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Historic brewery Watneys gets rebirth, launches £400,000 crowdfunding round

Once banished to the brewery history books, beer brand Watneys has been revived thanks to an unusual business model. CEO Nick Whitehurst told the drinks business why he doesn’t need his own brewery to make it a success.

London-based Watneys, which first began brewing in 1837, became a household name in the 20th century for producing one of Britain’s most infamous beers; Watneys Red Barrel.

The bitter’s reputation was so poor that, according to consumer review site Ratebeer, it is rumoured to have prompted the formation of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) in protest (although this has also been blamed on another beer, which launched shortly before CAMRA was formed in 1971).

The brand, also famous for creating draught beer Party Seven, was acquired by Grand Metropolitan a year later, which then merged with Truman, Hanbury and Buxton & Co in 1974. The brewing interests were then sold on to Scottish & Newcastle (since bought by Heineken in 2008), which led to Watneys’ eventual extinction.

“We started looking at the craft beer market about five years ago and realised it would explode,” Whitehurst told db.

Whitehurst began his career working on brand partnerships with Ministry of Sound in the early 00s. He then went on to become managing director and, later, a partner in marketing firm Whynot between 2004 and 2012, before reviving Watneys in 2014. Now, the company is about to finish its first crowdfunding campaign, having set a target of £400,000 earlier this year.

With the investment raised, it is hoped the Watneys beer brand will expand into new markets, such as retail and exports.

The brewing entrepreneur told db that he is leasing the rights to the Watneys name from Heineken, a move which he believes would give him a “head start”.

“One of the hardest things to do if you’re starting out in the beer business is building up your brand and building awareness,” he said. “There’s a lot of people today who would remember the Watney’s name, remember that beer.”

“We’re not saying it’s the only way of doing it but we think it gives us a head start and a different set of advantages.”

Watneys’ Red Barrel beer was a household name in the 20th century (Photo: Watneys)

Reanimating a dormant brand is not the only way Whitehurst is selling beer differently. Watneys does not, and will not for the foreseeable future, have its own brewery. Instead, The brand collaborates with local independent brewers to contract out their production and bring their beers to market.

The business model, Whitehurst said, “takes advantage of the 45% of UK breweries that have wasted capacity – minimising Watneys overhead and capital requirements.”

“We own the recipes and do the product development and the sales and marketing,” he said, “and instead use craft breweries to help us.

He added that the beer sold under the Watneys name today is a far cry from the notoriously bland and below-par suds it offered up in the 70s.

“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,” he said.

“Now we’re modern, relevant and have a business model to make Watneys a key brand in the craft beer market.”

Since launching the campaign this year, Watneys Beer Company has already raised £336,671 from 167 investors on crowdfunding platform Seedrs, while the company itself achieved 85% year on year growth in 2018.

Whitehurst said that “everything we do is brewed with today’s drinker in mind.”

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