Monday 11 March 2024

Watney Mann

The most hated of breweries amongst the CAMRA faithful. For the simple reason that they had moved aggressively into keg beer. Some of their breweries still produced a little cask, but they were deeply committed to keg.

In the 1890s, they leapfrogged into first place in London after taking part in the first big brewing merger. The result was Watney Combe Reid. A company that was producing over 1 million barrels a year.

They owned several breweries in different regions: Norwich, Webster (Halifax), Wilsons (Manchester), Usher (Cheltenham) and Drybrough (Edinburgh). Some producing cask, others not. Webster’s beers were OK in cask form, but nothing special. Wilsons beers, even though often in cask, I never cared for.

One of the breweries owned by the company when it was still Watney Combe Reid, it was their main brewery in London after the closure of the Stag Brewery in Pimlico in 1959. It was first acquired by Watney in 1889.

At the start of the decade, it produced no cask beer and hadn’t for quite a while. Though, under pressure from CAMRA, they introduced Fined Bitter, a cask beer served from kegs, in the middle of the 1970s.

The former Manns brewery in the East End of London, it was bought by Watney in 1958 to replace their original Stag Brewery, which was demolished to make way for a commercial development.

Manns had been one of the major Ale breweries in the capital. Their biggest claim to fame was to have developed the first modern Brown Ale at the start of the 20th century. Oh, and their brewery tap, the Blind Beggar, was the scene of a notorious gangland murder in the 1960s. I drank in there a couple of times in the 1970s. Scary, is how I would describe it.

Of the three independent breweries located in the town during the 1950s, only one remained in 1970. And that was in the hands of Watney, who had bought all three breweries in 1963. Of Steward & Patteson, Bullard and Morgan, only the last continued to brew.

Having inherited the tied houses of all three breweries, Watney had a near monopoly in Norwich and parts of Norfolk. Villages which once had a pub from each of the three, found themselves with just one. Or maybe even none. As Watney ruthlessly closed rural pubs they didn’t consider viable.

Despite being owned by Watney, Webster still brewed a range of draught beers typical of West Yorkshire: a fairly light Bitter and a Pale and Dark Mild. The latter two suspiciously of the same gravity. My guess is that it was one beer sometimes coloured up with caramel.

According to John Keeling, who worked in the lab at Wilsons during the 1970s, there was a big split between production methods of the Wilsons and Watneys brands. The former were brewed from malt and sugar and were fermented in open squares, cooled by a water jacket. While the latter contained 40% raw barley along with enzymes to convert it. They were then fermented in conicals.

Located in Trowbridge in the Southwest of England, Usher was one of the Watney plants which still produced a decent amount of cask beer. In 1977, around 300 of their 688 tied houses stocked cask. Though, typically of the period some of that was served on top pressure.

One of the many breweries which were located in Duddingston, a village on the outskirts of Edinburgh. The brewery started the decade with a mostly fairly dull range of keg-dispensed draught products, all parti-gyled together. Friends who lived in Scotland weren’t great fans of their beers.

It was one of the four Watney breweries which installed continuous fermentation system. And the last one to decommission it.

For a while, they brewed with 60% unmalted barley in the grist. But that was too much even for Watney and it was reduced to “just” 45%.


Chris Pickles said...

Back in the 70's Bradford was rife with Websters pubs. But the ones that sold cask beer could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Without the assistance of the thumb.

But in the rare places where cask Websters was to be had, I always enjoyed it. The light mild was excellent, CAMRA members in Bradford couldn't get enough of it. The dark mild - well you had to go to Halifax for that.

Dryborough's had a big advertising push in the NE in the early 1980's. "Strike it rich with Drybrough's Keg Heavy, it's the Heavy thats Scotland's own" was the slogan When I did the Pennine Way in 1983 I encountered a cluster of Drybrough's pubs in and around Alston. Keg or not, I didn't mind it. But soon after Drybrough's bit the dust.

Anonymous said...

Ron, do you know if the raw barley was used to save money or did Watney prefer the flavor profile? I can't think of another brewery that uses that much raw barley.

Bribie G said...

Chris, The old Brewery in Alnwick north of Newcastle stopped brewing in 1963 and was bought by Dryboroughs for its tied houses which it supplied using Alnwick as a distribution centre.

I'm sure there was a pub on the West Road near the Big Lamp in Newcastle that had a Dryborough's "ghost sign" on it. Alston and other North Pennine and border towns would quite possibly have been part of the Alnwick tied houses.

Matt said...

I drank keg Wilson's mild in the late eighties and enjoyed it. Their brewery in Newton Heath, north Manchester, had shut by then so it would have come from Webster's in Halifax. It had a strong caramel taste.

John Lester said...

Usher’s never quite stopped producing cask beer, but it was a close-run thing. By the time I first went into an Usher’s pub in 1972, the only cask beer left (and indeed the only beer still badged as Usher’s) was the light but drinkable PA. It could be found in a small number of pubs (I first sampled it in Oxfordshire, and later around Trowbridge) – usually served straight from the cask. I think it was in 1975 that there was a change of heart: Usher’s Best Bitter was reintroduced, and cask beer began to become more widely available.

Anonymous said...

Matt interesting.