Monday 14 November 2016

Whitbread Gold Label is born

Gold Label, you may remember, was the only Tennant’s brand to survive the Whitbread takeover. But even that they didn’t leave alone.

Let’s face it, Whitbread were never going to keep branding Gold Label as Tennant forever. Especially when the Tennant name had been phased out elsewhere. And it wasn’t just the name on the label that Whitbread changed.

“Around this time, a new tank room was built which could be reached from the bottling hall, via a bridge across Mill Sands, the lane at the side of the brewery. The new room housed a large number of 200 barrel tanks. They were used for the maturation of Gold Label. The practice of maturing 'in wood', up the tunnel, had been discontinued. Not only that, but the maturation time was progressively reduced. So much for the retention of traditional methods, I thought. However, to be fair, the sales of Gold Label were rising phenomenally and from the volume alone, it would have been very difficult to mature the product in the old way. A newly-designed bottle label, carrying the Whitbread name, was brought in to replace the Tennant's label. This was fair enough: after all, it was no longer Tennant's Gold Label.”
"The Brewer's Tale" by Frank Priestley, 2010, pages 26 - 27.

I wish Priestley was more specific about the number of maturation tanks. Because that would have given me some idea of how much Gold Label was being produced. One 200-barrel is the equivalent of about 130 hogsheads, which is what they had used before for ageing. Even if they only had 10 such tanks, that’s the equivalent of 1,300 hogsheads. You’d need a large cellar for so many bulky casks.

It still amazes me that a beer like Gold Label could be a mainstream national brand. Heavily advertised and widely available. A sign of its popularity is that Whitbread also started brewing at their London headquarters. And in considerable quantities – 300-odd barrels a week. That’s a large volume for a beer of over 10% ABV.

I was trying to find out exactly when the Exchange Brewery closed and was digging around in old Good Beer Guides. It seems cask beer was only discontinued for a few years in the late 1970’s. And the Queen’s Ale that Priestley laments made a comeback in 1981, when it had an OG of 1044º, the same as in the 1950’s. It didn’t last long as it doesn’t appear in the 1984 guide.

It’s funny how your perspective changes with age. I always thought of Whitbread’s northern pubs as a desert, with none of their breweries there brewing any cask other than Castle Eden. Yet this was really just a short-lived feature, lasting less than a decade. It seemed to be forever to my younger self. Probably because they dropped cask just about when I started drinking.

Next I’ll be comparing the Tennant and Whitbread versions of Gold Label.

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