It was a double celebration, for the event was staged in the Buckingham Arms in Westminster, London, one of seven pubs that have been in all 40 editions.
Over that long period, countless thousands of pubs have appeared and disappeared from the guide. The selection system drawn up by CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, is rigorous and objective. It means popular pubs may be rested from time to time to make room for other equally good outlets. To have survived for 40 years is an astonishing achievement.
It was good to have the first two editors of the guide there, John Hanscomb and Michael Hardman. Hardman, awarded an MBE in 2009 for services to CAMRA and real ale, is one the campaign’s four founding members and deserved to be feted at the party last week.
Alongside the 2013 guide, the first commercial version in 1974 — there had been loose-leaf versions before — looks puny: 944 pages today, just 96 pages back then. Most revealing is the number of breweries in operation in 1974 compared to today. The brewery listing in 1974 ran to two pages. Today it’s more than 200. In the first guide there were just over 100 breweries, today the figure is more than 1,000.
There is a curious discrepancy between those two figures. In 1974, the British were drinking far more beer than they are today. 39,910,000 barrels were brewed that year, today the latest figure (2011) is 27,920,000 barrels, while the number of pubs has fallen by roughly a third.
Beer drinking may have declined but the quality of beer has improved out of all recognition. I’m rarely if ever handed a pint of cloudy cask beer in a pub with a tired hop leaf floating on the flat, foam-free top and told “that’s the way real ale is meant to be served”, which was often the case in the 1970s.
Thanks to the efforts of brewers and Cask Marque and the impact of CAMRA’s beer festivals, drinkers now expect to receive impeccable pints of beer when they hand over their hard-earned pounds.
Proliferation of choice
The other major, exciting and dramatic change has been the choice of beer now available. Looking at the breweries in the 1974 edition of the guide, most of them produced just mild, bitter and best bitter. Today the choice is almost limitless. Britain is arguably the most exciting country in the world in which to drink beer.
Starting with golden ale — the idea of two small breweries, Exmoor and Hop Back, in the 1980s — brewers have introduced new styles and dug deep into ancient recipe books to bring back long-forgotten beers from the 18th and 19th centuries. As a result we can now taste and enjoy proper India Pale Ales, porters, stouts, old ales and barley wines. Coniston Brewery’s No 9 barley wine was named Champion Beer of Britain last month.
That would have been unthinkable 40 years ago.
The publication is outstanding in many ways. It’s far more than a pub guide. The brewery section, listing every known producer in the country with their beers and expert tasting notes, is known in the jargon of the marketing world as our USP or Unique Selling Point. Only an organisation with a large membership and volunteer liaison officers attached to every brewery could offer such a service to beer lovers. Readers with back issues of the guide, by searching through old brewery sections, can monitor the astonishing growth of the brewing industry over the past four decades.
The pubs in the guide are selected by the campaign’s members. There are no paid inspectors and no fees are charged for entries. CAMRA members monitor the pubs in their areas, meticulously score them for beer quality, and use democratic votes at branch meetings — including online votes for members who can’t attend meetings — to end up with the finest outlets for cask beer in every part of the country.
The annual churn of pubs is enormous. I know from my inbox — which gives off sulphurous fumes at this time of year — that scores of publicans are deeply disappointed and even outraged when they’re left out of the guide. But the book’s objective selection process ensures beer lovers and pubgoers are directed to the flag bearers of cask ale every year.
The guide doesn’t ignore the problems facing the brewing industry and pub trade. We call on the government to abandon the duty escalator that cruelly increases beer prices by 10p a pint every year. We urge the government to consider minimum pricing in an attempt to close the glaring gap between supermarkets and pubs, and to slash VAT on pub food.
Against all the odds, however, breweries are opening and many pubs are doing a roaring trade. The Good Beer Guide has been at the heart of that amazing success story and we should all celebrate its 40 years of beery endeavour.