Sunday, 19 January 2014

Last Rites for CAMRA's Good Beer Guide?

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.

CAMRA has taciturnly, and belatedly, acknowledged this by launching the website; but what the Campaign has failed to grasp is Whatpub effectively sounds the death knell for the Good Beer Guide; certainly in its present form. Whilst not outwardly admitting this, CAMRA Director Andy Shaw said “CAMRA has developed WhatPub to be the ultimate online pub guide for all pub-goers. It may even help encourage people who have stopped using pubs regularly, since WhatPub will help them find the ideal pub to suit their needs.”

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. 
According to CAMRA’s own website, “WhatPub entries are written by local CAMRA members and then approved by dedicated branch volunteers. A full entry offers a description and pictures of the pub, the address, opening hours, who owns it, lists the regular real ales they stock, states whether the pub offers Guest Beers, highlights the pubs main features e.g. availability of food, gives a map of where the pub can be located, sat nav reference, OS reference and highlights the local transport available.” In other words, everything the Good Beer Guide does but without the £15.99 price tag!

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.


Sat In A Pub said...

Some interesting points, Paul. Obviously whatpub is a massive investment for CAMRA and undoubtedly the future-when they figure out how to monetise it correctly. However, I think you’ve sounded the death knell of the GBG just a little too early. I won’t go into its faults but the fact is that it has always sold well and still continues to do so: if like a lot of print, less than it once did.

If it relied solely on CAMRA buyers, around 25%, it would have been dropped a long time ago. But while the general public continue to swell the CAMRA coffers, it will continue in some form or other. Heavy discounting on Amazon boosted sales several years ago and now technology has (a)solved the problem of growing size and(b)boosted sales again. The GBG app is undoubtedly the future or medium term future, anyway. It’s a fraction of the cost of the print version and solves many problems of that version.

Of course, that doesn’t address any problems of the selection process, but that really is a thorny issue!

Paul Bailey said...

Thanks for your comments, Tyson. I must say I’m surprised that only 25% of sales are now to CAMRA members, but given the Campaign’s 157,000+ membership, that still equates to total sales of around 150-160,000 copies each year. I don’t know what constitutes good sales figures for books, but to me that does seem quite impressive, and obviously a very sound source of income for CAMRA.

However, if only a quarter of the total membership is buying the guide, that does suggest the Good Beer Guide HAS lost its appeal to CAMRA members, which is part of my case against the book. I would question just who the other 118,000 buyers are? I suspect a significant proportion of sales will be as Christmas presents for husbands, boyfriends, significant others etc, but what about the rest? I wonder whether CAMRA has conducted any research on the makeup of GBG buyers.

Despite the buoyant sales figures, if the guide is nothing more than a money spinner for CAMRA it does lead me to seriously question all the hard work put in by members, up and down the country, in selecting and surveying pubs, and all the hours of unpaid work inputting data, proof-reading etc. Then there’s the question of all the soul searching and heartache involved in choosing which pubs selected and which are not. If I wanted to be really cynical, I could argue members and licensees are being duped, by being sucked into what is now little more than a money making machine.

There is at least one saving grace I can see though, and that is the prospect of being selected for the GBG does raise standards amongst licenses by encouraging competition, but again the selection process can be very variable at times, and very subjective.

I don’t really go with the alleged campaigning aspect of the guide. The articles at the front, whilst well-written and informative, are little more than padding, or indeed window-dressing. Far more serious, and productive, campaigning is achieved through beer festivals, branch magazines, websites and social media, than the GBG could ever hope to generate, so again I ask the question, “How much longer can the Good Beer Guide survive in its present form?”

pyo said...

Its the classic present to buy a father in law or uncle who you don't know much about except he apparently likes beer.

He says thanks, puts it on the shelf and never opens it.

A UK brewery guide would be far, far more useful than an arbitrary list of personal favourite pubs by random people who probably don't have the same taste as you.

Curmudgeon said...

I think it's 25% of sales are to CAMRA members, not that 25% of CAMRA members buy it, as I don't think the total sale is anywhere near 160,000.

Wholly agreed on the "guest beer guide" aspect - in many areas it omits well-run, characterful pubs with consistently good beer simply because they don't have enough unusual rotating guests.

A problem with Whatpub is that it is too anodyne and doesn't usually make qualitative distinctions between pubs. On more than one occasion I've picked out pubs that sounded interesting but found them to be very disappointing. So I think providing a more limited selection of the best pubs in an area does have value. Maybe the best way of addressing that is to allow user comments on Whatpub.

Paul Bailey said...

