In 1974 the first edition of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide was published. We spoke to those who were involved in its genesis to find out how it came to be. Here is the story in the words of those who were there, a version of which first appeared in the summer 2017 edition of BEER magazine.
Early CAMRA member, and first editor of the Good Beer Guide
We all knew we liked proper beer but the problem was, we didn’t know where to drink – we didn’t know where the pubs were. There was Frank Baillie’s Beer Drinker’s Companion but that was all about the breweries, not the pubs, although it did give you an idea of their trading areas. And the brewers… The brewers wouldn’t give me any information! I rang up one and asked them which were their pubs and which sold proper beer and they wouldn’t tell me because they thought I was from Watney’s or Whitbread: ‘We don’t know who you are.’
Co-founder and first chair of CAMRA
John Young [of Young’s brewery] was championing cask ale in a very serious way, and had been holding out for a decade before CAMRA came along. He thought of himself as the only one left. Young’s had never been a particularly profitable company. They had some pretty dingy pubs, and a very ‘bitter’ bitter that was going out of fashion. In 1963, he’d been approached by Derek Peebles, a former naval officer, who said: ‘What you need is a PR campaign, and I’m the man to do it!’ What he did was put together the first ever comprehensive list of Young’s pubs under the title ‘Real Draught Beer and Where to Find It’.
The Young’s guide was undoubtedly an influence, very much so. With Young’s you could guarantee that all their pubs would have proper beer. John Young deserves a lot of credit.
Journalist, CAMRA National Executive member
[The Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood] were too cosy with the big brewers, they didn’t want to rock the boat. They thought we were a bunch of hot-blooded young troublemakers. When we were putting together the Good Beer Guide, they were appalled at the idea. I remember one pin-striped lawyer saying ‘Listen, old boy, if we have a list [of real ale pubs] we’ll be sued by the brewers.’ But we wanted the bastards to take us to court!
The first CAMRA Good Beer Guide, the 1972 edition, was a loose leaf publication with 300 pubs and 18 pages. We sold it in pubs for 25p.
It was typewritten and photocopied, and the pages were assembled in folders by half a dozen of us. The job was done on a wallpaper table in my flat in North Finchley.
CAMRA campaigner and beer writer
I paid about £11 for my copy at auction. It’s a slim, blue, spiral-bound folder and it is titled Where to find Real Draught Beer. This original guide is a real mish-mash with only six pubs in the whole of Yorkshire and all of those in the Huddersfield area, which was the home of the first CAMRA branch. There were 16 entries in Henley-on-Thames all serving Brakspear’s ales and other small towns well represented were Salisbury with eight and Amersham, Devizes and Great Missenden with six each. Even Little Missenden had a couple. London and Manchester had the largest number of entries but there were none at all for Bristol, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool and Sheffield.
We didn’t have many branches then so I spent hours and hours of my life visiting areas trying to find pubs. I’ve sometimes said that I was doing so much of the work myself that I was a one man branch. In those days there was no breathalyzer and there was little traffic compared to today so I’d get in my car and go out to fill in gaps myself. The only source of information I had was talking to people in pubs – where else is there that has good beer? It was a dodgy old situation back then. I went out one evening to Henley-on-Thames with my notebook and a few suggestions and visited no less than ten or twelve different pubs. Then we missed a year in 1973 while we worked on the commercial version.
I read something about Beric Watson, managing director of Waddington of Kirkstall Ltd, a printing subsidiary of Waddingtons of Leeds, which produced Monopoly and Cluedo, among many other board games. Beric was described as a beer lover and I arranged to meet him in The Guinea, a wonderful old pub in Mayfair. He immediately offered to publish the guide, which removed any financial risk for CAMRA. The Campaign appointed John Hanscomb to be the editor because of his amazing knowledge of real ale, pubs and breweries. I was the production editor, responsible for overseeing the guide’s printing, and a Manchester-based commercial artist, Trevor Hatchett, was chosen to design it. In addition, Tom Linfoot, another passionate ale drinker from Kent, was assistant editor, helping Hanscomb to compile lists of suitable pubs. Coverage of some areas of the country was patchy and just before the deadline, we discovered that one county, Huntingdonshire, had no pubs recommended at all. With typical enthusiasm, Hanscomb and his wife Rose set off in their car on a Sunday morning to put matters right. They returned with seven pubs, six of them serving Charles Wells beers and one offering Greene King ales. A glance at the map in the guide shows that all the pubs were along a fairly straight line, corresponding to the A1 trunk road, which Hanscomb explained was the only way that he and Rose could complete their task in the two hours pubs were allowed to open on Sunday lunchtime back then.
CAMRA chair 1972–73
I was the outgoing chairman of CAMRA at the York AGM in spring ’74. That’s when the row with the publisher blew up: Waddington’s were spooked by their lawyer telling them that the original Watney comment was actionable.
I penned that famous line about Watney’s: ‘Avoid like the plague’.
PR executive at Watney Mann & Truman Brewers
Nineteen-seventy-four started with the three-day week, lasting through January and February, when the Government mandated that businesses could only operate for three days a week, in order to save power. I well remember whole areas of London going completely unlit for hours at a time at night, including street lights. Obviously, the pub trade suffered. At one point, I think the share price for Grand Metropolitan [Watney’s parent company from 1972] dropped to 19p, and I recall being told that Watney Mann & Truman Brewers was running at a severe loss. Quite a number of staff lost their jobs and there was a real feeling of not knowing if you would be next. The old Watney Mann marketing and PR people were vociferously opposed to CAMRA and everything it stood for, so it would not surprise me if the publishers were right to have concerns over the possibility of Watney Mann suing.
