The return of Big Beer: the lessons of the Red Revolution of the 1970s
Tuesday, 28 September 2021 18:22

The return of Big Beer: the lessons of the Red Revolution of the 1970s

Published in Eating & Drinking

To illuminate the current struggle between different segments of brewing capital, Keith Flett looks back at the success of the campaign against Grotny's Red Barrel.

Roger Protz could be forgiven for saying, ‘I told you so’ after he had warned about the threat of Big Beer to lovers of good beer cask or keg in the introduction to the 2018 Good Beer Guide, when the news that Heineken had acquired a substantial share in one of the highest profile UK craft breweries, Beavertown, was announced in June.

The ferocity of the reaction amongst a small layer of drinkers and craft brewers suggested, in part, not so much a concern for decent beer but a class war between different bits of small and large capital over the future of brewing. Is it a war that sides should be taken in? Probably, but in any war tactics and strategies are key, as is an understanding of who the enemy is, and what its profile is.

Protz and I are old enough to remember that we have been here before, and the results were mixed. On the one hand we got the undrinkable Watney’s Red Barrel keg beer. On the other had we also got the appearance of the Campaign for Real Ale which almost certainly saved decent beer in the UK for a generation or two. Now the battle is on again.

In the 1950s and 1960s Big Beer tended to mean just that – large brewing companies taking over and shutting down smaller ones. Two of the big players in the UK market in 2018, Heineken and ABInBev, are worldwide beer companies but capital investment and takeovers can come from outside the strict brewing sector nowadays, sometimes from food or leisure companies seeking to diverse their businesses for example. For these capitalists, beer is just a potentially profitable commodity like any other.

Most people who enjoy drinking ‘craft’ beer in 2018 have little knowledge of the brewing battles of 50 and more years ago when they were, in most cases, not even born. So I want here to review the rise of Big Beer after 1945 in the UK.

In 1903-4, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the UK had 11,752 brewers. The impact of two World Wars and the depression of the 1930s saw that figure reduce to 567 in 1949-50. Then began the period of consolidation that led to the first wave of Big Beer. By 1963 there were 304 breweries and in 1993 there were just 93 surviving breweries. We might call that Peak Big Beer.

The concentration of brewing by means of larger brewers taking over and closing smaller ones began in the early 1950s, when the Big Brewers had 25% of the market – and by 1976 they had 56%. The names of the Big Beer outfits of the 1970s may be familiar to some: Allied, Bass-Charrington, Courage, Scottish and Newcastle, Watney/Truman, Whitbread and Guinness. Such is the dynamic nature of capital that while some of the beers brewed by these companies are still available – Draught Bass for example – only Guinness remains with the same ownership and structure it had 40 years ago. That is something worth keeping firmly in mind when it comes to the future of craft beer.

Beneath this were the trends in the brewing and drinking of beer that facilitated the rise of Big Beer. The entry on a significant scale of old style keg beer took place between 1965 and 1975. This beer replaced cask or real ale in many cases. The cellar skills of many post-1945 pub owners were not great, and cask was often served in indifferent condition. Hence a popular drink of the 1960s and 1970s was a light and bitter. A half of cask ale topped up with a bottle of brewery conditioned bottled light ale which helped to mask the less than palatable taste of the cask ale.

The old-style keg was pasteurised in the brewery and had to be served under pressure in the pub to add back in the carbon dioxide which cask beer produces naturally through secondary fermentation in the barrel. Without the gas, keg beer would be as flat as a cup of tea.

Over time the beer also came to be served chilled or cold, certainly cooler than the 12C which was at the time thought to be the optimum temperature for cask beer (modern taste is more like 10C). This was particularly so as British brewed lager came to dominate the keg market. The thinking was that fizzy, cold keg tasted of little hence it was ideally suited to those who didn’t particularly like the taste of beer, and particularly the bitterness of some styles of traditional beer. For those that wanted some kind of taste (but not a bitter one) lager with a dash of lime cordial became a popular drink.

The real motor of the keg boom was the Red Revolution launched by Watneys in 1971. Unfortunately, even if the advertising material suggested differently, the revolution the company had in mind was not a socialist one, but rather in the scale of their profits. Watneys Red had actually been a perfectly drinkable cask beer in the 1960s but what was involved here was the creation of a beer brand.

It is perhaps a salutary warning for the new wave of Big Beer in 2018 that it did not work. The activity of the early Campaign for Real Ale successfully marked what it called Grotny’s fizzy beer as something that no discerning beer drinker would go anywhere near. Watneys had created a brand with Red Barrel certainly but it was a brand with a negative image.

Hence by the later 1970s Watneys started to introduce in its pubs what it called Fined Bitter (that is cask beer). Obviously the defeat of its Red Revolution hurt, and initially the beer came in converted kegs and was sold by hand pumps using air pressure.

The point for today is however clear - if organised in a campaign, drinkers can push back the plans of Big Beer.