Friday, 1 December 2017

Good Beer Guide at the crossroads?

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.


Anonymous said...

I could have written that myself Paul, just not half as eloquently !

Paul Bailey said...

Thanks Martin. It took me two attempts, including falling asleep in front of the computer yesterday evening, and knocking over a cup of cold coffee when I woke up with a start!

Curmudgeon said...

The key point I've made about the GBG is that it doesn't exist in a vacuum - it has to have some regard for what its users want from it. It's there to provide a service to its users, not to act as a reward scheme for pubs.

Jon Collins said...

I agree that things change over time, and shock horror maybe spoons made other places up their game a bit. Locally we have had issues with a couple of pubs with lots of beer on, both dropped out of the guide, one new entry is a single beer pub and that got through to final 6 in the branch POTY last year. I think the mixed premium keg and cask places seem to be doing well, but they do limit cask to what thy can shift. My beer tastes are petty varied, hope to hunt out a cask imperial stout later, but will happily spend a day on good quality trad bitter or mild.

Right off down to Pig and Porter brewery open day :)



Dave said...

I am curious about this statement: "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." Are the financial plusses of being in the GBG great enough that it is beneficial to overstock?

Paul Bailey said...

Unfortunately Mudge, many in the licensed trade do see a place in the Good Beer Guide as a reward scheme. Quite a few in CAMRA view it this way as well.

Hi Jon, I wasn’t able to make it over to the Pig & Porter open day, but I trust it all went well. I agree that on the whole West Kent CAMRA have dealt with the multi-beer pub situation very well, but whether the pubs which were dropped from the Guide, will learn from their mistakes, remains to be seen.

I’m racking my brains to think of the single beer pub, but no doubt it will come to me eventually.

I’m not sure Dave, as to what the financial gains are for securing a place in the Good Beer Guide. There may not be that many; although I imagine any increase in trade will depend on location, type of pub and what else it has to offer – besides the beer.

I know of two instances locally where pubs have shut, after being dropped from the Guide. Both licensees claimed this was the prime reason for having to close, and both were quite bitter towards CAMRA. The fact that the beer quality in both was indifferent, seemed to have escaped them; but this was the only reason they failed to make the Guide.

In both cases there were other factors which contributed to the closure, but CAMRA, of course, was a convenient whipping boy.

Russtovich said...

First off, I agree with Martin with respect to being eloquently written; well worth falling asleep and knocking over a cold cup of coffee. :)

Secondly, I have no dog in this fight as it were, since I live on the other side of the pond. However, I do have a sense of nostalgia for "proper" pubs of olden days. Not sure why, as I lived in the UK from ages 4 - 7 (even back then that was a bit young to be popping down the pub), and I've been to visit relatives for a few weeks in 1975 and again for a few months off and on during 80/81 when I was backpacking around Europe (used the UK as my base by staying with relatives). Mainly from that last visit I have fond memories of pubs in Kent, Wales, Nottingham (the Trip!) and Scotland.

That being said I agree somewhat that the Guide is for beer and not just pubs selling beer. Even Si and Martin (and others) have shown micropubs or microbrews can be fun places to have a pint. I was under the impression CAMRA was mainly there to promote cask ales. We have practically none of that over here and I must admit I'm quite happy with keg on draught in the places I frequent.

I wasn't sure if this post was going to be long winded but I think I'll stop by just saying that tastes change over time (or that any younger generation has a different outlook than the preceding ones) so whilst I hope proper pubs never become a thing of the past I can well understand inroads by "newbies".

And one final note; I agree the guide should be going my "virtual" vis a vis the Net (especially with open/close times etc.) but I hope they always have a print version for pub tickers to use. :)

Crossroads indeed.


Paul Bailey said...

Thanks for your kind words Russ, and your perspective from the other side of the pond. Tastes do indeed change over time, including mine, and although I still really like and appreciate a proper traditional pub, I now also enjoy something a little different such as a beer cafe or a minimalist, craft-brewery bar.

The trouble with traditional pubs is they too have changed, and usually not for the better. Whereas pubs with a number of bars were once the norm, these days the partitions between Public and Saloon have long since vanished. TV has made a big intrusion, and worse still in a few pubs- Karaoke!

So much has changed in the 45 years of the Guide's existence, that today's brewing industry and licensed trade are unrecognisable from those of the mid-1970's.

This is why the Good Beer Guide is at a crossroads. Does it continue as it is,and risk alienating a younger audience? Or does it morph into something more up to date?

Like many in CAMRA I am unsure what the answer is, so I'll be watching developments with interest.

Matt said...

I buy the GBG about every five years now. I think the often predicted demise of it as a paper publication and its replacement by an app won't happen for a few years yet at least for two reasons: firstly, the older members who automatically buy it every year; and secondly, and probably more significant, the large number of the people who buy it as a Christmas present for a relative into pubs and beer.

I know it's ballooned of late, but the breweries section at the back is probably the one I look at most; it's also the one that, going back through previous decades' editions, provides a handy historical record of the state of British brewing across that timespan, rather than the more ephemeral pub listings.