Supplementing the 2020 Good Beer Guide: some Bristol tips

It’s new CAMRA Good Beer Guide season and across the land can be heard the familiar cries of “I can’t believe X is/isn’t in!”

Most people who are into beer know that the Good Beer Guide is not the be all and end all – it doesn’t claim to be.

It’s an assessment on the quality and consistency of cask beer, so pubs without cask beer will not get in, no matter how stunning the keg selection.

Selection processes vary from district to district, as we understand it, but the Bristol branch has clearly documented processes which seem to be about as thorough and democratic as is possible to be, but obviously will still favour pubs that are popular with active CAMRA members.

We’re not really sociable enough to contribute to this sort of thing so of course we don’t get to complain if we don’t like the entries. And actually, in Bristol, there isn’t much to grumble about from our perspective.

(Unlike in Penzance where to our eternal bafflement The Cornish Crown got in year after year, sometimes as the only entry; it’s fine but we could think of three or four consistently better cask ale pubs in town.)

In the two and a bit years we’ve been here, the Bristol selections have generally been a good representation of quality beer and also reflected a range of different pubs and other drinking establishments to suit all tastes.

There are a couple whose inclusion we might question based on our visits but the main issue is the omission of some particular favourite pubs, probably down to the space allocated to some degree.

With that in mind, we’d like to suggest a couple of supplementary entries for 2020.

The Highbury Vaults
This is a veteran GBG entry but not included this year. It has a multi-room layout, including a snug and a toy train, and can’t help but be cosy. The garden, or yard rather, has an oddly good atmosphere. There are Young’s beers, including Winter Warmer in season, and a selection of bottles. It has good old-fashioned pub snacks (pork pies, baps) as well as homely homemade food.

The Good Measure
We assume this didn’t make the GBG as it only opened in December 2018. The team at Good Chemistry are behind this so their beers obviously feature but also several guests, usually from the north, which makes a refreshing change in Bristol. Timothy Taylor Landlord is often on, for example. There are keg beers, too. We particularly love the contemporary yet classic feel of the interior.

The Canteen (AKA Hamilton House)
This was in the guide in 2019 but isn’t anymore. It’s not really a pub, more a community cafe with an emphasis on all things local, which is perhaps why it’s not in our main Bristol pub guide, but regularly has four or five cask ales from Bristol Beer Factory, New Bristol and others. Being round the corner from Jess’s most recent job, it’s also somewhere she got to know well and found the beer to be in consistently good condition.

In coming up with the above list, we’ve kept to GBG criteria and haven’t included keg bars, cider houses and so on.

We’ve also left out a couple of pubs we really like but we haven’t visited enough to judge the consistency of the ale – maybe we’ll suggest them for 2021.

For more on our overall recommendations see our Bristol pub guide and also our analysis of our visits in the first two years of living here.

It would be interesting to read similar supplementary guides to other cities and regions from other bloggers. How well does the GBG represent your town, city or region?

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.

Sources

boakandbailey.com
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)

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.

CAMRA’s Own Pub Chain

Detail from the cover of the 1978 CAMRA Good Beer Guide.

Update 09/05/2019: this ended up being one of the seeds for our book Brew Britannia where the saga of CAMRAIL is covered in detail.

Our copy of the 1978 CAMRA Good Beer Guide (thanks, Bailey’s parents!) is full of interesting tit-bits, not least the page setting out the details of CAMRA’s investments.

The objective of CAMRA (Real Ale) Investments Limited is to acquire and run a chain of public houses offering a range of traditional draught beers in simply and unfussy surrounding.

In 1978, the company owned five pubs — the Old Fox in Bristol, the Salisbury Arms in Cambridge, the Nag’s Head in Hampstead, the White Gates in Manchester and the Eagle in Leeds — and was ‘on the look out for more’.

Across the chain there were beers from Marston, Crown (formerly the South Wales and Monmouthshire United Clubs Brewery), Wadworth, Courage (Bristol), Samuel Smith, Bateman, Adnams, Wells, Greene King, Brakspear, Boddingtons, Thwaites, Pollard and Theakston. Only one of those, Pollard, was a ‘new wave’ brewery.

The Nag’s Head we are told “is enormously popular among young people in North London and has made hundreds, possibly thousands, of converts to real ale in the lager generation”. All kinds of interesting language there.

Can anyone point us to an article explaining what happened to these pubs and the CAMRA investments chain?  And does anyone remember visiting any of them under the benevolent rule of the Campaign?

How we research pubs

We like to get out and about looking for new pubs (although the evil of work has prevented this a bit recently).

Sometimes, we just chance our luck and hope that we’ll stumble on somewhere good. We’ve got quite good at peering through pub windows to see what’s on offer and have become pretty adept at turning on our heels and walking out of pubs that turn out to be rotten once we”re inside.

More often, though, we do a bit of research beforehand, using various resources.

We do have a copy of the Good Beer Guide (2007 edition) which we refer to, but as we’ve mentioned before, its focus on consistently good cask ale, rather than on interesting beers across the board, sometimes leaves us uninspired.  Also, it could be better at clearly flagging pubs in a given area which stock locally brewed beers.

