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.