Watneys Red Barrel
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.
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".
Join Watneys Red ArmyFor 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
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!
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
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.
Add your comments
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
Is it still produced at all?" Tony Dillon 29/05/2011
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
I must say that away from work my favourite keg beer was Whitbread's Trophy." Allan Mortimer 10/01/2012
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
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
'The Norwich Brewery Co'" john palmer 19/06/2012
George White." George White 28/08/2012
Gary" Gary Gillman 27/02/2013
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
I had a few in my day back in the 70's." Becksman 30/04/2013
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
40 years later, living in Australia, when i mention Watneys Red, most Poms here in Melbourne say it was rubbish ! Do they mean Watneys Red or Red Barrel, they cant tell me. It seems that its a bit of a saying. Watneys beer being not as good as others. For me, it was the best beer I'd ever tasted.
It was sad when returning t.o England it was unavailable. I've been looking for a similar beer in the UK and the US for years and not found that magic tast again. I'm going into EBay after i write this and find a nice Watneys key ring red barrel or something Watneys to make up for ths great loss.
I'm not sure if it was Watneys Red or Red Barrel but it was kind of still, very dark red and had an amazing taste. I had too many one night and thought id managed to put my pint glass on the fire place shelf in a Forest Row pub. The pint glass did not make the shelf and i let gonof it. I was stunned as a whole pint of Watneys hit the carpet ! I've never recovered ..." Peter Stephenson 25/02/2015
The night was a darts demo by a man I think was called Hancock and was arranged by Watneys to introduce there new beer, Red Barrel.I have never seen darts thrown with such skill and would put to shame any modern player. This he did after consuming a large amount of Lambs Navy Rum.
Can anyone remember Hancock or see him play
Dave Carpenter 02/03/2015" david carpenter 02/03/2015
Pleasant memories indeed. I have now moved on and drink Fullers London Pride whenever I can find it." Richard T 31/03/2016
It must have been brewed after 1979 as that's when bar codes were first introduced in the UK. I would say probably 1980s." Steven 15/05/2016
I have just aquire a huge brass bell that was presented to my uncle Owen Morris (chief brewer I believe ) on his retirement from the brewery in 1977. I would love to find some history about the bell if any one knows anything." Jeanne Howe 11/09/2016
My father, Donald Kirby, started with Watney, Coombe and Reid after national service in the early 50s. Worked his way from the floor to brewery manager for Drybroughs in Edinburgh then back to London as Sales Director in the late 60s, it was taken over by Grand Met in the 70s, He was made redundant and we moved from London back to Edinburgh.
Always remember the sales stuff he kept in the garage, all of it scrapped by now it would probably be worth something." Simon 13/11/2016
I don't really recall drinking Red Barrel but recall Norwich Bitter - Norwich and surrounding area - after Watneys had taken it over and closed it, I believe what we got was essentially Red Barrel. Stag Bitter I think I remember at the eponymous pub in Victoria, so that was probably in the '70s or possibly early '80s. ......" Dominic Pinto 08/04/2017
Your guide to vintage and retro