For the first time in many years there wasn’t a copy of the latest CAMRA Good Beer Guide in my Christmas socking. I’ve got a complete run of guides starting with the 1974 edition (the first guide to be commercially published) through to the 2013 guide, which was rightly celebrated as the 40th edition. Now enough is enough, and I have neither the space on my bookshelves (most of the earlier editions are in boxes up in the loft), nor the inclination to go on accumulating these volumes.
But there is another reason, apart from that of space, as to why I won’t be buying this year’s, or indeed any subsequent year’s Guide; and that is the book is no longer a Good Beer Guide. Instead it has become a cross between a Good “guest beer” Guide and a Good Pub Guide. Unfortunately it can never be the latter, as that title was claimed by another, rival publisher back in 1982, so it appears stuck in limbo land at present, with no clear ideas as to where to go from here.
My views on this subject are well known, and I have argued for several years now that the Good Beer Guide cannot continue in its current form. The unfortunate thing is that when the Good Beer Guide first appeared in 1974, as a modest 96 page, stapled booklet priced costing just 75p, it really was like a breath of fresh air blowing through the stuffy world of guides. The Guide’s editors knew this, and the introduction went so far as to claim, “It is not just another pub guide recommending the unsuspecting traveller to places cluttered up with horse brasses or landlords who won a medal in the 1949 FA Cup Final. It is for the millions of people who spend millions of pounds between them on beer – and deserve a product of quality.”
What was unique for the time was the breweries section at the rear. Nothing like this had been attempted before, and it provided valuable information for a growing audience of beer lovers, which was obtainable nowhere else, which inspired them to get out there and try something new. I was one of those early beer enthusiasts, and the Guide certainly encouraged me to travel around the country in an attempt to sample the remaining local brews. It is no exaggeration to say that in its time, the Good Beer Guide was truly inspirational.
What CAMRA should have done, at least a decade or so ago, was to separate off the breweries section from the rest of the guide. In effect publish two separate but complimentary books. However, they were either too frightened or too apathetic to innovate, and instead chose to stick with the status quo, preferring in effect to leave what had become a cosy money making machine exactly as it was.
CAMRA will argue that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but my argument is the GBG isn’t so much broke, but damaged beyond repair. It has become vapid, boring, trapped in its own comfort zone, uninspired, more like a phone directory than a beer guide, staid, stale, way past its sell by date and in a terminal decline. What’s more, it is rapidly losing its appeal to REAL beer lovers, of whom I’m just one of many!
The lengthy timescale from selection of the pubs at the end of January, to the launch of the Guide at the beginning of October, in time for the all important Christmas book trade, does the book no favours at all. It means the Guide is already 9 months out of date by the time it hits the book shelves. This is all the more galling because members of CAMRA’s various branches do the lion’s share of the work, including surveying nominated pubs, inputting the data into a print-friendly format and then proof-reading the final drafts.
This process is normally completed by mid-March, but the Guide then disappears into a sort of limbo-land for a six month period whilst Editor Roger Protz, and his team at CAMRA HQ in St Albans, knock the final copy into shape. Exactly why this takes them so long is beyond me; especially in a digital age, but it is this exact digital age which has made the GBG increasingly irrelevant in this modern world.
Compiled over a two year period, by thousands of CAMRA volunteers, Whatpub features 47,000 pubs, around 36,000 of which serve real ale – making the site the most definitive online guide to real ale in the UK. Of the 35,800 real ale pubs featured, around 22,000 have details of the real ales being served, thereby taking the guess work out of a visit for real ale lovers. Another key feature is that Whatpub is designed to automatically optimise for use on laptops, tablets and mobile devices, and offers over thirty different search fields ranging from dog friendly pubs to those that offer newspapers or live music, making the results customizable to each person’s individual preferences.
Even more damaging to the continuation of the GBG in its present form is that Whatpub lists nearly 36,000 pubs which sell real ale; eight times as many as the Guide’s 4,500! Anyone wishing to make use of the site will therefore have access to far more pubs and bars than the Good Beer Guide could ever hope to list, and by using a modicum of common sense, they will be able to choose a pub to suit their individual tastes, needs and circumstances. They will no longer be at the mercy of local CAMRA branches whose whims, or sometimes even out and out skulduggery*, dictate which pubs are selected for the GBG and which are left out.
At present the GBG remains a cash cow for CAMRA. It is reported to make the best sellers lists every year, although having done quite a bit of research on this, I can find no evidence of it being a massive seller. In fact it’s far more likely to be the Campaign’s executive St Albans “bigging” the book up. However, in view of the new website, with its powerful search features and all the other advantages mentioned above, the question has to be how much longer can the Good Beer Guide survive in its present form?
*Every year CAMRA branches, up and down the country, go through the process of selecting pubs for the Good Beer Guide, and every year the procedure is full of pitfalls. I am not for one minute suggesting that brown envelopes, stuffed with tenners, change hands before selection meetings, but branch officers will always have their preferences and, as I’ve argued before, vociferous or strong willed individuals can often sway a selection meeting into voting for the inclusion of their favourite pub(s), even when there are obvious far better candidates.