Sunday, 17 August 2008

What we want is Watney's

The story of Watney's is a strange tale. I have to admit that my opinion of them is somewhat clouded by CAMRA propaganda from the 1970's.

Watney's were the epitome of a Big Six keg brewer. The vast majority of their pubs sold no cask, just some of the most dismal processed beer imaginable. "Avoid like the plague" the first Good Beer Guide controversially stated in its Watney entry.

But they had a life before that. In the first half of the 20th century, Watney was very successful. They did one thing, however, that pissed off serious beer lovers. Introduced keg beer to Britain. East Sheen Lawn Tennis Club was, in the 1930's, the first client for Watney's new keg beer. It was a small beginning. After WW II, when quality problems with cask-conditioned beer caused many drinkers to switch to bottled beer, keg was seen as the way forward.

There was nothing wrong with the concept. Send out idiot-proof beer, that no landlord, no matter how incompetent, could mess up. Brewers had long been unhappy about the treatment their beer received once it had left the brewery. They were frustrated that it often reached the customer in less than perfect condition. Keg was the solution. No fining, no shives, no complications.

For a while it worked. Watney's Red became one of the biggest-selling beers in Britain. Then along came CAMRA. Though they criticised all the Big Six brewers, Watney's were the subject of the most vitiolic attacks. But it was ridicule that worked best. Watney's beers became a joke, the very definition of crap. You could tell this approach was working when Watney's took their name off their pubs. Their brand had been totally destroyed. Worse, it became an anti-brand.

What happened to Watney? They just melted away. The Stag Brewery, between Victoria Station and Buckingham Palace, was demolished in 1959. Though their Mortlake plant survives, the last large brewery in London. And it's managed to move downmarket even from Watney's Red. It now produces Budweiser. The shitty, American-style Budweiser.

As a special treat, here are the details of some Watney beers. Let's start with the pre-keg period.

They're pretty typical London beers. You'll not just how strong draught beers were in the 1920's. The Mild, still at a respectable 1043.5, is the only one below 1050.

It's interesting to see what crap value for money Keg Bitter and Red Barrel were. Only slightly stronger than their standard PA, but considerably more expensive. It also looks as if Fined Stag Bitter, the first cask-conditioned beer under the Watney's name for many years, was a version of Special Bitter. Both have about the same OG.

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