The Internet Times Supplement

Watneys Red Barrel – The Party Seven

In Food & Drink on January 17, 2010 at 1:44 pm



UPDATE: 2013 is the 200th anniversary of the tin can… the BBC has an excellent article on this here.


I saw this article in the Times and it brought back many memories of parties during the 70’s. For those who are not British, a Party Seven was what you took to a party. Why? Probably because it was easier and less risky to carry a can with you Party Seven? It contained 7 pints of what could loosely be described as beer. Fine if opened and drunk in a very short space of time (as were the typical consumers of this product) but very quickly becoming rather insipid in taste and, as the article indicates, tasting rather oddly of iron filings.

For those parties where we hoped to get invited to and turned up carrying one or more of these there was the chilling moment of actually opening one of these ‘volcanoes in a can’. There are many tales of trying to open one of these monstrosities. Often the rather dramatic beer fountain was as a result of deliberate shaking of one of these prior to arrival. We would keep the unshaken can for ourselves and leave the other for an unwary and invariably drunken guest to open for our general amusement. Invariably, someone (normally with a large droopy moustache and glazed eyes – the sort who can open bottles with a lighter – would rummage around the (often) unfamiliar house for a hammer and a screwdriver) in a creative moment would try in desperation to use a can opener but the rim of the can was variable in height to say the least. Many a kitchen ceiling had a dappled appearance after any effort to open them. Using a dishcloth, towel, or even a t-shirt did little to contain the high pressure contents. The floor of the kitchen would become grey and sticky throughout the evening and with the coming of day light a mop did little to diffuse the rather rancid smell that often accompanied the beer if left open too long. The other problem was that many saw the container as a handy ashtray to the peril of the unwary drinker in a desperate search for any remaining alcohol in the early ours. Gravel on your teeth.

The brewer (Watney’s) had created a large tin with an equally large/deep lip on it. The standard method of opening all beer cans (and essential popularity tool for all parties) at the time was to use a can piercer such as this one:

Or, the ‘deluxe’ model which also included a corkscrew.

Which got me to thinking about the opening of containers and how these tools arose from a need to open them. That is, the preservation of food in metal containers. I did some research on this topic and was actually quite surprised at the information I found. Before I go into this I will point out a couple of things. First of all, if you are NOT left-handed you would not truly know how difficult a standard ‘modern’ can opener is to use. I had so much difficulty using one of these I actually sourced and found a can opener for left-handed use. In fact, it would be rather easy to digress here with regard to left-handedness but I will refrain for the moment. Suffice to say, there are many areas in our lives that have been developed by right-handed people that truly impinge on the ability of a left-hander to function at a similar level e.g. the numeric keypad on computers is predominantly on the right side as are many of the movement controls.

Secondly, I began to think of the last time I used a can opener. We cook most of our food with fresh ingredients and have few cans or tins in our kitchen apart from those ingredients which are either difficult to find fresh, are easier to have in tins (e.g. tinned sweetcorn), or only (usually) come in tins (e.g. sardines). the majority of these now come in self-opening tins with a little key on the lid. Regardless of your diet and how you prepare food, the advances in food packaging have been significant to the point of ridiculousness in many cases (over packaging). Most packaging is geared to presenting the contents in an appealing manner while also preserving/protecting the contents. Some pictures here. Invariably, the picture on the outside bears little or no resemblance to the contents and there are several web sites that have taken pictures of the food as shown on the packaging compared to the contents. Here is a mildly witty one here. The primary site for this is ‘Advertising v Reality’ here. Personally, while some of these products do taste really good, often the ingredients are enough to make you gag.

The benefit versus content of a Watney’s Party Seven was what made it. Often the holder of the last Party Seven at a party would become very popular indeed.

Nicolas Appert

Which got me to searching about canning itself. The whole process itself being kick started (apparently) by Napoleon, famous for his ‘an army marches on its stomach’ statement. In 1800 he offered a prize of 12,000 francs (a considerable sum at the time) for anyone who could solve the problem of preserving food for use by an army on the move. This may seem to be a trivial request but at the time this was a huge supply and logistics problem that had led to many battles being lost, troop desertion (should that be dessert-tion?) and/or local dissatisfaction due to looting and pillaging by hungry troops. Some time later the solution was perfected by Nicolas Appert, a Frenchman from Châlons-en-Champagne, who had been experimenting with ways of preserving food for many years. He won the prize and was reputedly the prompter for the ‘marches on its stomach’ statement from Napoleon. Appert even wrote a book, ‘L’Art De Conserver, pendant plueieurs annes, Toutes les Substances Animales et Vegetales’ which translated means “The art of preserving all kinds of animal and vegetable substances for several years”. He used the prize money to build a canning/bottling plant using the prize money but it burnt down in 1814 or so and was rebuilt some time later.

Little is truly known of the man himself other than fairly basic stuff. He could never explain how his invention worked and it is important to note that it would be about 50 years or so before the discoveries by Pasteur related to bacteria. He simply stated that food that is partially heated, sealed with corks or stoppers, and then heated in boiling water would not go bad. 2010 (two thousand ten!!!) is in fact the 200 hundredth anniversary of this invention and this has been declared so by the French Minister of Culture. There is even a site specifically about Appert here.

The upshot of his invention meant that Napoleon’s troops had a strategic advantage over any enemy as they could keep their troops fed and properly provisioned while also keeping them mobile. Prior to this the problems with poor diet, rickets, and ill health had a significant debilitating effect on his forces. The advantage became such a problem for the English that Appert’s process was patented in England by Peter Durand, a London merchant, in 1810, who included the provision for using ‘tin canisters’ when he registered the patent. The rights to this were purchased by the firm of Donkin, Hall & Gamble who went on to set up the world’s first canning factory in London in 1813. The new tin-coated wrought iron cans provided a much easier means of supplying British and foreign soldiers and sailors, explorers and travellers with familiar preserved meats, fishes and vegetable foodstuffs, away from home. Previously many jars and bottles were easily broken and required lots of packing to prevent this. Durand covered his iron cans (which would rust) with a thin plating of water resistant tin and invented the “tin can”. By 1813 Durand was supplying the Royal Navy with a steady stream of canned meat.

The effort expended on preventing the contents of the handmade cans from spoilage was such that there was little thought given to how the contents of the tins could be accessed. The first cans were opened near the top by using a hammer and chisel or whatever was available – bayonets, hunting knives, and even shooting the tops off. It was not for about forty years or so that the the first can openers were patented and made available. “Bully Beef” came with its own can-opener and they were so popular that these openers are relatively easy to find even after so much time. Before the finger-severing ‘corned beef key’ openers were fitted to the cans, this is what you would get with a tin:

It was not until many decades later that the first beer in a can was produced in Newark, USA by the Gottfried Krueger Brewery. (fascinating about the mansion too!).

But that is another tale entirely.

  1. Hi there. can you still purchase watneys red barrel party seven and if so do you know where from. Many thanks. Sue

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