Nineteen-Seventy-Four: Birth of the Beer Guide

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.

John Hanscomb
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.’

Michael Hard­man
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’.

Real Draught Beer and Where to Find It

John Hanscomb
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.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Nine­teen-Sev­en­ty-Four: Birth of the Beer Guide”

News, Nuggets & Longreads 16 September 2017: Beavertown, Burials, Biggsy

Here’s everything beer- and pub-related that caught our eye in the last week, from viking funerals to mysterious pressure groups.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “News, Nuggets & Lon­greads 16 Sep­tem­ber 2017: Beaver­town, Buri­als, Big­gsy”

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

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.

* * *

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.

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

Life on the margins

From the 1974 CAMRA Good Beer Guide.

One of the best things about old books is find­ing inserts – scrib­bled notes, bus tick­ets, clip­pings – and anno­ta­tions.

Recent­ly, Boak’s uncle very kind­ly let us bor­row sev­er­al ear­ly edi­tions of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide. They are well used and, like many copies of the GBG we’ve seen, fea­ture ‘ticks’ against the names of pubs and brew­eries in Biro ink. There are also numer­ous scraps of paper con­tain­ing detailed hand­writ­ten updates – a sign, per­haps, of the speed with which new brew­eries and ‘real ale’ pubs were appear­ing between edi­tions in the mid- to late sev­en­ties?

The anno­ta­tion pic­tured above, from the 1974 GBG, caught our eye, though, because it tells a sto­ry in three words: LIKE THE PLAGUE.

This was the first com­mer­cial edi­tion of the GBG which, at the last minute, was cen­sored by its pub­lish­ers, Wadding­ton’s, who feared a legal chal­lenge from Wat­ney’s. After some angry exchanges, CAMRA agreed to rewrite the text to read ‘at all costs’, but, clear­ly, mem­bers on the ground were annoyed at the idea of being bul­lied by the loathed Red Empire, and some pre­ferred the text as intend­ed.

The word PUKE writ­ten across the entire entry is Uncle’s own con­tri­bu­tion, and is a fair sum­ma­ry of how ‘seri­ous drinkers’ felt about Wat­ney’s at the time.

Hitchhiker’s Guides to the Beerosphere

Inn guides, whether spon­sored or not, have long been a fea­ture of the British way of life – part of the fab­ric you might almost say. But they have tend­ed to con­cen­trate more on the places which find them­selves on cal­en­dars and Christ­mas cards and not at all on the pubs which are the warp and woof of the brew­ers’ invest­ment.

Derek Coop­er, The Bev­er­age Report, 1970.

The very first edi­tion of CAM­RA’s newslet­ter, What’s Brew­ing, from June 1972, con­tained an impor­tant state­ment of intent: work had begun on a guide to pubs which would focus sole­ly on ‘the mer­it of their ale’ with­out regard to ‘His­toric val­ue, trendi­ness, out­side sur­round­ings or oth­er such cri­te­ria’. It was to be called ‘the List’ and, as we would say these days, was to be ‘crowd-sourced’ – that is, col­lat­ed from the rec­om­men­da­tions of mem­bers all over the coun­try.

In addi­tion to their focus on food, music, go-go dancers and archi­tec­ture, rather than beer, pre­vi­ous pub guides also had oth­er flaws.

  • Geo­graph­i­cal cov­er­age. Egon Ron­ay’s pub guides, from 1963 (as far as we can tell), tend­ed to focus on Lon­don; as, of course, did Green and White’s guides to Lon­don Pubs from 1965. Even when Ron­ay went nation­al, Lon­don got far more than its fair share.
  • Method. Derek Coop­er mocks the ‘spe­cial­ly trained team’ who sur­veyed c.1,000 pubs on Ron­ay’s behalf: what made them qual­i­fied to judge? This review of the 1983 edi­tion ques­tions how they chose which pubs to con­sid­er and whether they had enough data to work from, hav­ing vis­it­ed too few.

CAM­RA’s List emerged as the Good Beer Guide – a sta­pled, 18 page leaflet – and, even­tu­al­ly, in 1974, became a 96-page print­ed and bound book, with the help of the print­ing arm of board-game man­u­fac­tur­er Wadding­ton’s. (Beric Wat­son, the fir­m’s Man­ag­ing Direc­tor, was a ‘tra­di­tion­al draught’ drinker him­self and had, in fact, pub­lished the unfor­tu­nate­ly titled Hand-Pulled Beer and Bux­om Bar­maids, a guide to pubs in Leeds, c.1971.)

The first  run of 30,000 copies of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide (GBG) sold out with­in six months of its pub­li­ca­tion in April 1974, despite (or because of, Brew­dog-style…?) some head­line-grab­bing con­tro­ver­sy over its sug­ges­tion that Wat­ney’s should be avoid­ed ‘like the plague’, cen­sored by the print­ers at the last minute, and amend­ed to read ‘at all costs’.

It seems, pret­ty instant­ly, to have become an insti­tu­tion – the per­fect Christ­mas present for a beer-lov­ing rel­a­tive, a nice fit for the glove box of the car. By the time the sec­ond edi­tion went to print, how­ev­er, the real­i­sa­tion had dawned that pubs could come out of the Guide as well as go in, and some land­lords sulked, just as they do today.

The 1976 edi­tion of Ron­ay, while it still makes plen­ty of men­tion of food, looks to us like a bla­tant attempt to imi­tate the look and tone of the GBG. The sim­ply-titled Pub Guide includes an entire page on ‘Real ale ver­sus keg’, some­how man­ag­ing to explain the whole ‘con­tro­ver­sy’ and the suc­cess of ‘per­sis­tent com­sumer pres­sure’ in pre­serv­ing cask ale, with­out men­tion­ing CAMRA. The term ‘real ale’ is scat­tered through­out, marked against those pubs offer­ing it, though with­out quite going as far as to use it as a bench­mark for qual­i­ty.

These days, Des de Moor’s CAMRA Guide to Lon­don’s Best Beer, Pubs & Bars and Will Hawkes’ Craft Beer Lon­don iOS app rep­re­sent some­thing of a return to Ron­ay’s approach – geo­graph­i­cal­ly spe­cif­ic, and ‘curat­ed’, with no real pre­tence of democ­ra­cy – but retain the GBG’s relent­less focus on beer above all else. Mean­while, ‘user-gen­er­at­ed’ pub review web­sites offer the oppo­site: access to the unedit­ed reac­tions of thou­sands of pub-goers, each offer­ing a rat­ing based on their mood, the state of the toi­lets, whether their dog got a bowl of water, and, just occa­sion­al­ly, the qual­i­ty of the beer, aver­aged out to a more-or-less mean­ing­ful num­ber.

Forty edi­tions lat­er, the GBG, slap-bang in the mid­dle between those two approach­es, keeps com­ing out, and keeps sell­ing.