The Cream of Manchester: the decline and fall of Boddingtons cask bitter 1974-2012

Boddington's advertisement from the 1980s: 'Everybody Loves someboddies sometimes.'

This is a guest post by John Robinson who joined CAMRA c.1973 and was inspired by our writing about the decline of Boddington’s Bitter to undertake some research of his own. He asked us to share this post on his behalf. We’ve undertaken some light editing for readability and house style but otherwise this is John’s own work.

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Recently, on social media, there has been nostalgic discussion about Boddington’s Bitter — how good it was, what colour it was, how bitter it was and crucially, when it started to decline in quality. Focus in the debate has been, so far, largely subjective. What follows is a more objective analysis.

There has been renewed interest in the Boddington’s cask-conditioned bitter that was produced in the 1960s to the 1980s. It was widely regarded as one of the finest examples of its genre in Britain. In 2012 it ceased to exist completely in cask form although there appear to be two versions still available in keg/can form. Much of the discussion that has occurred centres around when the decline in quality occurred, with a variety of dates being mentioned, spanning the 1970s/80s. The aim of this research is to try and make an objective judgement about the decline and pinpoint when it commenced via Boddington’s tied house postings in the CAMRA Good Beer Guide (GBG).

My approach was to collate GBG entries for Boddington’s tied houses for the period 1974-1994, with Boddington’s tied houses are defined as the 256 listed in the guidebook Boddington’s published c.1973. Analysis of the results identifies four periods in the life of Boddingtons’ tied houses in the GBG.

Boddington's tied houses graph.
SOURCE: John Robinson/CAMRA Good Beer Guides 1974-1994.
Period 1: 1974-1983

The first Good Beer Guide, 1974, is fairly widely acknowledged, not least by its editor, as an imperfect document. There were few branches in existence during the previous 18 months when the Guide was put together. It was not, then, unsurprising that only a small number of Boddington’s Pubs were represented. This number grew rapidly over the next three years to 79, the height of Boddington’s popularity, with 31 per cent of their tied house estate represented. There was a fall to 66 by 1979 and down to 53 by 1983. This can be seen to be the period where Boddington’s was at its peak.

Period 2: 1984-1990

Pubs listed fell from 53 in 1983 to 33 in 1984. There are generally acknowledged to be three reasons why a pub is deleted from the GBG: when a tenant/manager changes; when a pub closes; and when the beer quality is perceived to have fallen. Pubs are not deleted from the GBG lightly and the decision often involves passionate debate at Branch Meetings. This 37 per cent fall is, I feel, significant and does accord with what some felt to be a decline in quality during that period. The GBGs over the whole period do not comment adversely regarding the Bitter so it cannot be said that GBG comments were leading the decisions. Boddington’s did take over Oldham Brewery in 1982 but kept the brewery open for some years and there does not seem to be a geographical pattern to the deletions. For example, in Preston and north of same, 7 pubs were deleted from a total of 18 (39 per cent) by comparison with 37 per cent over the whole area of the GBG. At least three different CAMRA branches were involved (Blackpool, Fylde & Wire; Lunesdale; and Central Lancashire) in the posting of Boddington’s pubs in this area.

Period 3: 1991-1994

A period when the number of Boddingtons’ pubs in the GBG varied between 27 and 35 ending the period 2 higher than at the beginning. Perhaps there was no discernible further decline in quality but only 35 from 255 pubs is a pretty miserable proportion — less than 14 per cent.

Period 4: 1991-1994

Endgame. There were 14 pubs listed in 1991; 8 pubs listed in 1993; and no pubs listed in 1994. Perhaps most interesting is how 14 pubs managed to remain listed for so long.

On the basis of this research quality probably declined at two points: 1983 and again in 1990.

