This week brings you part 2 of the Good Beer Guide retrospective, the year in question being 1989 this time.  Thanks again go to the Sportsman at Ploughcroft for lending me the book from their collection,  I hope to bring you the final part of this series in a few weeks covering the 2000 book from the same series.  The first thing you notice when you move 7 years on from the 1982 guide is that they now have a sponsor “The Solid Fuel Advisory Service”, complete with a 2 page editorial about how a real ale pub needs a real fire.   The second is that the artwork is much better in the earlier book, which had a “stained glass” style cover, the 1989 book has a rather ropey drawing of a fireside pub scene in its place.

Lager had really started to take a hold by the end of the 1980’s with imports from all over world being brewed under license in this country.  A single quote from the breweries editorial sums this up perfectly “The latest invasion sees Labatts of Ontario being pumped out across the North of England from such unlikely Canadian cities as Warrington, Sunderland and Hartlepool”.   There was a big push in Scandinavian lagers such as Skol, Carlsberg, Hofmeister and Heineken, all of which were brewed to a weaker recipe than their original homeland strength.  Fosters and Castlemaine XXXX were prevalent in many pubs after the owners of the brands brought up large shares in Courage and Allied Brewers and pushed the aussie brands out to the pubs those breweries supplied.  American licensed beers also began to appear with Budweiser and Miller Lite.

The authors of the book lament the dedication of brewing and marketing resources to these “pale imitations of foreign lagers” instead of boasting about the UK being the only country world at the time brewing bitter, mild, stouts and barley wines.   It appears from the 1989 guide that the choice of beer was fairly dire at this point in time, the number of independent breweries numbering 50 according to CAMRA, down from 100 a decade before, predicting the death of the UK independent brewing scene by the end of the millenium if this decline was to continue.  It is a major achievement that in the 24 years since we have gone to over 1000 brewers in this country, the vast majority being independently owned.

This is the confusing part of their logic however, they state that in the 15 years leading up to 1989, 300 new breweries were opened with half of them no longer in existence by the publication of this guide and in 1988 more breweries opened than closed for the first time in many years.  The copy of the guide in question appears to have lost some pages to the fire above which it normally lives, but it appears to contain far more than 50 indie brewers judging by the page numbers which remain.  This also counters the 1982 guide where there are over 200 such breweries listed on its pages, if there was this steady decline as suggested, you would expect there to be only 80 indies listed.

The authors of the book lament the dedication of brewing and marketing resources to these “pale imitations of foreign lagers” instead of boasting about the UK being the only country world at the time brewing bitter, mild, stouts and barley wines.   It appears from the 1989 guide that the chance of surviving the 10 years of the 1980’s as a indie brewer were not great if you were around in the late 1970’s either, the number of independent breweries left numbering 50 according to CAMRA from the 100 that existed a decade before, leading to them predicting the death of all of the these breweries by the end of the millenium if this decline was to continue, although I must say the maths may be correct, the logic isn’t.  It is a major achievement that in the 34 years since 1978 we have gone to probably over 900 indie brewers in this country from the 100 we had 34 years ago.

The tied nature of the pub business was still very much in force however, either by control of lease or ownership of the venue, and the doors of many pubs are “bolted shut” to breweries outside of the controlling group.    Conformity seems to be a major issue with CAMRA who cite the case of Watney, where the vast majority of tied pubs served the same 3 ales, Websters Bitter, Ruddles County and Ruddles Best.  However what is more concerning to CAMRA is the conformity of pubs, the main concern as we approached the last decade of the millenium being the attempt to tart up the nations public houses.   The spit and sawdust approach to pub design was deemed not acceptable by the major pub owning companies and an identikit approach to their estates was being adopted.  CAMRA called this “Operation Soulless”, you couldn’t tell one pub from another.  The pubs were developed to theme to target different people, many taking on a Tudor, Victorian, Art Deco,  Bistro, American Diner or Sports Bar look.

The yuppie market was a key target for the pub owning companies and significant effort was made to attract them, the problem being 3 weeks after you opened it was inevitable another upmarket pub would open nearby and the young affluent Golf GTI owning drinkers would move on to the “next big thing”, leaving you with an expensive refit and the same people drinking the same beer as when it was a spit and sawdust pub.

The legacy of this period lives on today with the streaming of pubs into set brands across the large estates.  Thankfully there are many unique pubs left for us to enjoy.  Lets make we do just that.

  1. Alun says:

    In the 1989 GBG there are 138 breweries listed as independent plus 68 brewpubs. The 50 breweries refered to appears to be out of the 100 independents extant in 1978, not a total for 1989 and not many of those 100 survive today. Of the 138 independents of 1989, about 50 still exist, most closed some were taken over and Wells & Youngs merged. Theakstons of course reversed out of S&N and Hop Back went from brewpub to a sizable local brewery. On a quick count I only see 140 odd independents plus 33 brew pubs in the 1982 edition. So a small increase especially in brewpubs.

    The picture is of long term decline mainly due to acquisitions up to the 1970s then a very slow resurgence through the 1980s although many new breweries failed and acquisitions continued, sellouts also played a part especially after the Beer Orders. Then came the big rise in numbers following the introduction of Progressive Beer Duty which nobody would have predicted in 1988 when the book was written, it was also just before the Beer Orders which caused upheaval in the industry.