website. I wish I had some insight to give you as to where you can find any red barrel beverages but I too am at a loss. If anyone that reads this can enlighten me as to any history and more importantly what really happened to the brewery I would love to know. It seems to be a black hole when ever its discussed within the family and I can't seem to get any concrete answers. My personal email address is stephenwatney@hotmail.co.uk" Stephen Watney 07/01/2012
"Back in 1964 when I had just left school I got a job as a laboratory technician with Wilson's Brewery in Manchester. I worked in the Red Barrel Department and part of my job was taste testing the beer. Kegs of Red Barrel would be brought in from various breweries and we 'blind' tasted the various kegs to see if there was any difference in colour or flavour.

I must say that away from work my favourite keg beer was Whitbread's Trophy." Allan Mortimer 10/01/2012
"I used to brew both Watneys Red Barrel and Watneys Red. Red Barrel was a fairly strong (>1045) all malt beer that was probably as good as any other beer around at the time and better than most. Clean, good flavour and where kept properly, much more consistent than most cask beer that was around at the time. It was particularly good in bottle.
Red on the other hand was brewed with a huge proportion of raw barley, plus enzymes etc, head retention agents, higher CO2 than most keg beers, the lot. Disgraceful stuff.

PS. Watneys main brewery at Mortlake is still there, owned by Budweiser and brewing I think all of the Bud for the EU." Pod 09/03/2012
"I realize my story does not carry significance in the end when it comes to eulogizing something as universally joy-giving and memory-making as a particular beer or ale. Nonetheless, as an adult, I still carry a literally lifetime love of the Whatneys Brand, both for the the Red Barrel itself, and more-so The Whatneys Red Nights that happened every Tuesday (or Wednesday?) night at the ACME Bar in Beach Haven LBI (NJ-USA) every summer in the late 70's and early 80's. First, let me try to briefly describe the ACME. I'll start there because trying to describe what has happened there, in the just the short time I would call "back in the day" , would be a fair book idea. The ACME was,... Not pretty. It's location was. Step out the front door and walk 1/4 mile east, and you're knee deep in the Atlantic. Stagger 100 yards west and you're treading water in the Barnegat Bay. Depending on the tides. new Jersey barrier island summer vacation paradise, and Beach Haven is/was the "party center" of that universe. 18 miles of NJ Coastal barrier island. One mile at sea. Almost a different country when you needed to shed the pressures of the week at school, college, work, home. The ACME was more known for what it was not. Not fancy. Not clean. Not expensive. Not pretentious. It WAS, however, a great bar, with a crappy plywood stage, and the stankiest "WOW, you should have been here LAST night!!" vibe, literally imaginable. Think about that. On Whatneys night, if you were "in" you had your numbered Whatneys Only mug hung on the backbar, and gave that good man a thorough rinse with about 40 10 oz. Mugs or brick-red glory. Best damn meat-market I'll ever remember. Wish I DID remember it all, but I DO remember the best parts. Which were ALWAYS the un-tanned parts, if you follow. We had a great, and big, crew of guys back then. All meant well, did well, and did good. Whatneys was a reason to meet, but that happened because it was that good. I don't remember all the names. I do remember the feeling of walking in there, that first pull from MY mug, and that taste that said " uh, yeah. I'll have another nine of those, please." oh, and seeing her back again from last week. She never bought a mug, but thought it was cool I did. Still doesn't, and does. Thanks Whatneys." TD from HC 22/04/2012
"Always pleased to talk about Watneys as all my relatives worked for Watneys either at the Stag Brewery Victoria or The Mortlake Brewery. I was brought up living in a Watneys house in Watney Road Mortlake until the age of 16. My family were coopers and the service years totalled 345, this was the third highest record in the UK for the longest continuous service with one company. My father was captain of the Watneys cricket team for many years so I grew up on the field boundary. The Watneys company was an excellent company to work for and had good welfare services for its workers families. Christmas parties for the children and holidays for mother and children if sickness came around. I could talk forever on Watneys and have many fond memories." Mike Craft 26/04/2012
"In the late '80s in New Jersey (U.S.A), I was gratified to see Watney's Red Barrell being sold in 2 liter soda-style at my local supermarket's liquor dept.
For a U.K. import, the price was beyond reasonable, and I availed myself with scant reserve. "It's cheaper than budwieser" became my statement of purpose and I gulped it down in large, ill-advised quantities.
The malodorous flatulence was BIZZARRE. Not to put to finer point on it, but the beer brought out the evil, death and decay within my young body. Red Barrell is truly one of a kind, and not a beer for the faint of heart." rick 06/05/2012
