The return of Watneys – and other old beers we'd welcome back

Adrian Tierney Jones
It might be a different brew, but Watneys is making a comeback - Watneys Red Barrel 

The first beer I ever drank was Double Diamond. I was 12 and thought it horrible, having filched it from a crate that my beer-loving grandfather had left in his outhouse. This was the 1970s, when Watneys Red Barrel was also one of the decade’s best-known beers, but my grandfather didn’t like it.

As well as being available everywhere, Red Barrel was also one of the most reviled of beers. Monty Python mocked it, Basil Fawlty served it in his hotel bar, while members of the emerging Campaign for Real Ale nicknamed it Grotneys.

However, in a feat of resurrection worthy of the Night King, Watneys has returned to life, though without Red Barrel or those dustbin-like Party 7s in its new range.

2016 saw the launch of Watneys Pale Ale, citrusy and very on-trend, and now there are two others, a ‘craft’ lager and a Double IPA, all of them brewed under licence at selected breweries. In addition to this, a crowd-funding drive has been launched on Seedrs to raise £400,005 (of which £330,774 has already been pledged), to "make Watneys a great beer brand once again".

Watneys' co-founder, Nick Whitehurst, has been quoted as saying, "the nostalgia and history of Watneys give us provenance but what we’ve done is taken this heritage and reinvented the brand to appeal to a whole new generation of drinkers."

Watneys certainly had provenance and history. It was founded in 1837 and as Watney Combe & Reid became one of the largest breweries in Victorian London. Beer historians would argue that the rot set in with the launch of Red Barrel in the 1960s. It was filtered, pasteurised and served cold and fizzy. Even its snazzy advertising with posters featuring Mao and Che Guevara lookalikes championing the ‘Red revolution’ couldn’t save it.

During the 1970s, the company went through a series of buyouts and mergers and eventually its brands vanished. Only the memory of Red Barrel remained, a beer-flecked folk devil that could be summoned up to frighten wavering real-ale drinkers.

Now we live in exciting beer times and Watneys aims to be part of it. It is also not the only past brand brought back and polished up for the craft beer generation. Truman’s in London is making excellent beers, as is Lacons in Great Yarmouth (try their magnificent Audit Ale). Meanwhile Nottingham’s Home Ales and Newcastle’s Federation are due for an encore.

At this juncture you have to ask, what is the point of these beer revivals, especially as none of them are the original companies and we now have over 2,000 breweries pumping out all manner of beers? Could it be that the wilful nostalgia, that used to be rife in beer culture, is still alive and kicking and has found a new market in the retro generation?

After all, some of the old family breweries, and what we used to call microbreweries, were once heavy-handed in their use of twee evocations of yesteryear (brewers in bowlers and aprons, steam engines and 40s pin-ups). I also note a nostalgic vein still throbbing away in the forehead of beer culture, with some of the most popular beer blogs being ones that deal in history and old brewing records.

A 1953 advertisement for Double Diamond pale ale Credit: Alamy

Nostalgia or not, some beers do not deserve resurrection. Naturally, Watneys Red Barrel, while other personal horrors include Stones Keg and Wilson’s Mild. On the other hand, is this retro trend a recognition that some beers in the past were just too good to be lost?

For instance, I would like to see Inspector Morse’s favourite tipple, Oxford-based Morrells Graduate on the bar-top alongside its potent barley wine, while I still fondly recall Eldridge Pope’s Royal Oak (briefly resurrected a decade ago).

Morrells Graduate and Eldridge Pope's Royal Oak

Then there is the wealth of brewing records that the likes of Adnams and Fuller’s possess; the latter’s archive-exploring Past Masters series included a fabulous Old Burton Extra and a delicious Double Stout.

Beer certainly has a history and I look forward to trying the new Watneys, but recalling my 12-year-old self I might draw the line at Double Diamond.

What would you bring back from the brewing past? Join in the conversation in the comment section below...