Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Time to Ditch the Good Beer Guide?

 I know I’m a month or so behind with this one, but better late than never, as they say. The beginning of last month (October) saw the launch of the 40th edition of CAMRA’s best selling Good Beer Guide. I haven’t rushed out and bought my copy, and unlike previous years, I’m not sure that I’ll bother. (Actually I didn’t buy the 2012 edition either, but that was due to other reasons).  

Prior to 2012 I have every edition of the guide stretching back to 1974, when the Good Beer Guide first made its appearance as a properly published book. Previously, it had taken the form of a hand-produced, photo-copied list that I believe appeared the year before, and possibly the year prior to that as well. A slice of history, one could argue, and mildly interesting as well as entertaining to look back through occasionally, but apart from that just more books taking up valuable space on the shelf!  At the time though I eagerly awaited the publication of each of these guides, but things change, people change,  pubs have changed and the whole world has moved on. What I am saying, in effect is that for me, at least, the Good Beer Guide has lost its appeal and dare I say I find it an increasing irrelevance in today’s digital world.
And yet, there are still publicans who would give their hind teeth for an entry in the guide. Each year there are CAMRA branches involved in heated debates as to which pubs to put in and which to leave out. Some of these meetings become extremely passionate and feelings can sometimes run very high when certain members’ favourite pubs don’t quite make the grade, even though perhaps on balance it may have been a more worthy, and deserving entry. That is if  branch politics, impassioned debate or just sheer bloody mindedness hadn’t conspired to prevent its selection.

I have been a member of CAMRA since the mid 1970’s and have attended more of these selection meetings than I care to remember. In fact I would rather forget most of them. These days I really can’t be bothered with the whole debacle of such gatherings, and fail to understand why people get so uptight about the whole thing. Come on chaps, lighten up; life's too short to obsess over such issues.(You won't be seeing me at the next branch GBG selection meeting!)
The unique selling point (USP) of the guide when it first launched, was that it was a guide to pubs selling un-pressurised, cask conditioned beer. In the eyes of its originators, and those members of CAMRA and the public at large who bought it (I obviously include myself amongst these), it was a guide to GOOD BEER, and hence it was titled as such. Looking back to those early pioneering days with the wisdom of hindsight, plus the benefit of knowledge about beer gained over the last four decades, one has to question was it really a Good Beer Guide, or just as I suggested earlier, a  guide to REAL ALE, as defined by CAMRA at the time, but now universally adopted as the description for this type of beer? I  feel now it was the latter, but in no way wish to detract from its obvious, and at the time, ground-breaking campaigning role. However, pubs selling real ale (as defined by CAMRA), were few on the ground back in 1974, and many must have been selected on the mere fact that they sold the stuff, rather than the quality of what was coming out of the pumps! As time marched on, and the campaign started to capture the imagination of the public at large and appeal to a wider audience, quality rightly became more important until we have today’s situation where it SHOULD be the over-riding consideration, above all else for an entry in the guide.

The other USP of course, is the Breweries Section at the back of the guide. I used to find  this more useful than the individual pub entries, but now, as the number of breweries has grown exponentially, and the number of different beer styles breweries produce has also increased significantly, there is less and less space in the guide to do each brewery justice. Too often, apart from regular beers, the guide will just say “For seasonal beers, see website”, and that is precisely what I tend to do nowadays! I’m also certain that many others do the same. A website can give far more information than the guide can ever hope to show, and therein lies the rub. The Breweries Section has become less and less relevant; the pub information is only of real interest to me if I am contemplating visiting a different area, or region of the country (I already know what’s worth visiting and what’s best avoided locally). Even then, if it’s a visit of more than a couple of days, I will buy a local guide, especially as these tend to list all real ale outlets and there’s usually sufficient information in the write up for each entry for one to get a feel as to which pubs are worthy of a visit and which aren't.

In short, some online research followed, where deemed necessary,  by the purchase of a local guide and the GBG suddenly becomes both redundant and irrelevant. So why do people continue to buy it each year, why does it regularly make the best sellers list and why do CAMRA branches devote an inordinately large amount of time surveying and selecting entries for it?  Why do publicans sell their own mothers in order to be included in it?
I’m not sure I can answer those questions. Presumably the guide is doing something right or are all those purchasers just buying it annually because, like me, they have a set going back to when it first started out?  Alternatively, is it just something wives and girlfriends buy for their significant others as a stocking filler at Christmas?, or is that me being overtly sexist and patronising?

Despite the annual boost to CAMRA’s coffers, is it now time to ditch the Good Beer Guide? or are we going to let it carry on for another 40 years, during which time it will undoubtedly wither on the vine before dying a slow and lingering death.Should it keep going for another decade until it celebrates its half-century and then be killed off?

The comments and thoughts of fellow bloggers and other correspondents on these questions, would be gratefully appreciated.

17 comments:

Bailey said...

A few thoughts...

For one thing, we've been frustrated in the past by the fact that attempts to discuss how the Guide might be improve (however moderately expressed and well-intended) tend to elicit a defensive response from some CAMRA stalwarts, which isn't helpful.

But, as long as it's still selling in substantial numbers, there's probably no need for CAMRA to mess with the formula. I guess in future, its sales will drop off, but as long as they're ready to respond as and when that happens, it'll be fine. (And by 'respond' I mean publish a really impressive electronic guide which doesn't focus only on real ale and which offers something better than can be found for free on blogs/rating websites/other city-specific apps like 'Craft Beer London'.)

On which point, we've always found local branch guides much more useful, when they're available, as well as being nice souvenirs of a visit to a particular city or region. More of that?

Anonymous said...