"There was a bar in Midlothian VA that I used to frequent in the early 90's that had Watneys. I always loved it. I was always curious about what happened to it. Guess I know now. After 20 years in the Air Force and assignments overseas I wonder if it would seem as good if it still existed. Maybe not, but back then it seemed very sophisticated and cultured. Ah to be 21 again." Croaker41 30/05/2012
"I read Pod's contribution with interest. I worked at Mortlake 1969-1971 and was involved, in a laboratory function (mostly taste panels!), in the transformation from Red Barrel to Red (The Revolution!). The 1045-degree beer that he remembers was surely the Export version of Red Barrel RBK 'C'- for Continental? Lovely drink, as was Watney's London Lager, export only. Standard RBK was a more modest 1038 or so, with an ABV to match. It was a good keg beer. "Red" on the other hand was dire; sweet, fizzy, nasty burnt/roasted characteristics, zero or drowned-out hop character. The raw barley thing is a bit of a 'red herring'. I was involved in the barley-enzyme brewing project in Drybrough's, Edinburgh. It was not until these trials were complete that the use of raw barley was extended across the Group, then only where suitable brewing plant was in place. More 'Trad' brewhouses, like at Norwich and the pre-Steinecker plant in Wilson's, Manchester, could not handle useful percentages of raw barley. So the use of barley was not restricted just to the truly dire new beer, 'Red'; several products used it. A bottled version of Red called 'Straight 8' was launched. Same beer, even fizzier, with extra Head Retention agent. Billed as "The beer that doesn't die in the glass", we cynics in the lab would say "No, it died in the brewery". The Red Revolution did not last long. The Marketeers at Watney's were guilty of the "If it ain`t broke, don't fix it" syndrome. But the original Red Barrel was better than OK. By the way, while I was with Watney's (1969-74), the Special Bitter was NOT "trad"; it was a filtered bulk tank or keg product, admittedly less fizzy, but not "Trad"! Cask beers were produced at Wilson's, Manchester, Webster's, Halifax, Tamplin'`s, Brighton, Usher's, Trowbridge and and Norwich Brewery (nee Morgan's). A "cask in keg" version of Ruddles was produced, I think at Mortlake or Norwich. Greene King now own the Ruddle's 'Brand'" john palmer 19/06/2012
"I have very happy memories of my 5 or so years at Watney's, too, Mike Craft. I joined the lab at Mortlake straight from University. My father had worked for Morgan's Brewery, Norwich, in the maltings. When Watney's displaced the local breweries in the 60's, the Morgan's brewhouse in King Street became the Watney Mann (East Anglia) plant, being 'modern', aka just pre-war. Later the company was rebranded `
'The Norwich Brewery Co'" john palmer 19/06/2012
"I used to drink Red Barrel in the 60s and 70s, and I still carry a small red barrel with "Watneys" printed on it, on my keyring. I have had it for many years.
George White." George White 28/08/2012
"I liked Watney's Red Barrel and was disappointed when it no longer appeared in American Package Stores." Diane Robinson 24/09/2012
"In your article you make assumptions that Watneys Red Barrel and Watneys Red were one and the same beer, in fact they were not, Watneys Red was introduced after the bean counters had been involved, make beer cheaper and sell at the old price.......remember Watneys Starlight??? Need I say more? Starlight. so weak it was almost legal to sell to kids" Geoff 06/10/2012
"When I walked into The Green Room pub in Houston, Texas in the early 1970s, Pam, the pretty barmaid would bring me a Watney's Red Barrel without my having to ask. It was a favorite back then and would be now if still available." TL Miller 06/11/2012
"Your narrative is entirely wrong in saying that Red Barrel was invented as a keg beer. It was originally a bottled premium pale ale, and only became sold as a keg beer at the end of the 1950s. The beer Bert Hussey kegged for the East Sheen tennis club probably wasn't Red Barrel, which, I believe, had not been introduced at that time." Martyn Cornell 11/12/2012
"In the late '70s I used to drink Watney's Red Barrel, as well as sampling scores of other imported beers. While I'm a pilsner fan at heart, I loved Watney's, but found that it tasted the best at near room temperature, for me. I can't attest to the history, variations, or other's opinions here... I can only speak my mind on what my tongue appeals to, and Watney's Red Barrel is one I miss very much." Mike McCrackin 20/12/2012
"I drank my fair share of Watney's Red Barrel on tap while living in Oregon in the late 70's/early 80's. Would have kept on drinking it if I could have found it after my move to California. Was hoping to find some on my upcoming visit to Scotland this summer, but it sounds like I'm out of luck. Are there any other brands extant that are similar in taste and texture I might try during my visit? Thanks." Trisha 24/12/2012
"What was Red Barrel keg like in the 50's when first brewed? A writer some years back suggested it was rather dark, almost black with reddish glints and used a porter yeast. Any comments, from Pod or John Palmer in particular?

