I must start this weeks column by thanking the landlord of the Sportsman at Ploughcroft for lending me the topic of this week column.

The Good Beer Guide 1982 contains this quote on the first page “The price of beer continues to rise while pubs empty and production falls…prices are increasing by almost 30% per year and in parts of the south east drinkers have to pay as much as 70p for a pint of ordinary bitter”.  If you would have told drinkers back then that £2.80 – £3.50 would be a normal price for beer 30 years later they would have laughed you off the premises.  But I do remember my dad going down the working mens club instead of the pub because the Guinness was only 80p per pint, by the time I started drinking properly in 1992, the price for a typical ale was 1.60-1.80 per pint at a normal pub.  Looking forward to today, beer prices have increased by approx 70-80p every decade since this guide was published, it is a worrying fact that if this continues I will be paying £5.60 per pint for a decent ale by the time I retire.

The guide is also concerned about the domination of the then big six brewing companies who were Allied (Ansells, Tetley, Ind Coope), Bass (Bass, Tennant, Mitchell and Butlers), Courage (Courage and John Smith), Scottish and Newcastle (McEwan, Younger), Watneys (Websters, Watneys, Manns) and finally Whitbreads who brewed under that name.  When was the last time you saw half of these brands served regularly in pubs, certainly some will be found primarily near their old homeland even if they are not brewed there any more, but a good number have merely become single beer brands at best.   It says a lot about the quality of the beer overall at that time when Watneys was one of the biggest brewers in the country, a company most famous for their “Red Barrel” and “Party 7’s”.

However these companies also dominated pub ownership and overall beer production, they accounted for over half of the countries pubs with all but Scottish and Newcastle having a chain of over 5000 outlets.  Regarding beer brewed, these six plus Guinness accounted for 90% of overall production and 95% of lager production.    The phrase monopoly was designed exactly with this in mind.  They were also accused of cartel like behaviour by CAMRA in the 1982 guide, carving up the country between them, with very little overlap of any consequence leading to virtually no inter brewery competition.  The picture painted is not a healthy one for the fan of good ale at the time.

The opening times for almost all pubs were 10.30am – 2.30am and a second session from 6pm – 10.30pm, extended to 11pm on Friday and Saturday.   The good beer guide was campaigning for the case that pubs could be allowed to use their permitted hours flexibly allowing them to open later for the first session but leave a smaller time gap between the afternoon and evening sessions or open and close later in the evening session.  This restriction in opening times seems draconian when we look at the liberalised licensed open hours granted 30 years later, but is one I remember well from my days accompanying my dad to the pub and working mens club.

When listing the independent breweries, it took up a mere 8 pages and detailed approx 200 brewers.  Last year we topped 1000 UK breweries overall, a huge leap in variety and choice.  When the pubs, production and supply were dominated by a small number of brewers and tied houses were much more restricted that today, it is no surprise that ale fell out of favour and lager took the majority of beer sales.  If we assume each brewery brews 10 different beers a year (a conservative estimate), it still means that for every day of the year you could try 27 different beers and not repeat a single one, that is a wonderful privilege to have as drinker today.

We may think that times are tough today for publicans, but the same concerns regarding pubs closing have been present at many different periods over time, to quote the guide “By the time you read the 1983 GBG it is a fair bet that 20 pubs will be due for demolition, 20 will be boarded up or transformed into a house, shop or office and 200 will be altered so drastically that you won’t recognise them.  At least we don’t have to worry about the last concern now, a good honest boozer is thing which is appreciated.

Enjoy those 800 extra brewers and happy supping until next week.