Can only be one of those books useful for passing the time whilst sat on the bog - Can't see any other use for it. Any pub worth its salt these days will have an online presence and therefore be tweeting/facebooking what beers are on, when they're coming on, menu's, special events etc all in real time. If they're not, then one can only assume they've got sticky swirly carpets, a Thai menu and a barrel of rancid Greene King on. That's my theory and I'm sticking to it.

Cooking Lager said...

So long as it makes enough money to keep Protzy and Benner in post it notes they will send there loyal volunteers out to compile it for them so they can flog it back to them.

The point of it no longer matters, it makes a quid.

Tyson said...

The first thing to remember is that you aren't the main customer of the GBG. You're a collector (like me) but CAMRA members only account for around 20% of its sales. It's the general public who keep it topping the best-selling list.

And as long as the figures are healthy and it's a good earner for CAMRA, I can't see any reason to scrap it. It's future is obviously electronic and whilst CAMRA have been slow in adapting it, they are moving in the right direction.

The fact is that CAMRA have a massive pool of labour that no one else can match. They are working on a national pub database that will further their lead in the market and expand revunue streams.

There is simply nothing presently (outside of London, perhaps) on the web that matches the depth of info that the GBG can offer. Most pubs still do not even have a website. And while that remains the case, the GBG will continue to have a role.

Cooking Lager said...

Considering the book is cheaper on Amazon to the general public than it is to members, Tyson, I suspect many members buy it and are counted as general public sales.

Paul Bailey said...

Some interesting comments here. CAMRA will obviously stick with the Guide, in its present form, all the time it continues to make the best-sellers list. There may come a time though when Joe Public reaches the same conclusion as myself (and others), that the information is out there from alternative sources, in more detail, and in an often more up to date form. It may take a while for this to filter through, as people are inherently lazy, and if the information is presented to them "on a plate", ie. in the form of the Good Beer Guide, the majority of them will settle for that, even if it is now seen as second best.

Having said that, I agree with Tyson that because of CAMRA's huge army of unpaid (and hopefully unbiased) volunteers, the information contained in the guide should be as accurate and up to date as any printed publication can hope for. Furthermore, the fact that the GBG is independent, and does not charge for entry, is a massive point in its favour. I must admit I was pleased to see that CAMRA are at long last working on a national pubs database; something that was long overdue.

My own personal view is that the Guide will continue for the foreseable future, along the same lines, but will eventually start to be seen as increasingly irrelevant in a modern, electronic world. A great shame in some ways, as it certainly was a ground-breaking publication, but as more and more people switch to other means of obtaining the information necessary to find a decent pub serving a decent pint, then it will inevitably fade away.

I still believe local guides have a future, providing they are kept up to date. They provide a far better picture of the area they represent and, as Bailey has pointed out, make a nice souvenir of ones visit.

Tyson said...

CL

If you purchase it through your local branch or by direct debit-as most members do-it's not cheaper on Amazon.

Paul Bailey said...

In the past I have always bought my copies through my local branch. It's definitely cheaper than Amazon, plus a small amount goes towards branch funds.

JonC said...

Hi Paul, interesting points about the GBG. More local guides, be they printed or on line would be the preferred way to go, but without a large active local membership its just not going to happen. When it comes to using the internet and social media to find a pint, its just not there yet. Many pubs lack any usable web presence, and most of the review sites are useless. I had a trawl through BITE today looking for pub reviews, unfortunately most of the posts on there seem to be about food, or screaming kids, or kids not being allowed in a pub.
The way forward for me is to sort the current issues with the GBG app, expand the it to cover all pubs, allow CAMRA members to score and comment on pubs through the app. To be honest I dont think I have ever looked at the brewery lists in the GBG, get rid of that and allow more entries per branch.

Phil said...

BITE promises much more than it delivers. Ahead of a family shopping trip, I used BITE's search facility to find pubs in Stockport, with a higher-than-average rating, which welcomed families and served food. None. I had to drop the rating criterion to get any results at all, and even then there was only one (a Spoons). Obviously what had happened was that the reviewers who wrote about most of the pubs in town hadn't bothered to tick all the relevant boxes, so good pubs like the Swan with Two Necks (where I saw a family ordering food) and the Arden Arms (where we had our lunch) didn't come up. A decent guide would have been much more use. OTOH, a decent *local* guide would have been even better - unless you do a lot of travelling you aren't going to make very much use of a national guide.

marquis said...

The biggest two problems are pub changes and the quota system.A paper guide is by definition out of date by the time it reaches the shelves, particularly with the closures and change of landlords that are so common these days.
The quota system is a real problem for branches; there is an allocation of so many entries per branch according to a formula.Our Branch is blessed with a large number of excellent pubs and we are faced with a major dilemma about which ones we must leave out.We survey and resurvey (at our own expense) and whatever happens we have pubs in our area which are not in the GBG but which are vastly better than ones we encounter when travelling in other parts of the country. The GBG doesn't list the best pubs in the country, just the relative few best area by area.

Paul Bailey said...

Lots of interesting and valid points here, but reading between the lines it seems that in the absence of a reliable online guide, (BITE is either out of date, concentrates too much on food, or just reflects the individual prejudices of the individual contributors), the Good Beer Guide, for all its faults, is still the best bet for a decent pub and a reliable pint.

It remains the best researched guide of its kind, and given its total independence from both the brewing and licensed trades should be the least biased. Online guides are still the way to go, but even CAMRA's brave attempt at an online data base could be doomed to failure unless the information is regularly updated.

As far as I'm concerned, I'll stick with my current approach of local guides, various online reviews, combined with a bit of savvy as to how the information should be interpreted.

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