Dissecting a 1984 Local Beer Guide

What can we learn from the small book Real Ale in Devon published by the local branch of the Campaign for Real Ale in 1984?

Book cover: Real Ale in Devon, 1984.1. It is evidence of the increasing availability of ‘real ale’ in this period. With a hundred pages, this volume is as big as the first edition of the national Good Beer Guide, published ten years earlier. The introduction notes a huge boom in the number of ‘real ale outlets’ since the previous edition, and there 1050 listed in total.

2. Beer agencies were important players in the development of a beer geek culture. That is, distributors (middle men) who brought interesting outside beer into the region (Samuel Smith, Wadworth, Fuller’s, Theakston) at a price. Businesses of this type still exist, notably supplying kegged beer to the emerging ‘craft beer’ market currently neglected, or misunderstood, by larger distributors.

Vintage Sheppard & Mason beer agency advert.
Note cut-and-paste Letraset fail at bottom right… And here’s Mr Sheppard on Twitter.

3. Bass is an honorary West Country beer. Since veteran observer the Pub Curmudgeon pointed it out to us, we’ve seen lots of evidence to support the idea that, beyond Bristol, Draught Bass was the traditional ‘premium’ alternative to poor quality locally brewed beers. This book describes it as ‘one of the commonest real ales in Devon’.

4. It was easier to get strong dark beer than pale’n’hoppy. There are several ‘strong winter’ ales listed, but nothing described as straw/golden coloured. Small brewers back then seem to have staked their reputations on producing heavier, headier beer than the thin, weak products turned out by big brewers. Marston’s Owd Roger old ale/barley wine had people rather excited.

5. There were several stand-out exhibition pubs. Where most pubs in the guide hada single real ale on offer (e.g. Whitbread Bitter), several leap out of the text with long lists. The Royal Inn at Horsebridge had nine ales, including some brewed on the premises; and the Peter Tavy at, er, Peter Tavy, has fourteen in its listing. There are quite a few others with similar numbers, and many more with six or seven.

6. The phrase ‘guest beers’, so important in the 1990s, was in use by this time. It is the antidote to the big brewery tied house model and an expression of a certain type of beer geekery, perhaps stimulated more by novelty and variety than a simple ‘decent pint‘.

7. We need to think a bit more about cider and its place in the ‘real ale revolution’. Devon’s CAMRA activists were evidently particularly keen to defend and promote ‘real cider’, but, by this stage, seem to have had more success bringing beer from Yorkshire and London than in preserving the true native drinking tradition.

8. Blackawton was the trendiest brewery in the county. It was Devon’s first microbrewery, and one of the first in the country, founded in 1977. We wonder if the presence of Blackawton beer in a pub wasn’t a kind of Bat Signal for beer geeks, rather as a Magic Rock pump clip is today.

9. If you didn’t like Courage, Plymouth was not the city for you. See also: Bristol.

(And a personal footnote: Bailey’s parents’ pub in Exeter sold Whitbread Bitter on hand-pump. Described as a ‘Town local’ in the text, it also, sadly, features in the addendum: “[The] following pubs should now be deleted…”)

We’re very grateful to Neil Bowness (@neil_bowness) for sending us a copy of this book which he tells us his mum bought for 20p at a church fair. Bargain!

9 thoughts on “Dissecting a 1984 Local Beer Guide”

  1. There are several ‘strong winter’ ales listed, but nothing described as straw/golden coloured.

    I wonder if Summer Lightning was even more important than we thought it was.

    As I remember it, right up to the mid-90s ‘strong’ almost invariably went with ‘dark’, whether you were looking at a stronger-than-usual bitter (e.g. Dogbolter), a Winter Warmer (e.g. Young’s, er, Winter Warmer) or an Old (Tom/Roger/Fred/etc). Golden barleywine did exist, but (apart from Gold Label!) it was very rare.

    Pursuing this train of thought, I started wondering what my first strong pale beer had been – it ought to have been a memorable occasion, after all. Look for that combination of ‘light’, ‘refreshing’, ‘dangerously strong’ in my memories and I’m thinking Stella Artois in Belgium in the 70s, I’m thinking Chimay White in a hotel bar in Dunkeld in 1993, and I’m thinking… Summer Lightning. I really think you’ll struggle to find anything strong and pale in Britain before it.

  2. I have a 1993 CAMRA Devon pub guide entitled “Moor to Sea”, which unusually is effectively a paperback book rather than being stapled or perfect bound.

    It’s strange that it lists all known real ale pubs at the back, but not all of them have full entries, leading to an oddly incomplete and patchy feel. I can’t believe there were only two pubs worth listing in Dartmouth. which has about 12 in total.

    Incidentally, while I did celebrate my 55th birthday last week, it takes me aback a bit to be described as a “veteran” :p

    1. Heh. We did think twice, but you’ve been writing your Opening Times column since before we left secondary school. That makes you a veteran in our eyes!

      1. You started drinking in the Nineties? This is going to annoy the hell out of you, but I can’t help saying it… That explains a lot.

        1. You might need to be a bit more blunt if you want to annoy us — at the moment, not sure what I’m meant to be taking offence at.

          1. I wasn’t going for anything as strong as annoyance – just consider yourselves slightly condescended to. My imaginary review of the book currently opens “With barely two decades’ drinking experience under their belts, the authors can hardly be called veterans! But sometimes it takes a newcomer to cast a fresh eye over those oh, so familiar stories…”

  3. I’d have been surprised if Draught Bass hadn’t been one of the most common real ales, not just in the West Country but almost anywhere in Britain at that time. You certainly saw it in Scotland too.

    1. Out of all the majors’ draught beers, Bass had a kind of honorary Decent Beer status well into the 1980s – as in, if you saw Tankard on draught you’d swerve it and order Guinness, but if you saw Bass you’d go for it.

  4. Draught Bass more than most other beers was widely distributed in the free trade even before the CAMRA era. Unlike most areas of the country, the West Country (and rural Wales) had a lot of free houses that would be open to it.

    I’m told that Robinson’s of Stockport are still resented on Anglesey for buying up a number of free houses in the 50s and 60s and kicking out Bass in favour of their own beers.

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