It’s difficult to know where to start with this one, as the subject matter has many inter-woven threads, and the post could end up being a long one. I’m keen to avoid this happening, so I’ll do my utmost to stay on topic, which just happens to be that perennial favourite – the CAMRA Good Beer Guide.
Regular readers will probably know I haven’t bought the Guide for some years, although that could change when I activate the App on my phone. But even without an up to date edition I can see a pattern emerging as the 45 year old publication continues to evolve.
From reading various blogs, and also talking to regular users of the Guide, it is evident that entries have changed over the past few years; certainly from when I last bought a copy. Not that long ago, Wetherspoon’s were very much in vogue, with many branches putting forward their local Spoon’s as an entry in the guide. A few years later, JDW outlets had become less common and micro-pubs were all the rage, and I believe that to a certain extent, they still are.
Now it is the turn of the brewery-tap. When talking about a tap, I’m not referring to what us older drinkers would think of as a “brewery tap” ie. the nearest pub to the brewery. Many people have fond memories of pubs like the Ram Inn, which was the “tap” for the adjacent, but now sadly closed Ram Brewery of Young & Co, or the George & Devonshire, which is the “tap” for the happily still thriving Fuller’s Brewery next door.
Instead I am alluding to the increasing number of independent brewery taprooms, particularly in London, where the brewery’s beers (keg as well as cask), can be sampled and enjoyed in the confines of the brewery or adjacent bar.
With these changes many would argue that the GBG is sticking to its roots by remaining as a Good Beer Guide (as stated on the cover), rather than as others see it; a Good Pub Guide. So far so good, but from what's been pieced together so far, along with my own experiences, this focus on beer has led to the Guide being described, somewhat unfairly, as the Good GUEST Beer Guide.
There is a suspicion amongst certain beer writers that pubs are being selected purely on the basis that they offer a wide range of, often obscure, beers rather than on the over-riding factor of beer quality. Several have complained that pubs are now deliberately stocking more beers than they are capable of turning over, in order to secure a place in the GBG.
In contrast, those pubs adopting a more sensible and realistic approach to stocking are being left out in the cold. This seems particularly applicable to pubs tied to one of the surviving family brewers, which serve just one or two beers.
There are obviously no winners here, especially with in the case of over-stocking, as one or two of the less popular beers will inevitably stick around longer than they should. The quality obviously suffers, and as no one likes a duff pint, people end up voting with their feet. The one or two beer outlets also feel disadvantaged, even though they are doing the right thing.
Irrespective of whether these stories are true, many in the licensed trade believe that stocking a wide range of beers is the key to securing a place in the Good Beer Guide, despite various denials from CAMRA. However, if certain CAMRA branches are doing this, they are doing themselves and the organisation as a whole no favours at all. They are not helping the pub trade either.
The perception that CAMRA favours multi-beer pubs over single beer ones, must have some basis in fact; although whether it is reality, is a different matter. The growing number of reports about indifferent or downright poor quality beer in many of these “beer exhibition” type pubs is cause for concern though, and certainly does little to promote cask ale as the drink of choice in the nation’s pubs.
I feel that this one is going to run and run, so I’ll leave it there for the moment, and just touch briefly on a couple of other criticisms concerning the Good Beer Guide at the present.
The most serious is that of pubs not adhering to their published opening hours; an extremely frustrating and annoying experience, when a visitor has travelled a long way, only to find a particular pub shut. This seems to occur mainly at lunchtimes or in the afternoon; the very sessions that are most practical, and most appealing, to travellers from afar.
These annoyances are probably due to the lengthy intervals between the initial survey for the guide, and its eventual appearance in print. For example, branches are currently surveying pubs for the 2019 Good Beer Guide, even though it won’t appear in print until next autumn.
One way to speed up the production process, and thereby improve the accuracy of entries, would be to eliminate the “Breweries Section” in the back of the Guide. This bulky and increasingly superfluous section occupies a large chunk of the GBG and takes ages to compile. It’s very presence is the other major criticism put forward by many commentators.
The list of all the UK’s breweries, along with the beers they produce, did once form an essential part of the Guide, but as the number of breweries has increased nearly tenfold over the GBG’s 45 year existence, so its usefulness has diminished.
Virtually every brewery, including the proverbial “ man in a shed”, has a website capable of being updated far more regularly than the GBG, and containing far more information about a brewery’s products than anything the Guide could contain; so why the continuing need for this waste of wood pulp?
Things move extremely slowly within CAMRA, and despite the recent stepping down of Roger Protz, as the Good Beer Guide’s long serving editor, we are unlikely to see any change until 2020 at the earliest.
In a rapidly changing world, the GBG really needs to adapt in order to survive, and it may end up having to redefine itself. Despite protestations that it is what it says on the cover – a Good BEER Guide, many of the people who buy it see it as a guide to good pubs which also happen to serve good beer.
Life was much simpler back in 1974 when the Good Beer Guide first launched, and it was an indispensable guide to somewhere serving an unadulterated pint of good cask ale, in a sea of cold, fizzy and invariably tasteless keg offerings. Good beer is everywhere now and so CAMRA, as the Guide’s promoter, needs to look closely at the purpose and indeed the whole raison d’etre of its flagship publication.