Embark on an exploration of the history of Watney's Beer and its connections to either side of the Atlantic. Take a journey and revisit the past, discovering the truth about nostalgic Red Barrel and deciphering the British's lingering contempt. Uncover the real quality of Watney's and find out if the beer's reputation was deserved.
The name Watney conjures up very different emotions either side of the Atlantic. Many North Americans nurture fond memories of Red Barrel as a quality import. Older Brits mostly harbor a lingering contempt. But what’s the truth about Watney’s beer? Was it really that bad? Read on to find out.
Watney beer was first brewed in 1837 by George Watney in the Westminster district of London. It was first a pale ale, and also released brown and stock ales throughout the remainder of the 19th Century. Then, in 1901 they launched their most widely known beer: Watney’s Red Barrel.
By the 1920s, Watney was a widely distributed beer in the UK, but what really catapulted the brand to house hold status was a tumultuous decade of fusion, acquisition and ultimately merging with three other British companies to become, simply, Watney-Mann-BUSCH. By the 1960s, the company had rebranded to become just Watney and was producing some of the most beloved beers in the UK.
But Watney wasn’t just popular in Britain. The flagship Red Barrel beer became one of the most iconic imports in the US in the late sixties and seventies, primarily distributed by Sea Enterpises. After decades of unparalleled success, the Watney brand was sold off to Grand Metropolitan PLC, who themselves were bought by Guinness just two years later in 1989.
Guinness gained substantial assets when they acquired Grand Metropolitan, gaining brand control over a wide variety of products such as Smirnoff vodka and plenty of beer brands. Many of these, including Watney, were amalgamated under the ‘Guinness Beer Company’ banner.
Throughout the 1990s, the Watney brand was revitalised with consistently updated promotions and advertising, mostly leveraging its once popular Red Barrel. The beer was back and in public consciousness, and with increasing emphasis on quality came a renewed interest within the craft beer scene and consistent accolades throughout the period.
The inconsistent quality of Watney beers had a larger effect than sheer popularity and sales. Rather, it perpetuated a widespread opinion that Watney was ‘bad’ and ‘cheap’, a view still held by many British beer drinkers despite frequent modern updates and improvements. Perhaps a prominent example of this attitude is the 1987 single ‘Watney’s Red Barrel’ by alternative rockers The Wedding Present, clearly intended to be disdainful.
The song specifically references Red Barrel, conceding its import status in the US yet containing a popularly shared viewpoint amongst British consumers. The song includes the lyrics ‘Here I am, drinking Watney’s Red Barrel…tastes like a puddle on the floor’. Lines like this are a common rant against Watney’s, which still carries a similar attitude from a certain group of older beer drinkers.
Despite ongoing criticism and inconsistent quality, Watney’s is still available in the UK and retains a loyal ritual of drinking amongst the older generation. It’s even currently brewed by the Heineken Corporation and distributed in the United States by Lancer Beverage Company.
Though the brand has had a tumultuous past, documents suggest Watney’s may have a bright future ahead of itself. The company continues to innovate and experiment with new beers - but with a reduced emphasis on the once popular Red Barrel. Only time will tell whether Britain’s opinion of Watney will grow, or if the brand will remain a much-maligned relic of the past.
Watney beer has been an ever-changing brand over the decades, but one thing has stayed the same: the polarizing opinion surrounding its quality. Records demonstrate that the brand has had its ups and downs in terms of consistency, with plenty of praise and plenty of criticism over the years. One thing is for certain however: Red Barrel will forever be a pillar of British brewing history - whether you like it or not.