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.

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