Sources

boakandbailey.com
Boddington’s, c.1973, J.Burrow & Co. Ltd
CAMRA Good Beer Guide, various editions 1974-1994
Local Brew, Mike Dunn, 1986 (referred to at boakandbailey.com)

16 thoughts on “The Cream of Manchester: the decline and fall of Boddingtons cask bitter 1974-2012”

  1. While I’m a North-West lad, I grew up on the western side of the region and had little exposure to Boddingtons in the years that were considered to be its heyday. I have to say on the few occasions I did sample it in the 1977-80 period, for example in the Old Garratt in Manchester city centre, I did rather wonder what the fuss was about.

    After a few years working in the South-East, I moved back to the North-West at the end of 1984, and by then there was a general feeling that Boddingtons Bitter was a shadow of its former self. The big decline seems to have happened at some time between 1980 and 1984, which significantly is before they acquired Higsons, let alone were bought out by Whitbread. There are various rumours of a change in recipe and/or brewing process. One of the distinguishing features of the classic Boddies was that it was very fully fermented out, so from an original gravity of around 1035 it achieved a % ABV of 3.9 or even 4.0 😮

    It’s quite a staggering statistic that none of the 1973 Boddingtons tied houses were still in the GBG come 1994.

  2. I suspect that wider economic forces are playing a big part here – the 20 years from the 1973 date of the book saw three big recessions that struck at Boddies’ heartlands. So it would be interesting to find out how many of the 256 were still in business in 1994. But according to a Times article referenced in the Boddies’ Wiki article, they had 272 pubs _after_ the Oldham acquisition in 1982. I suspect Oldham had rather more than 16 pubs…

    Just a few other dates for context :
    1970 Charles Boddington retires after seeing off the Allied bid, Ewart Boddington takes over.
    1982 Buy Oldham Brewery, after which they have 272 pubs
    1983 Distribute to the Home Counties for 1st time (https://web.archive.org/web/20140302044856/http://www.huntscamra2.org.uk/download/ot136.pdf )
    1985 Buy Higsons, who come with 160 pubs
    1986 Up to 530 tied houses, start brewing Kaltenberg under licence
    1987 Reject Midsummer bid, 520 pubs
    1988 Closed Oldham
    1989 Sold brewery/brand to Whitbread
    1995 The pub estate (now down to 450 pubs) was sold to Greenalls, which ended up being split between Nomura (Inntrepreneur) and S&N in 1999.

    The conventional wisdom seems to be that it was the early 80s when Boddies first took a big leap down – looking at the history it seems to coincide with the Oldham acquisition but also the start of distribution down South. That feels like they had a big brewery that was left half-idle by the 1980s recession, so they were desperately trying to fill it by considering routes to market that they’d previously excluded. That feels like a time of financial pressure that would lead to the beancounters changing the recipe. It would be interesting to see what the Hop Marketing Board data on Boddies had to say – but one could imagine that they had kept to the very traditional hop varieties but then the financial pressure forced them to consider the new higher-alpha varieties which were cheaper but Didn’t Taste Like Hops In The Good Old Days.

    The decline after 1989 looks like a combination of the recession closing some pubs and (mostly) the aftermath of splitting the pubs from the brewery. I imagine that as leases expired a lot of tenants decided to follow fashion and go for a more keggy offering. Plus those that stuck with Whitbread-brewed Boddies would have suffered the effects of the massive expansion in production in the early 90s – but I suspect that’s secondary to changes in tie and changes in direction for individual pubs.

  3. I first tasted Boddies in 1974 in Carnforth which was as far away from Manchester as you could get it at that time. It was very bitter. Very pale. The best English bitter I ever tasted. Come 1979 it was still good but before 1983 it had calmed down and was pretty ordinary by then.

  4. I came to Manchester in 1982; Boddington’s was pretty thin on the ground, at least in my usual stamping-ground, but Boddies’ bitter was still spoken of in hushed tones (literally – I remember discussing possible pubs with my brother-in-law, visiting from Preston, and his reaction when I mentioned that one of them served Boddies’: well, let’s go there!). I must have had it a few times – I remember a class-conscious friend taking me to the Old Garratt circa 1985 (this is a proper working-men’s pub!) – but I’ve got no memory of it at all. So presumably the great decline in quality & distinctiveness had already taken place by then. (Although, to be honest, I was still into the brown malty stuff at this point, & wouldn’t necessarily have known a good pale bitter from a bad one.)

