Shropshire Star

From shaky beginnings, beer guide became a national institution


The founder members of the Campaign for Real Ale celebrating the group's 10th birthday in 1981: Jim Makin, Bill Mellor, Michael Hardman and Graham Lees

When former West Midland journalist Michael Hardman produced his first guide to real ale, it was pulped before it reached the shops, over fears it contained a libel.

The following year, the second edition came close to biting the dust too – this time because Hardman, unwittingly pitched his tent at the side of a railway line, and narrowly avoided being mown down by an express train.

If ever a publication looked fated never to see the light of day, it was surely the Campaign for Real Ale’s Good Beer Guide.

“It’s a wonder it ever happened,” said former Express & Star man Hardman. “There was a complete lack of knowledge about pubs serving real ale and Camra had no effective branch structure.”

But Hardman, who lived in Wolverhampton when he founded Camra with a group of friends in 1971, used his journalistic nous to turn the alleged libel to his advantage. The guide's comments, advising readers to avoid London brewing giant Watney 'like the plague' were leaked to the Press.

The publicity that followed ensured that when a toned-down version of the guide finally went on sale, it flew off the shelves.

The 50th edition of the beer drinker’s companion was launched today at the Great Western pub in Wolverhampton. And the maverick publication that almost got pulped nearly half a century ago fabric of the nation that the foreword has been written by the King.

The first Good Beer Guide was just 96 pages long, compared to approximately1,000 pages for the latest version, which features more than 4,500 pubs, including 387 in the West Midlands.

The guide came about after Hardman read about Beric Watson, who ran a printing subsidiary of board-game producer Waddingtons, being a beer lover.

"I arranged to meet him in The Guinea, a wonderful old pub in Mayfair," Hardman recalled. Watson immediately offered to publish the guide, removing any financial risk for Camra.

John Hanscomb was appointed editor because of his encyclopaedic knowledge of ale, pubs and breweries, and Hardman took the role of production editor, overseeing the printing process.

Hardman and a group of friends launched he Campaign for Real Ale in 1971, in response to the stranglehold a small number of brewing giants held over the industry, producing what they saw as bland, nondescript keg beers sold in corporate homogeneous pubs.

Watney's, which had established dominance with the acquisition of a number of small independent breweries, was one of the biggest players, and its infamous Red Barrel – often sold in the supersized 'Party Six' cans – was seen as the epitome of all that was wrong with the industry.

But when the guide was produced, Waddingtons became nervous about the 'like the plague' line, fearing Watney's would sue for libel. The company ordered that the original run of books be destroyed. A revised version, instead featuring the words 'avoid at all costs', was published, but the Camra team managed to salvage a few copies before they were pulped, which mysteriously ended up in the hands of the national press.

"The irony was that the disputed words were printed in newspapers and repeated on radio and television and not one of them was issued with a writ for defamation," said Hardman.

The 2023 edition features an introduction to the West Midland section by author Laura Hadland.

She highlights the importance of National Brewery Centre in Burton-upon-Trent, which is on the brink of closure. She urges owner Molson Coors to ensure it is found a new home to preserve the region's brewing history.

Campaign for Real Ale national chairman Nik Antona said the guide plays a crucial role in preserving Britain's pubs in these difficult times.

“Whilst we experienced a boom in the brewing industry over recent years, it’s clear that the effects of Covid-19 and subsequent cost-of-living and cost- of-goods crisis has been keenly felt.

“For nearly five decades, the Good Beer Guide has been a comprehensive guide to the UK’s breweries, their ales, and the best outlets to find them in across the country," he said.

“The Good Beer Guide has always had an important role in acting as a barometer of the beer and pub industry. We believe information gleaned from the Guide is absolutely vital in the drive to save our pubs from closure and campaign for policies that better support pubs, local brewers and their customers."

I’d encourage everyone to use this Guide to seek out the very best examples of pub excellence and support these locals by visiting them.”

"The upshot was that Watney’s were avoided like the plague."