Gary" Gary Gillman 27/02/2013
"Mike Craft 26/04/2012
Hi Mike Very interested in your entry. Did any of your relatives ever mention a Grandfather Clock in the boardroom at Watneys? I'm trying to find out more about this clock that came into my family in the 1930's or 40's I think. Any boardroom photos would also be fantastic. I look forward to hearing from you. Carol" Carol 02/03/2013
"Hi Carol, sorry cant help on the clock, I am now the oldest surviving family member who has any knowledge of Watney's. Whilst I just about got everywhere in the firm the boardroom has escaped me. Just today Tuesday 5th March 2013 I noticed on the shelves in a supermarket a bottle of Manns Brown Ale, it is supposed to be from the original recipe. Good luck with your research. There is a book on the history of Watney's with a bright red cover, we do have access to it in the family as we are in it. Always available to try and provide any historical facts. Mike" Mike CRaft 05/03/2013
"You may not believe this but I have a bottle in my fridge right at this very moment! I did have two that have been in various temps over the years and I've had it chilled for that past 6 years or so. When I found them in my garage it had been 5 years so I figured what the heck. Well, I went to a friend's house to help with a project and I brought one of the two bottles I had and we popped the top and tried a taste. I swear on everything holy that it tasted almost as I had remembered. There was the amber flavor but the carbonation was a tad off. It was very drinkable. I was totally shocked and amazed. I still have this one bottle that I am saving to have with my other Watney's buddy but we have yet to hook up for a taste test. I thought this would interest some of you. I for one, really liked this beer and I would still be drinking it if it were around. One last tale. I was at a picnic with people from work and one fellow had some home brews. He had one that was spot on for Watney's Red Barrel. I had asked a friend who knew the guy to see if I could find out what the recipe was but the guy had passed by his own hand a year or two earlier. Oh well, I continue my search for a substitute." Al Green 14/03/2013
"I have a Watneys neon Red Bareel beer sign, seems like for ever. Perfect condition. If someone is interested, email me at ennesadvan@aol.com. I'll send some images to you. Chicago area.

I had a few in my day back in the 70's." Becksman 30/04/2013
"I had Watney's Red Barrel from the tap at a deli/bar north of Boston, Mass. in the mid 70's. I remember liking the taste, and making a mental note to find it in the future. It tasted a lot like Bass Ale, which is to say a milder version of something like Kilkenny. Not everyone loves intense flavor!" MattMusician 11/11/2013
"If anyone has a recipe for mAking watneys let me know I have been seeking such for a long time to no avail" Wilfredo rios 06/01/2014
"Read most of the article and disagree with a couple of points, Red Barrel and Watneys Red were NOT the same ale, and party 4s and 7s werent advertised as being filled with Red Barrel. I remember drinking most of Watneys beers as I worked in a pub at that time. Red Barrel was a beautiful drink, Watneys Red was rubbish, and an awful lot of people will agree with me" geoff 03/06/2014
"I remember the Party Sevens; we always seemed not to have a can opener so we`d resort to using a knife to pierce to can with the result that the bear would spray everywhere. At eighteen though we couldn't care less" glenn 02/07/2014
""remember my dad and grandad drinking Watneys Red Barrel in the 70's and the keyrings the landlord gave out to promote it good times." Dean lloyd 01/11/2014
"My dad - Geoff Wright - joined Watneys at its Tamplin's subsidiary in Brighton in the 1950's and by 1967 he was promoted within the Free Trade Department and transferred to Wilson's in Manchester.

I distinctly remember the "Red Revolution" on the change to Red from Red Barrel. he was working all the hours God sent to try and ensure a good launch in all of the Free Trade pubs in North wales and the North West of England. Our house was over run with beer mats, key rings and advertising paraphernalia.

Watneys also boasted some great legacy beers from the breweries they had acquired such as Wilson's Great Northern Bitter and Olympic Bitter (which I think was nicknamed "Old Slugger" in Manchester. Dad would organise coach trips for his best customers to visit the brewery and me and my friends at sixth form in Shrewsbury would always get the spare seats at the back of the coach - happy days.

I too miss Red Barrel, Watneys Special, M&B Mild, Greenall's Wem Bitter and many of the maligned beers of the 70's. I'd love to enjoy a nice clean tasting pint of ale (which wasn't lager) as opposed to some of the caramelised and poorly brewed stuff that masquerades as "real ale" today. To visit Wilson's, taste the malted barley, crush the hops in your fingers and then taste the beer in the guest room so that you could pick out all of those flavours was a grand experience." Peter Wright 05/11/2014
"So sad at the demise of Red Barrel and it's ilk...been a lager drinker ever since the introduction of the warm flat stuff..." Tom Jeacock 23/11/2014
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