To assist my cogitations I turned to the sixth edition of Real Ale in Cambridgeshire, CAMRA's local pub guide published in 1980. The most obvious difference from now is the proportion of pubs which then sold real ale: about half of them. Today I can think of only five pubs in Cambridge which don't sell cask-conditioned beer of some kind. Also different is the ownership of Cambridge's pubs; the vast majority then belonged to Greene King, Tolly Cobbold and Whitbread. A handful were owned by Charles Wells, Ind Coope and Norwich Brewery (aka Watneys) but then, as now, true free houses were thin on the ground. Notable among these was the Salisbury Arms, owned by the erstwhile CAMRA Investments Ltd. and offering far and away the best choice in the city. The Oyster Tavern (now Michels Brasserie) in Northampton Street also had a large selection, though I recall quality being variable. The other free house in the city was the Still and Sugarloaf, a dire subterranean vomitorium in Market Hill where Draught Bass could be had by those who dared. Most of the tied houses sold only one or two real ales, but there was a lot of Mild about, with over 15 pubs offering either the Tolly or the Greene King version.
Nowadays the choice of real ales, in volume terms, is infinitely greater. Many pubs offer between six and eight cask beers, and at any one time I reckon you could easily find 100 different ales in the city. Quality, however, can be a problem because not all these pubs have the turnover necessary to keep so many beers in peak condition.
Returning to 1980, I do recall that Tolly Cobbold beer was virtually undrinkable - the then head brewer was known as 'Mr Pastry' because of all the flour and other cheap adjuncts used in the ale. It has never really recovered its reputation, even though today's Tolly is an excellent product (albeit rarely seen in Cambridge). Greene King beers were uniformly excellent, with IPA being an exceptionally tasty beer. Nowadays I can hardly bring myself to drink it, though most other GK beers (particularly Triumph) are very good indeed. The Whitbread pubs offered Wethereds Trophy, a superb beer brewed in Marlow and with a distinctly fruity flavour.
What is also noticeable looking at the 1980 guide is how many pubs in the city have closed since then. Of the 74 real ale outlets listed, 17 are no longer with us. Some of these belonged to another almost-vanished breed, the back-street boozer. The old Ancient Druids in Fitzroy Street was a classic example - we thought little of it at the time, but nowadays it would probably feature on CAMRA's National Inventory of unspoilt classic pubs. Likewise the Golden Hind was then an intact example of a "Tolly pub" - the huge, ornate pubs which Tolly put up in the thirties. However, we were not very "pub-conscious" in those days and now it's too late. Cambridge's pubs have been refurbished to death.
Apart from CAMRA Investments, no pub-owning companies operated in Cambridge in 1980. Today the pubcos almost dominate the scene: Pubmaster took over the Tolly estate, Allied Domecq ran the old Ind Coope pubs (and have since sold on to Punch & Bass), and Inn Business have many ex-Whitbread houses. Also a lot of brewery-owned pubs offer wide selections of other people's beer (e.g. Adnams' Castle, Whitbread's Hogshead and Bath).
So what's better and what isn't? Choice is hugely better and on average I'd say quality is at least as good as it was. The pubs themselves are generally less characterful and the trend towards bigger, more impersonal pubs is not one I favour. However, what hasn't changed is that Cambridge remains a great place to drink real ale.