We’ve never been convinced of the benefits of CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide as a tool for finding the best pubs, and certainly not, in recent years, for finding the best beer. What we have come to realise, though, is its value as a source of historical information.
Our current project started with a 1978 edition of the Guide Bailey’s parents bought in a charity shop for 25p; we then bought a few more old editions, at exorbitant prices; before Boak’s uncle lent us well-used copies of the first five; and, finally, Ed Wray sent us a box containing nearly every GBG from the late seventies until 2006.
Quite apart from the pure data — numbers of breweries and beers, information on each brewery’s cask beers and any notable specialties — there are pages of editorial material which give a good indication of what was on the minds of beer geeks in any given year. The coming of ‘world beer’, beer tasting, nitro-keg and gastropubs are all recorded in short blog-post like articles. Anxieties over women in beer and the Campaign’s public image are played out.
Even the cover designs are telling — from Victoriana to twenty-first century cultural diversity, via idealised country pubs and real fires.
A schism over whether the 1989 Beer Orders were a good or bad thing rears its head: one edition says they are ‘universally popular’ while, the following year, they are described as disastrous.
Time and again, advances are heralded (new breweries, increasing sales of real ale) only to be undercut with a warning: beer and pubs are in trouble, so this is no time for complacency, comrades!
And here’s one small but interesting point of language: in the nineties, the GBG used the term ‘craft brewer’ frequently, without agonies over its definition.
We’ll be buying a copy this year, but will lay it down to mature.