I would still be interested to know what the sales figures for the guide actually are. I'm concluding from what's been said so far that so long as sales remain buoyant, CAMRA aren't that bothered as to who the GBG's target audience actually is? This does rather make a mockery of all the hard work local branches put into the selection and surveying processes.

Curmudgeon, you say you've picked out pubs on Whatpub that sounded interesting, but then found them to be very disappointing; well I've experienced similar problems with the GBG, especially as the information is often in excess of nine months old. I think in both cases, it's a combination of luck of the draw, and the fact that one person's ideal pub is another person's pub nightmare.

Whatpub is still in its infancy, but once all the teething problems have been ironed out, it will really come into its own. CAMRA really should be promoting it much more than they seem to be doing at present and, as Tyson has pointed out, they need to figure out how to monetise it correctly.

Sat In A Pub said...

Yes, sorry, for any confusion. Omly about 20-25% of GBG sales are to CAMRA members. Research suggests that as only a relatively small percentage of GBG entries change every year, members don't see the need to buy it annually.

Of course the vast majority of pubgoers and beer drinkers aren't CAMRA members and the guide is aimed squarely at them. Its main rival is the Good Pub Guide-which I used to submit entries for in the days when you got paid for it btw-and the GBG needs to be discernibly different for it to sell well.

I'm also not a fan of the articles at the front. And, embarrassingly for CAMRA, they have been shown to be very poorly researched. For example, they keep printing the same falsehoods about the history of beer styles despite being repeatedly told otherwise.

Cooking Lager said...

Most beard club members can buy the book cheaper on Amazon than through CAMRA. Amazon have no p&p. I suspect many copies you think are going to civilians are ending up among the enlisted.

Nick Boley said...

At last! Someone being sensible about the breweries section of the GBG. The number of breweries in the UK have been a great success story for us in CAMRA but a real Achilles heel in terms of getting information about breweries, beers, tasting notes, etc., and getting all of this into the GBG.
The GBG should contain summary info on breweries, with more detailed info "somewhere else" - a WhatPub equivalent if you like. The GBG is not losing out to WhatPub so much as the GBG App I think.
However, others have mentioned the selection process. Branch allocations will be revised for the 2016 GBG but there is still the procedure for selecting the pubs. One well-kept regular beer should still trump many rotating casks of near-vinegar, and indeed in many branches it does. Quantity variety and quality are not the same and we must get that message down to branches. But when we rely solely on volunteers to get out and survey all the pubs in an area, decide (in whatever arcane manner they do) which ones are "in" and then get out and do the descriptions for the guide, well that's a lot of work for a small number of active members. Most branches do their absolute best, are objective and democratic as far as they can be. One thing for sure, the punter who accused me of putting a particular pub in the guide because I got some sort of backhander (in front of the landlord of said pub) got short shrift when I asked him to join CAMRA and get involved in the selection process. I would press for disciplinary action against any branch official who did take any sort of "backhander" to get a pub in the GBG.

Sat In A Pub said...

The solution and only solution for the erratic branch selection of pubs is to enforce a uniform system. The National Beer Scoring System is one such system but some branches ignore it altogether.

Curmudgeon said...

It would be wrong to implement a system that only took NBSS scores into account as there are other factors that need to be considered.

Also the nature of branch areas might make it appropriate for branches to apply different criteria for minimum number of scores of make a pub eligible.

Even in my local branch, which is one of the most compact and public transport accessible in the country, we tend to apply a minimum scores criterion of only 6, and it's not uncommon for current GBG entries or obvious contenders not to achieve that.

Paul Bailey said...

Nick, I've said before that the Breweries Section in the GBG is very erratic over which particular beers it lists, and which it refers readers to the brewery website. Many CAMRA members buy the Guide more for this section than the actual pub listings, so a separate, all inclusive publication along these lines would be a good thing.

I was a bit "tongue-in-cheek" about the selection process, as I believe most branches are as fair as they can be over this. My own branch certainly is, and uses the NBSS scores in conjunction with "on the ground" information, and other feedback from members, coupled with branch visits wherever possible.

Having said that, I can't say I will be sorry not to find myself sitting around the table this Sunday, mulling over the entries for next year's Guide. Good luck to all friends and colleagues involved with that!

Martin, Cambridge said...

Excuse this belated comment Paul.

I share your views on the viability of the Beer Guide, but would be very sad to see its replacement by What Pub.

What I need is an objective guide to beer quality, as I'm never going to get to visit 50,000 pubs but the best 5,000 is possible. This may make me different from the majority of readers who are interested in tasting as many different beers as possible. I've no interest in the brewery section at all.

Anonymous said...

Out of interest, but does anyone know if the construction of WhatPub was made "in-house" by CAMRA or was it out-sourced?