  5. Two things for me which were significant.
    1. The introduction of the gas widget into the cans sparking a big marketing campaign for the cans – which are not drunk in side pubs.
    2 The closure of Stangeways and su sequent change of water supply.

    1. The widget cans happened early in the Whitbread era – 90/91? My memory is that technically the adverts didn’t mention sales format – although obviously if you’re doing a national campaign then the nationally-distributed format will be the main beneficiary, but the advertising certainly boosted Boddies in pubs as well.

  6. Boddies purchased some pubs outside their usual trading area in the early 80s. I’m aware of 2 in Wirral that made the GBG so the reduction in entries of the core stock is probably greater than you suggest. BTW one of them still sports Boddintgons livery and they even refurbished the exterior hanging lights recently.

    1. @Birkonian They sound like some of the 160 Higson pubs bought in 1985?

      AIUI John’s methodology, he’s only looked at pubs that were in the estate in 1973, so your Wirral pubs would not be counted in the above graph.

  7. My first Boddies was in Manchester around Christmas 81. I remember it as a rather nice pint, certainly a lot better than the average for the time – other beers I tried in Manchester then were Wilsons, Warrington-brewed Tetleys and so on. Didn’t come across it again until 84, and my recollection was that it was much the same at that point – I have scribbled “still ok” against it in the GBG for that year. Mind you, similar competition, along with the malt-extract Lass O’Gowrie beers which I found very poor. The following year’s guide has “Not so hot” written against it, and my last annotated GBG (89) says “Avoid”. All deeply unscientific and subjective.

  8. I visited Manchester once or twice a year from 1972 until the late 80s, when my trips became more sporadic. Boddington’s Bitter was generally the first beer I sampled – and enjoyed enormously – on each visit, and I can remember the huge disappointment one year when it became clear from the first mouthful that the beer was different: much less bitter and really pretty unmemorable. I am pretty sure that that was in 1982 (probably the summer), and on my previous visit Boddington’s had been its old self. It certainly wasn’t later than 1982.

  9. I used to go to the Brewery Tap. The manager had previously run Mingles in Whitley Bay where I misspent some of my youth. Beer in fabulous condition and huge sarnies. There was another small boozer somewhere behind Victoria station that sold Boddies Mild and Bitter from the counter-mounted electric meters.

  10. Sorry, but I’d question the author’s analysis that there were no original Boddingtons pubs left in the GBG by 1994. Looking at my copy, I can find:

    The Railway, Heatley, Cheshire
    The Old Black Bull, Preston, Lancashire
    The Grapes, Altrincham, Greater Manchester

    All of which are listed as selling Boddingtons Bitter. There may well be others.

    Now, I don’t know for certain that these were on the 1973 pub list, but they were always Boddingtons pubs during the time that I knew them, and very much gave the impression of being originals rather than post-1973 acquisitions.

    The Crown in Stockport was not in the 1994 edition, but has certainly appeared many times since 1985 both as a Boddingtons tied house and in its current multi-beer free house incarnation.

  11. Having looked at the existing Boddington’s brewing records, I’d say that the major factor in Boddington’s would be 1) they probably stopped priming in the F.V @ the tail end of primary fermentation after about 1984 , although the records only run to 1983/4 .
    2) Hopping regime & varieties (inc aged hops)

    1. There’s also The Great Boddies Yeast Debate – did they lose their original multistrain yeast by accident, did they deliberately “clean it up”, did they change it for some other reason….

      It’s also been suggested that the big difference happened because they stopped fermenting it quite as fully (although that could be tied up with the yeast change, the original was notoriously attenuating).

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