Not a Good Beer Guide but a Great Source

Copies of the Good Beer Guide.

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.

8 thoughts on “Not a Good Beer Guide but a Great Source”

  1. “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.”

    Is the “finding the best beer” remark because of poor real ale pubs in the guide or the lack of non real ale pubs?

    Can’t think of a single instance of a keg only pub I’d recommend other than as a “try also”.

    Not in this country anyway.

    While not perfect, the GBG is more likely to lead you to good pubs and beer than not. In my experience at least. YMMV.

    1. Bit of both — too many pubs with GK IPA-type stuff seem to get listed for our tastes, and we also want to know if there’s a Brewdog bar in town, or Belgian bottled beer.

      It works for plenty of people, going by sales figures, just not for us.

  2. Couldn’t agree more. A great resource for pinning down what was available in any given year and which breweries were knocking around. I was lucky enough to already own most edition since 1990 and a few from the 1980’s. I think I’ve pretty much got a complete set. Even the one with a picture of my brother and a few of my mates on the back cover. Late 1970’s one, that was.

    But I’ve been left longing for setails of the beers it didn’t cover – pretty much everything bottled. When exactly did all the Brown Ales, Light Ales and Sweet Stouts disappear?

    1. Frank Baillie gets us as far as 1973 and then, you’re right — there doesn’t seem to be a single source of information on the availability of bottled beers thereafter. It might be worth writing to What’s Brewing to see if there are any aged beer geeks out there who kept a personal record, though.

      Got the 1979 GBG in front of me now. Can’t guess which one is your brother, though, unless he’s the one with the girl in dungarees sat on his lap…?

      1. I don’t have it to hand at the moment, but I believe he had lots of hair at the time. The one sticking his tongue out is Simon, who was in my class at school.

    2. What’s Brewing carried the occasional piece on things like brown ale, BION, and when the current digitisation of the WB archives is complete, that will be an invaluable aid. I have stacks of What’s Brewings going back to 1977, but searching through them is a PITA. Which?, I believe, used to review beers, but even if you’re a member, their online archive only goes back to 2005.

      Certainly I agree that the GBG is a great resource, and for pubs history so are local Camra guides. I have bought all the GBGs every year from 1976, a mate gave me a battered 1975 and I have the 25th anniversary reprint of the 1974.: the real thing goes for £150+ on eBay.

  3. There is are definite stage that any guide goes through as it ages: 1-2 years old, useful account of the current scene; 3-5 years old, increasingly unhelpful and inaccurate guide; 6-10 years, pretty much useless; 11-20 years, increasingly interesting contrast with today: 20-40 years, more and more fascinating picture of the past; 41-90 years growing in usefulness as a historical document; over 91 years, vital portrait of times gone buy; over 150 years, irreplaceable record.of a vanished era. Just wait until 2124 and that first edition GBG will be locked up in the British Library Rare Documents section

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