WE’VE been meaning to pass something on for some time. Those three little words that express a fierce and intense combination. Watneys Red Barrel.
Watneys Red Barrel is much maligned; it was developed in 1931 and remained a premium product for 30 years before it was filtered, pasteurised and artificially carbonated in the 1960s to become the first keg bitter.
That version may still be regarded with disdain but it was one of the prime movers in the formation of the Campaign For Real Ale (Camra) which was appalled by the willingness of large brewers to foist such a dumbed-down beer on the unsuspecting public. It was then swiftly followed by the likes of Ind Coope Double Diamond, Youngers Tartan and Worthington E.
The good old days may be back, though. Revivalist tendencies are at work in the unlikely surroundings of Sunderland’s oldest surviving pub – The Clarendon Hotel and its below-stairs Bull Lane Brewery. John Taylor, licensee, head brewer, barman, van driver and sales manager, has recreated the Red Barrel style after having the original recipe passed over the bar.
“A customer, Frank Kell from South Shields, had noticed the Red Barrel sign on the bar,” says John. “He claimed to be Watneys’ brewer in the 1950s – and I have no reason to dispute that – so he brought in the recipe for Red Barrel that he had been using in 1953. It contains 5% roasted barley, which would make it almost black in colour, and it stipulated a porter yeast.
“We’ve altered it slightly and used an ale yeast which works very well and we kept the same Goldings hops, plus everything else – even the pH of the water is exactly as the recipe. Some of my older customers remember Watneys Red Barrel as being much the same colour as Cameron’s Strongarm – ruby red. I think Watneys may have changed it in the Sixties from a darker, porter-style beer.
“The boil was two hours then – not many people would do that long today – and it had a fermentation of seven days before being conditioned for six weeks. Nobody could afford to have beer sitting for that long now.”
Renamed Black Barrel, the Bull Lane version is dark and mysterious with a fine, clinging head. Held up to the light, its redness glows like a winter sunset. The flavours are of chocolate and liquorice with a definite bitterness rather than the expected sweetness. If this is what the original Watneys Red Barrel was like, it was a seriously good beer – a great beer – before market forces got their hands on it and pushed it downhill.
John says: “Funnily enough, we had just had a delivery of malt – the standard in quality has been fluctuating because of the bad summer weather – but this lot from Simpsons of Berwick was fantastic. I put the hydrometer in the beer to test the strength and I thought I’d made a mistake. It came out at 6% alcohol by volume but we’ve put it out at 5.3% ABV.
Frank Kell reckoned that, in the Sixties, Watneys went for the lowest common denominator. But what I think they did was simplify it too much. When we brewed it, it came out ruby-red-to-black in colour, like Guinness. We’re now selling lots of it. The Sun Inn at Beamish Museum shifts a lot, as it’s popular with visitors from the South.”
John and his wife Joanne were the creative force behind The Beamish Mary pub in No Place, County Durham, when it rose from no place to national award-winner through selling very good beer, fine food, and by knowing instinctively what people wanted. The pair then leased The Sun Inn at Beamish Museum. John is now revelling in The Clarendon/Bull Lane one-man-bandery but Joanne still has her place in The Sun.
Of course, breweries and pubs don’t run on their own and John is fortunate to have a bar manager and brewer of the calibre of Len Carrick, a chef by trade and former catering manager at Vaux. When that iconic brewery closed, he went to McMullens Brewery in Hertfordshire.
John and Len are brewing three times a week to keep up with the pub’s demand plus The Sun Inn’s regular order and the Beamish Mary’s where a special beer is gaining in popularity.
“We brew one called Eve,” says John. “Graham Ford the publican named it after his daughter, who he says was conceived when we were all at the World Cup in Germany. So, we just had to do a Berliner Weissbier. The Beamish Hall Hotel takes some of our beer and it’s great for us to be in such a fabulous place. The Causey Equestrian Centre near Stanley is taking some specials, too. We’ve recently put in a new fermenter to cope and we hope to go into bottling at some time. It’s about as far as we can go until I get the back yard re-sited – it turns out there’s a mortuary slab there from the undertakers which used to be next door.”
Len displays his knowledge of Sunderland by adding: “The ice house for the mortuary was also at the back so there are quite a few ghosts. They must all hate electricity because it does some funny things in here.”
All this came to light when the pub had a problem with blocked sewage. John discovered the entrance to what he believes were smugglers’ tunnels which led to the River Wear and to a church where contraband was off-loaded from ships.
Bull Lane is about to produce a one-off beer for the Pelaw Grange Greyhound Stadium in Birtley, County Durham. The dog-track is committed to cask-conditioned beers as owner, Jeff McKenna, is a particular enthusiast. Black Sheep is a permanent fixture and local micro-breweries beers are regularly alternated.
Jeff says: “It’s going really well here at the moment; the general trade seems to be having a difficult time, but real ales are benefiting from that – we find they’re getting more and more popular, particularly with younger people. We’re already planning our annual beer festival for next March.”
The Clarendon’s own best-selling local favourite is Nowtsa Matta (4.4% ABV), named in honour of a local “bag lady’s” catch-phrase. It has some wheat in its mix with a citrus hop aroma and flavour influence, reminiscent of grapefruit. A layer of maltiness balances a very good beer indeed.
“I find people these days want what I call simpler beers,” says John. “They want cooler and cleaner-tasting beers. I’ve been in the pub trade a long time and when I first started, we were serving beer at 55F (14C) – now people wouldn’t dream of drinking beer at that temperature, it’s far too warm.”
It’s fair to say that The Clarendon is unusual in design. There is nothing pub-catalogue choice about its surroundings and furnishings and the view from the rear window across the River Wear to where it bends under the Wearmouth Bridge is magnificent. It’s easy to imagine 250 years of an area of Sunderland teaming with shipping from long-forgotten ports, plus three breweries and 160 pubs.
A huge Brooke Bond Tea enamel sign is the immediate pub eye-opener; chapel chairs with a shelf at the back for prayer books have found a new and unintended lease of life, as has an old kitchen pulley.
“I collected all the stuff from different salvage places although I always knew what I was after,” says John. “The traditional ship lino on the floor is more practical than wooden floorboards.”
This report was originally scheduled for a fortnight ago. The distance ’twixt Clarendon bar and Bull Lane Brewery is a few short steps, but once you’re there it gets confusing and very easy to lose all track of time. Three little words – damn fine beer – can lose you 11 days.