Thursday, 5 July 2012

National Keg Bitters – Whence They Came, Where They Went

Nothing so encapsulates the move by the Big Six brewers to impose keg beer on the masses than those nationally available keg bitters. Always sold at a premium price, and always heavily advertised, most are now thankfully history. This roll of shame begins at the top, in Burton on Trent.

... where they serve fish and chips and melted ice cream and bleeding Watneys Red Barrel ...

And that means Bass, whose contender was WorthingtonE”. This was a singularly dishonest naming, as what we now know as Draught Bass was also called by that name in some outlets. But they were not the same beer. The keg “E” was imposed on more or less every Bass tied house. It was, er, fizzy, and no more than average bitter strength. But it made more money.

Allied Breweries also indulged in an act of dishonesty when they brought out a “draught” version of Double Diamond. The bottled version had been one of few beers with a reach into the free trade and other breweries’ pubs, and had a strength well over 4% (the recipe was later used as a basis for Ind Coope Draught Burton Ale). The keg imposter was a 3.8% brew, slightly sweet, and utterly bland.

Over the years, Double Diamond, despite all the advertising spend, declined in popularity, and this in turn affected the bottled beer, which is still out there somewhere, but brewed in far smaller amounts. A similar fate awaited keg WorthingtonE”, and the Whitbread variant on this theme, Tankard. Courage’s Tavern (“what your right arm’s for”) also starred, then left the scene.

One of these otherwise forgettable beers, though, has survived: Younger’s Tartan, rampant in the free trade in the 70s, and now brewed at the Charles Wells site in Bedford. But its reach is confined to Scotland, where it is known as “Tartan Special”. And then there is the one that everyone remembers, and which has also (thankfully) vanished without a trace: yes, Watney’s bleeding Red Barrel.

How did they succeed in the first place? As I noted earlier, cask beer did not have a good name in the immediate post-war years, so a brew that was consistent and would not be “off” when served had an advantage. Added to that was the phenomenal amount of advertising spend, and none was greater than the budget Allied allocated to keg Double Diamond.

But the ad-mens’ efforts could also come unstuck: the DD “letters on beermats” campaign (“Q4A DD” and “ICA DD B4ME” were examples) was expertly hijacked by a CAMRA spoof which read “DD=K9P”. Allied’s lawyers had the mats pulped, but the damage was done. So now that these beers are all but extinct, what lesson do they leave? Simples. National brands properly sold can prove extremely lucrative.

So those beers fell by the wayside? So what? They just got replaced by more of the same. The ad-men got slicker, and there were always enough sheep out there.

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