An eagerly awaited Bible , or just another list of pubs? Depends what your view on CAMRA is I reckon.
So what do I think? If I’m honest, I’ve perused numerous Good Beer Guides over the years and had a real good look at this one, and with a few caveats, I like it.
Firstly there seems to be some discrepancy in the number of pubs listed per area and the size of the area. For example, Hereford, as a county has only 26 pubs listed. I’ve been to Herefordshire, it’s very rural and by no means a small county, but it’s got lots of pubs, and I’ve been into some good ones with cracking ales and proper real ciders. That seems like an anomaly for me. It’s the Good Beer Guide, but CAMRA seeks to promote real ciders and perries, so why not the Good Beer and Cider Guide?
There seems to be a discrepancy between some of the cities too, some of the smaller ones have proportionally more pubs listed than the larger ones, so do some places have more good pubs than others? This leads nicely into the editorial content – why are only Derby, Norwich and Sheffield vying for the world’s best beer city [p. 15]? I’ve got more to say on this, which might appear elsewhere, but what about Manchester, there’s a real big beer scene going on there? London seems to have much going on too, although as often the case in the capital, it’s stretched out across the wide metropolis. What about Leeds? I think we don’t do a bad job in terms of diversity and quality; there are others.
I guess it’s all down to Carr’s notion of, ‘studying the historian before you study the facts’. This can be extrapolated to, ‘studying the curator before you visit the exhibition’, because as sure as eggs is eggs, this is an exhibition of pubs curated by diverse branches of CAMRA membership and by no one else [Acknowledgements to Pubcurmudgeon for sowing the seed of this idea in a comment on Retired Martin’s blog].
The question you’ve got to ask, is do they get it right? Well in one case I’m familiar with they do. The Tiger Inn, Bridport was in the 2016 Good Beer Guide and previous editions. Previously I thought it was a deserved accolade. When we visited this summer, on many occasions, over several weeks, I found it lacking. Not only did they have fewer real ales, they rotated less frequently and the quality was a bit variable, although never poor. Clearly colleagues from West Dorset CAMRA have very accurately, I’m my opinion, assessed this pub very accurately as it is no longer listed.
There were a few other bits of editorial that didn’t sit well with me, bearing in mind, to the outsider this will come over as CAMRA manifesto material. The section on ‘The Great British Pub – The Big Fightback’, was almost contradictory. It’s all sort of doom and gloom and lots of new pubs opening at the same time. Initially proclaiming the rise of ‘radically different’ micro pubs and pop ups, it then goes onto draw attention to threatened traditional pubs, and I don’t think the route of a planned rail improvement is of concern. It even fetes the Otley example of a blanket ACV application, yet we know that several of these have been appealed and not found favour, even with the sort of independent publicans we want to see.
Apart from exceptions like unique pubs or rural villages with one pub, I think market forces should prevail. Personally, I see the greater threat being from major brewers, and Doom Bars’ occupation of the biggest selling draught real ale in the UK. I include Greene King and Marston’s, as well as Molson, here and although their products may qualify as real ale, I think there is a new ‘big six’ by stealth on the horizon. Fair play to the Good Beer Guide, because although not stated explicitly, this is implied in the ‘Breweries Overview’ section.
In terms of updating the book, one friend suggested that it should now be in electronic format, maybe a tweak to the What Pub app? That’s probably a good way forward and maybe if an app were available to download then a lot more people might download it and discover it’s treasures. Personally, I’d still like to see it in book form; you can pore over it for hours, pick it up and put it down in a way you can’t with an app. You can’t put an app on a shelf in a pub neither and I think there’s plenty room for both forms.
Now to be exceptionally radical. What about a separate section, a non traditional section listing the best of the new? The emphasis on ‘the best of’. I can’t ever see Brewdog being in the current style Good Beer Guide, even though they are now doing live beer in key-keg, but I do see an argument to include them, and others, in an alternative section, and maybe that alternative section will focus differing perspectives?
Overall, the GBG is a cracking book, I just think as CAMRA members we need to stop reeling over the shock of the new, because as history tells us, the new will become the norm, and what was will disappear, unless of course what was is very good, in which case it will become revered and sustain. Just like the British pub, proper real ale and the Good Beer Guide.