Inn guides, whether sponsored or not, have long been a feature of the British way of life — part of the fabric you might almost say. But they have tended to concentrate more on the places which find themselves on calendars and Christmas cards and not at all on the pubs which are the warp and woof of the brewers’ investment.
Derek Cooper, The Beverage Report, 1970.
The very first edition of CAMRA’s newsletter, What’s Brewing, from June 1972, contained an important statement of intent: work had begun on a guide to pubs which would focus solely on ‘the merit of their ale’ without regard to ‘Historic value, trendiness, outside surroundings or other such criteria’. It was to be called ‘the List’ and, as we would say these days, was to be ‘crowd-sourced’ — that is, collated from the recommendations of members all over the country.
In addition to their focus on food, music, go-go dancers and architecture, rather than beer, previous pub guides also had other flaws.
- Geographical coverage. Egon Ronay’s pub guides, from 1963 (as far as we can tell), tended to focus on London; as, of course, did Green and White’s guides to London Pubs from 1965. Even when Ronay went national, London got far more than its fair share.
- Method. Derek Cooper mocks the ‘specially trained team’ who surveyed c.1,000 pubs on Ronay’s behalf: what made them qualified to judge? This review of the 1983 edition questions how they chose which pubs to consider and whether they had enough data to work from, having visited too few.
CAMRA’s List emerged as the Good Beer Guide — a stapled, 18 page leaflet — and, eventually, in 1974, became a 96-page printed and bound book, with the help of the printing arm of board-game manufacturer Waddington’s. (Beric Watson, the firm’s Managing Director, was a ‘traditional draught’ drinker himself and had, in fact, published the unfortunately titled Hand-Pulled Beer and Buxom Barmaids, a guide to pubs in Leeds, c.1971.)
The first run of 30,000 copies of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide (GBG) sold out within six months of its publication in April 1974, despite (or because of, Brewdog-style…?) some headline-grabbing controversy over its suggestion that Watney’s should be avoided ‘like the plague’, censored by the printers at the last minute, and amended to read ‘at all costs’.
It seems, pretty instantly, to have become an institution — the perfect Christmas present for a beer-loving relative, a nice fit for the glove box of the car. By the time the second edition went to print, however, the realisation had dawned that pubs could come out of the Guide as well as go in, and some landlords sulked, just as they do today.
The 1976 edition of Ronay, while it still makes plenty of mention of food, looks to us like a blatant attempt to imitate the look and tone of the GBG. The simply-titled Pub Guide includes an entire page on ‘Real ale versus keg’, somehow managing to explain the whole ‘controversy’ and the success of ‘persistent comsumer pressure’ in preserving cask ale, without mentioning CAMRA. The term ‘real ale’ is scattered throughout, marked against those pubs offering it, though without quite going as far as to use it as a benchmark for quality.
These days, Des de Moor’s CAMRA Guide to London’s Best Beer, Pubs & Bars and Will Hawkes’ Craft Beer London iOS app represent something of a return to Ronay’s approach — geographically specific, and ‘curated’, with no real pretence of democracy — but retain the GBG’s relentless focus on beer above all else. Meanwhile, ‘user-generated’ pub review websites offer the opposite: access to the unedited reactions of thousands of pub-goers, each offering a rating based on their mood, the state of the toilets, whether their dog got a bowl of water, and, just occasionally, the quality of the beer, averaged out to a more-or-less meaningful number.
Forty editions later, the GBG, slap-bang in the middle between those two approaches, keeps coming out, and keeps selling.