Whitbread remembered

What is a quart? If you know that, you can probably remember the 1970s TV advert for Whitbread Trophy Bitter and the catchy jingle, “Whitbread Big Head Trophy Bitter, the pint that thinks it’s a quart.” If you’ve never seen it or you want a reminder, you can find it on YouTube.

I remember the advert whenever the name “Whitbread” appears on the business pages of the newspaper. According to their website, they are one of the country’s oldest and most respected companies. But they are no longer involved in brewing. They’ve evolved into the UK’s biggest hospitality company with brands including Premier Inn, Costa Coffee, Beefeater and Brewers Fayre.

The Whitbread story began in 1742 when Samuel Whitbread formed a partnership with Thomas Sherwell and acquired two small breweries in London. In 1750, Whitbread bought a site in Chiswell Street, East London, and built the first mass-production brewery in the UK. Steam power was used to industrialise the production of porter, which was hugely popular at the time.

By the end of the 18th century, Whitbread was the largest brewer in London, producing over 200,000 barrels per year. Successive generations of the Whitbread family built the company into a national brewer-retailer, with a large estate of tied pubs.

The 1950s and 60s was a period of consolidation in the brewing industry, and Whitbread began a programme of acquiring small breweries. By the 1970s, the company had become Britain’s third-largest brewer by output. Brewing continued at the Chiswell Street site until 1976, and it is now used as a conference and events venue.

Eventually, Whitbread became one of the notorious “Big Six” breweries which, in the 1980s, produced 75% of Britain’s beer output and owned more than half the country’s pubs. Mrs Thatcher’s government was concerned about the lack of competition and, in 1989, banned brewers from owning more than 2,000 pubs.

This measure eventually resulted in Whitbread refocussing its business to concentrate on hotels, restaurants and coffee shops. In 2001, the company sold off its breweries to the Belgian group, Interbrew. At that time, it was producing Whitbread beers plus Boddingtons, Wadworth 6X, Murphy’s Irish Stout, Heineken and Stella Artois.

Soon afterwards, Whitbread sold off its 3,000-strong pub estate. The majority of these ended up with Enterprise Inns.

In 2014, Whitbread launched a small chain of gastro pubs known as Whitbread Inns. According to a spokeswoman, the aim was to “bring the classic pub and restaurant feel back to the local community.” Ironic, don’t you think, that a company that abandoned thousands of traditional pubs is now trying to recreate them, even on a small scale?

And what is a quart? A quart is a unit of volume equal to two pints or a quarter of a gallon – hence the name.