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.
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.
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)