We like Beer in the Evening, but a number of our regular haunts don’t  score above average (usually because a few Internet trolls have dragged the rating down).  But the comments often give us a good idea of whether we’d enjoy the pub or not, regardless of overall rating.

These days, though, we’re most likely to survey our favourite blogs before visiting a new area.  If several bloggers like the same pub, it’s probably worth a look. Over time, we’ve also developed a sense of which bloggers like the same kinds of pubs we do, so we rate their opinions more highly. It’s the next best thing to a personal recommendation.

Brighton binge

It was a gorgeous sunny day yesterday, so we decided to go to the seaside. Brighton was the natural choice — it has a range of pubs and bars for everyone’s tastes, plus it’s only 50 minutes by train from central London.

Once we’d chucked some stones in the sea and played on the slot machines for a bit, we looked around for some refreshment and stumbled across the Bath Arms. This is a very good pub. It has a nice mixed crowd, extremely friendly staff, good food and five ales in tip-top condition. It’s not in our edition of the Good Beer Guide (2007). Not quite sure why. We suppose the beer selection might be criticised as conservative (Adnams, Summer Lightning, Pride, Sussex Best and Bombardier). Then again, there are a number of places that are listed in the GBG in Brighton which have a much less exciting selection (Greene King IPA, anyone?).

On to another good place not in the Guide — the Victory. We were attracted into this place by the offer of local Arundel ales. Arundel Stronghold was an interesting sweetish brown ale which I might have said had too much crystal malt if it wasn’t nicely balanced with the hops. Bailey had a rich, fruitycakey Theakston’s Old Peculiar. Again, the staff, though busy, were very friendly.

You can’t go to Brighton and not go to the Evening Star, the original outlet for the magnificent Dark Star Brewing Company. There are 10 handpumps, seven ales and three ciders. There are usually four Dark Star beers on, and three guests. This time the guests were from local brewery Rectory Ales. In addition to the cask ale, there is Blonde, an organic lager, and some pumps for kegged beers from Belgium and America. Then there are the bottles, some of which are world classics that are always on offer, others change with the seasons.

We started on the Dark Star offerings. The American Pale Ale was like a sweeter, fuller-bodied, more grapefruity version of their flagship Hophead, and very nice too. The Sussex Extra Stout mimics the Guinness branding, and it’s obvious that it’s targeted at Guinness fans who won’t drink anything else. It’s perfect for this purpose, tasting similar to Guinness but fresher and more chocolatey. Really, really good. “Critical Mass” is their Christmas special, a strong dark ale (7.8%) which contains spices , according to the spiel on their site. Unfortunately, we didn’t like this one — we can’t really put our finger on what was wrong with it, but there was too much alcohol and not enough other flavours. A brave effort, though.

American brewery Stone’s Ruination IPA was on tap, so we had to try it. This reminded us of a more heady Liberty Ale, and regular readers will know how much we love that. Onto the bottles, and we went for a Franconian Christmas theme — Christkindlmarkt beer from Tucher, and Weihnachts-Festbier from Forchheim brewery Greif. Both beers tasted a bit anemic next to the Stone, but the Greif offering was noticeably more flavoursome, and was exactly what we’ve always expected but rarely found in festbiers.

We finished on Bush Noel, also on tap. We like this one, and think it’s clever of them to make a beer so drinkable at 12%. It’s never going to become a regular beer for us at that strength, but it makes a classy nightcap, with all kinds of pleasant brandy and sherry aromas.

It would be easy to assume that, with a line up like this, the pub would be for beer geeks only. However, there was a very mixed crowd, and it was pretty busy from mid-afternoon onwards.

Could this be the perfect pub?

The Carpenters Arms with the Beer Nut

We’re very slowly becoming tickers for beer bloggers. This week, we finally caught up with TV’s the Beer Nut. We took the opportunity to try out a pub we’d never visited before, just five minutes walk from Marble Arch in the west end of London.

The Carpenters Arms is very much a Proper Pub, without making a big deal of it. There are usually five or six cask ales available on the big, brown, wooden bar. The big, brown wooden tables are worn and ringed with beer stains. There is a dartboard. The crowd is largely made up of builders and regulars.

Bailey thought O’Hanlon’s Yellow Hammer was on good form (we’ve only had this from bottles on location in Devon in the past, and not been impressed) but we note Beer Nut didn’t care for it, thus going to demonstrate again that although we seem to share fairly similar outlooks, we never like the same beers…

This pub makes a nice change from sweaty chain pubs crammed to the rafters. It’s worth knowing about if you’re in that area and looking for a decent pint.

Beer Nut is very much a Proper Beer Blogger, without making a big deal of it. He does have a notebook, but when he scribbles in it, he makes it look like he’s a busy man with great thoughts. And who’s to say he isn’t?

The Carpenters Arms (definitely no apostrophe) is at 12 Seymour Place, W1H 7NA. (Beer in the evening review here). As well as being handy for Oxford Street and the Lebanese restaurants on Edgware Road, there’s also an Austrian cafe (with beer!) over the road, which we’ll have to investigate some other time.