Whitbread’s Past and Present on British Documentary Film

A half-hour documentary film on Whitbread Brewery resides in the invaluable Huntley Film Archives. As the Archives provides a detailed synopsis, there is no need to summarize the film, but I’ll make these few remarks.

The film was almost certainly issued in 1951, as various internal keys suggest, but also a pamphlet shown, The Brewer’s Art (well-known to beer historians) was published that year and the film appears a visual counterpart.

From location of barley fields to malting to the type of hops used – East Peckham mid-Kents are shown – a great number of details is conveyed, in every phase of brewery operations.

What struck us was the degree of manual labour still employed. Personnel seemed to work largely in groups, whether in mashing, brewing, fermenting, even lab work. The desired clarity of cask ale is demonstrated by a glass being held up to a bare lamp – let’s just say it wasn’t hazy (while not quite brilliant either).

Bottling is greatly stressed in the film’s second half. It is clear in retrospect that bottled beer of perfect clarity was in a sense the predecessor of the lager future envisioned by Ind Coope Group in its 1961 film I discussed a few posts ago. Cask ale is only intermittently alluded to, notably at the end of the film by reference to Whitbread’s public houses.

Domestic and export sales of bottled beer receive far more attention than the tied house draught trade, which shows you where the company wanted to go, nor was it a postwar development. It is explained that expansion of bottling had been encouraged by the company for 50 years, hence its continually growing network of bottling plants that received tanker trucks of beer for bottling and distribution in every corner of Britain and for export.

Many of the venues for sale of bottled beer are portrayed as upscale locales, in tune with aspirational 1930s print advertisements of Whitbread.* The Henley Regatta is one example.

Some of the brands shown are Mackeson Stout, Whitbread Stout, Whitbread Pale Ale, Whitbread Forest Brown Ale. Note the flourish by waiters to the service of bottled beer, clearly there was a certain style to it, all now lost to history.

This film neatly bookends the more sophisticated Ind Coope effort of 10 years later. It is clear from both that some large brewers – and I’d presume finally all of them – held little romance for the tradition of cask-conditioned ale, even in the early postwar period.

One can see the psychology that led to the revival of cask ale in the 1970s through the creation of The Campaign for Real Ale (1971) and emergence of a corps of writers and other enthusiasts dedicated to its promotion.

Here is the film.


*The best known depict well-known actors enjoying a beer in smart surroundings.


2 thoughts on “Whitbread’s Past and Present on British Documentary Film”

  1. There is no doubt in my mind that brewers genuinely believed their kegged beer was an improvement. Consistent carbonation and temperature, no risk of the beer oxidising or going sour. That it was much easier to handle was an additional benefit.

    This might have proved acceptable had they not made two other major changes at the same time: they insisted on making the beer unpalatably fizzy, and the beer itself was debased – the notorious Watney’s Red was weaker and less bitter than its ancestor Red Barrel.

    As my beer writing friend Allan McLean once quipped, “some of these beers were all right until they were kegged; some were bad before they were kegged.”

    By the time I started drinking in the late 1980s bottled beer had lost any sophisticated glamour it might once have had. It was the preserve of old men drinking old-fashioned beer such as brown ale and barley wine, or of young, smartly dressed but potentially violent men who liked to down lager straight from the bottle .

    • Your comments on how keg beer was made at the time, or by the time rather of Watney’s Red, illustrates again I think how the history might have differed but for certain decisions.

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