Review: CAMRA Good Beer Guide 2010

It's been in print for as donkey's years. It's crammed full of 4500+ pubs, brewery profiles and sizzling gypsies (well, two out of three ain't bad). But in this digital age, can the Good Beer Guide hold its own or will it all get pretty bitter?

Let's start positive. As a guide book, the Good Beer Guide (GBG) gets the basics right. Logically ordered for easy access (pubs, breweries and beers all in alphabetical order) with clear type and comprehensive symbology, the guide is easy to use although at 888 pages it's literally more than a handful. Mind you, as I'm not being precious about books I tend to dis-assemble  - that is, rip chunks -out of it so that I only have to carry around the county sections that I'm interested in. Having a myriad of authors - the many local branches who submit entries to this national guide - gives the GBG a homely, quirky feel that's a million miles away from some homogeneous guide-by-numbers publications that I could name. There's plenty of detail, often peppered with history and local flavour, routinely packed into the 100-ish words describing each pub.

Top marks for presentation and content, then. But the devil is in the detail. The GBG suffers the same problems that afflict printed guidebooks in general; the info is out-of-date as soon as its published. We're into May now and the Guide has 2010 on the cover but it was published in September 2009. From what I can gather about branch selection policy, the entries may have been submitted for publication as early as February that year. Surveying for those selections could even have been in late 2008. As summer approaches and guidebook sales are at their peak, thirsty topers may be relying on information that's eighteen months old already.

In fairness, the CAMRA website makes a stab at updating details but I fear there's been many more changes to opening hours and ownership than those reported. Perhaps there's the rub - although membership may be 100,000+ I suspect the active element who notify branch and national of such changes are very low in number. In the past, I've asked CAMRA to consider an on-line version that's more suited to updating but that probably won't happen for two reasons. If they can't get regular updates from some branches already, what hope do they have of keeping a web-based version current? And any electronic version would surely lower sales of the printed guide, putting a dent in the CAMRA coffers.

Selection for the GBG is an issue, too. With only so many pages to fill, the number of pubs that each branch can submit for guide inclusion is limited. I get the feeling that good pubs serving consistently good beer sometimes fall out of the GBG simply because it's not their 'turn' to feature this time around. A quick Google search of branch selection criteria highlights inconsistencies; CAMRA's National Beer Scoring System really ought to underpin selection but too often it's qualified by vagaries such as "a certain number of visits", "a certain mark for inclusion" and other factors "taken into account". I feel that a consistent, transparent selection process would improve the stature of the GBG and do away with the 'cronyism' accusations that are often made against it.

There's an easy way by which the GBG could increase the number of featured pubs by almost a third if it wanted to - scrap the breweries A-Z that takes up nearly 200 pages. With new breweries starting up on a regular basis and the beer ranges of all brewers in constant flux, I don't see the point of filling a quarter of the book with this kind of information. Yes, I know it's a good BEER guide but surely its raison d'etre is to identify the best pubs, clubs and bars serving that good beer. Websites like Quaffale and Beermad have far more comprehensive and up-to-date gen on breweries and beers than CAMRA could ever manage, so perhaps the GBG ought to stick to the knitting and just offer more pub entries - if the branches believe there's a demand not satisfied by the current quota.

The Good Beer Guide is an imperfect resource. Even so, like a knackered old labrador it still deserves space on the back seat of the car -  for the time being.

Thanks to CAMRA for the review copy.

1 comment:

  1. I think an online version is inevitable-it’s just a matter of time. I also agree a uniform selection process would lend more consistency to the GBG as a whole. One exists-the NBSS-but the problem is many branches choose not to use it at all and CAMRA is reluctant to dictate policy on these matters.

    I have to disagree with you on the inclusion of more pubs, however. The GBG use to have 20% more pubs but the feeling was that there should be less, not more pubs. Some areas easily fill their quota but others struggle. A blanket increase would not benefit anyone. The problem lies with the thorny issue of how many pubs each branch is allocated and how they distribute their allocation internally.

    I also think you’ve got it wrong with the brewery section of the GBG. This is a hugely popular part of the guide. Beermad and Quaffale are great sites but their main use is checking up on new breweries. They don’t give the detailed information that the GBG does. That’s where the manpower of CAMRA comes into play. Brewery Liaison Officers get info straight from the horse’s mouth and can furnish tasting notes for a brewery’s beers.

    Anyway, size wouldn’t matter with an online version, so the brewery section could still be incorporated. Indeed with the GBG now available on mobiles, size doesn’t come into. Ironically, the brewery section was left off the mobile version, leading to many complaints.