Beric Watson, a bit of a stooge, was dispatched by his brother Victor, who called the shots, to tell us that we needed to agree to change the comment or the GBG could not be published. Waddington wasn’t an experienced book publisher and did not handle the situation very professionally. I always felt that they should have spotted the problem earlier or taken a stance to publish and be damned. But they didn’t do either and instead made the hospital pass to CAMRA’s Nation Executive. The situation was pretty gut-wrenching for us. On the one hand we felt that our freedom of opinion and expression were being curtailed and, in those early days, they were really the only campaigning weapons we had. On the other hand, failure to publish would have had serious campaigning and financial repercussions which might even have been catastrophic. There was as much heat as there was light in the NE’s debate on what to do for the best. It was not a pleasant meeting to chair. When I left York, I remember feeling that it had been the most tiring weekend of my life. I don’t think that feeling has been surpassed in the 42 years since. I was so relieved to give up the chair to Gordon Massey.
The plague edition Guide was delivered to the De Grey Rooms in York which was the venue of the 1974 AGM. I had agreed to help unload the van so that the contents could be made available on the morning of the first session. Waddington’s had apparently agreed to reprint at their expense and would we mind awfully if we just loaded them all back onto the van again so that they could be sent back to Leeds for pulping? In our annoyance and frustration it is just possible that some of the packets were ‘accidentally’ damaged and the contents liberated. I still have my extremely dog-eared copy and my wife the censored version, and I think that any other copies of the original version must have must have seen the light of day in the same way.
What’s Brewing, April 1974
‘But the following week, Watson presented new plans to CAMRA for rescuing the guide. These involved changing only one phrase in the whole book: advising drinkers to avoid Watney pubs “at all costs” instead of “like the plague”.’
Michael [Hardman] was our head of publishing. Ultimately, after much soul searching, he decided it was best to compromise and agreed the revised wording with Waddington’s. I thought he was right and backed him, and the decision to run with the revised wording was ultimately agreed by the NE.
I didn’t like the change at all. I was so upset at what Watney’s were doing, out in places like Norfolk especially.
The disagreement, although tedious, resulted in a huge wave of publicity for the guide and when it was eventually released, it quickly began to sell out.
I had quite a few journalists from national newspapers ring me at home to ask, ‘Why should we avoid them like the plague?’
The irony was that the disputed words were printed in newspapers and repeated on radio and television and not one of them was issued with a writ for defamation. The upshot was that Watney’s were avoided like the plague.
CAMRA member, beer historian
Flicking through the 1974 guide I realise it was really crap for me locally [in Newark] and Nottinghamshire in general. No pubs listed at all in my bit of Notts. But I looked at it a lot, just to learn about the different breweries around the country. There weren’t many sources at the time. It was great to have concise and reasonably complete information in one place. It opened my eyes to what was around – so many different beers around the country.
In 1974 I was working on a construction site – the M42 motorway in the Midlands. I recall being given a copy of the Guide by a colleague when I was 17-years-old. It was the first guide to pubs that I had seen. Coverage was far from comprehensive – there was only one pub in Birmingham – but I can recall that a pub near to my parents’ house was listed, the Railway in Dorridge, which prompted me to visit.
I bought mine after seeing a friend’s copy. I was a student at Salford University at the time and I couldn’t wait to start using it. A friend and I went on a mission to track down and sample as many beers as possible. I was like a kid in a sweet shop. The often pithy, one-line comments were enough to convey all you needed to know about a pub.
At the time I thought that it was wonderfully useful in spite of the relatively poor coverage by modern standards. There was nothing else worth having. By the time of its replacement in 1975 I had marked off quite a few pubs that had fallen victim to the ongoing fizzification of cask beers at the time.
CAMRA branch organiser, South Lancashire
Locally the Guide was a bit of a disaster. I don’t know who did the survey but the only pub in the centre of St. Helens referred to in the guide sold bitter from cellar tanks via electric pumps. Needless to say in was removed from the Guide almost immediately.
I was a Medical Student in London and going out with a nurse. One weekend we were visiting her parents in Guildford with her brother and his girlfriend. He was a [keg] Worthington E drinker and I was trying to convert him to real ale. I had the Good Beer Guide and chose a Gale’s pub just outside the town, which we hadn’t visited before. We set off at about 8 o’clock and as we drove through Guildford we heard a dull thump. We thought we had driven over a loose manhole cover and drove on to the pub. On leaving, we tried to drive back but the town was in lock-down and all roads were closed. We got home about an hour later to find our parents in an almost hysterical state knowing only that we had gone out for a drink in a pub in the town. I later worked out that we had driven past The Horse & Groom about five seconds before it was hit by the IRA bomb. If I hadn’t had the Guide with its comment about Gale’s – ‘Good choice of excellent beers’ – we may have well been in the town that night. I married the nurse and I have bought the Good Beer Guide every year since then.
CAMRA activist, chair in 1978
It is easy for some latter day CAMRA members to knock what the very early years produced in terms of publications, beer festivals, and so on, but we were pioneers. There were no crib sheets, no owner’s handbooks, no workshop manuals. When those first guides appeared they should have been hailed unreservedly as successes, not knocked. They paved the way for many more wonderful publications, and gave careers to beer writers.
I wasn’t involved in editing the next edition. It was a difficult time in my life – I was working in the print trade and doing funny shifts – so I wasn’t sad to hand it on to Michael Hardman. I knew him well and he was a good man and I knew he’d look after it. I still get it every year – I have a regular order and get one of the first copies off the presses though my door.
* * *
The above was compiled from interviews and correspondence between 2012 and 2016, with some light editing for clarity and length. Thanks, as always, to Uncle Adrian who let us borrow his copy of the 1974 Good Beer Guide.