In my last post, I showed that Watney’s Red Barrel enjoyed a quality image in the American market from approximately 1964-1994. I dealt with critical and consumer reaction, not sales, to be sure. Heineken and other import market leaders – Becks, Molson for a long time, later Corona – never had any worries Red Barrel would challenge their hegemony, but it did enjoy a good reputation.
In Britain, as the 1970s wore on Watney’s Red, successor to Red Barrel in the U.K., increasingly attracted the ire of the advised beer drinker. Quickly-growing CAMRA, the beer lobby founded in 1971 whose raison d’être is traditional (cask) ale, had Red in its sights. Watney’s did introduce or expand availability of cask ale, but its defence of Red was destined for failure.
Did Americans continue to view Red Barrel with blithe equanimity? For the most part, yes. Only a handful of people here knew the story of the maladroit Red Revolution ad campaign. A few homebrewers knew, as well as the few beer writers who had spent time in Britain such as Stephen Morris, author of the The Great Beer Trek, published in 1984.
Michael Jackson, the influential British beer writer was travelling extensively in North America from the late 70s so he would have discussed the issue with the new generation of American beer journalists and emerging craft brewers. Of course, too, his 1978 The World Guide to Beer chronicled the story graphically, so those who bought the book, who read that part of it, or that part of it carefully, knew as well.
But in relative terms most buyers of imported beer had no clue, even after 1978 but certainly before. To them, Red Barrel was just another interesting-looking bottle or draft tap with a big price tag.
An exception to the general pattern is a 1975 New York Times story that explained CAMRA’s origins and exactly what was happening with Watney’s Red. The focus was Britain but it was noted Watney’s was making a push to sell more Red Barrel in the U.S. The story at the time had few or no ripples in the American beer market. If Watney’s Red Barrel did not become what Corona did, it was nothing to do with the Red debacle in Britain.
The beer simply did not appeal to enough people. Being an ale told against it too, as the big imports were all lagers or ales similar to lager such as Molson Export or Molson Golden Ale.
But the New York Times was on to something, and taking a man-in-the-street approach questioned patrons in an English pub about beer preferences. It chose the Elephant & Castle in St. Albans, the small city serving as a bedroom suburb (or it would increasingly) for London. Not coincidentally St. Albans was, and is, host to CAMRA’s headquarters.
Famously the Times is read by a relatively small part of the reading public, the chattering class, based in the northeast, well-off in comparison to the rest of the country, liberal, and upscale in habits and attitudes. Readers of the article who drank alcohol for the most part had no interest in beer – no serious interest I mean. It hasn’t changed that much, beer coverage in the Times seems to oscillate between the pro forma and the non-existent, and surely this reflects the interests and habits of the audience it serves (the bulk of it).
Times readers drink wine or spirits, with a focus on the foreign at least until the American wine and Kentucky bourbon booms became fashionable. At least that is my take having read the paper for decades.
But the Times did get the CAMRA and Watney’s story right, and fairly early too. The writer did not perceive the implications for a potential beer revolution in the States, but given the year in question, when the first true craft brewery, New Albion Brewing in California, was still a year from opening, that is certainly understandable.
As to Watney, it wasn’t going down without a fight. The journalist reported:
The Watney’s people do not enjoy [the] … criticism, in part because they are making a strong effort to tap the lucrative American market by selling Watney’s “Red Barrel” beer as the real thing.
“Who’s to say what’s real and what isn’t.” said a Watney’s spokesman the other day. “People like our beer, and therefore it’s real to us. We make some of the stuff Camra likes, but we make more of the stuff most people like.”
I admire Watney’s cojones, but the posture did not help its fortunes in the U.K., it might have been better to cozy up faster to CAMRA. If you can’t beat them join them, as the adage goes.
The article ends, in retrospect, on an interesting note. The St. Albans publican tells the Times that customers like the real ales he serves, the CAMRA-approved stuff, but sometimes people complain the beer has no head. He offered them a glib answer: you are here to drink the beer, not look at it.
But even real ale should have a head, this wasn’t just ignorant sputtering by those schooled on frothy keg beer or bottled beer (always quite fizzy). Either way, and while cask beer did enjoy a renaissance for many years, we see the underbelly of cask, even in its first flush of rebirth. The belly has swelled in recent years, with annual sales of cask ale falling steadily.
Say what you will about craft beer, but most of it comes equipped with a big creamy head. And craft beer is taking up the market share cask ale is losing, not industrial lager whose sales are also dropping. True, craft beer can be dispensed as real ale, but the classic, lodestar Yankee IPA comes cold and capped with a shaving cream-like head.
The customers who didn’t like the flattish real ales characteristic of the prosperous and trend-setting south and centre were heralds of the current real ale doldrums, a trend possibly now irreversible.
Ale will be saved, but the rescue may come finally courtesy American-style craft beer, not the kind of beer CAMRA has worked doggedly to save for almost 50 years.
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