Not so long ago, a comment was made on the CAMRA web forum that the Good Beer Guide will “increasingly give you the local equivalent of the Kelham Island Tavern. It will not simply tell you where to find good real ale.” The Kelham Island Tavern being a two-time winner of CAMRA’s National Pub of the Year award and a classic example of the multi-handpump specialist beer pub.
I was recently browsing through the entries in the 2012 edition for the county of Cheshire, an area I know reasonably well. It was very striking that a large majority of the pubs listed seemed to be ones where a range of rotating guest beers and “Locale” accreditation were regarded as important criteria. The tied houses of the family brewers – Robinson’s, Hydes, Holts, Lees and Samuel Smith’s – were conspicuous by their absence. Indeed there are only four listed out of the 80-odd pubs for the entire county, while, across the border, there are four out of eight in Stockport.
Well-known classics such as the Harrington Arms at Gawsworth and the Hawk at Haslington are nowhere to be found. Now, I wasn’t privy to the selection process and there may well be very good reasons such as change of licensee why these pubs and others like them were not included. But it does seem to reflect a somewhat one-eyed approach to pub selection where those that keep a limited range of beers consistently well do not get a look-in. Is there now a single Sam Smith’s pub with its solitary cask beer in the Guide, even though many of them are highly characterful establishments that keep that one beer in excellent nick? There isn’t even one in their home town of Tadcaster.
If I was visiting a part of the country where family brewers still had a strong representation, such as Palmers in West Dorset, I would want the Good Beer Guide to tell me where I could find their beers in the best condition (which, to be fair, it does). I’d also expect it to point me to other pubs that provided a contrast, but if it majored on establishments offering Pedigree, Bombardier and London Pride I might feel a little short-changed. It should also be pointed out that many free houses settle on two or three beers that suit their regular customers and are not always changing them around.
Yes, the pub scene is changing, but as well as the multi-beer pubs, a guidebook concentrating on beer quality surely also needs to give due recognition to the more traditional two or three beer establishments that for long were the backbone of what CAMRA stood for.
I think locally it does, but I do get the impression that more and more branches are putting choice ahead of consistent quality when making their pub selections. The risk is that this approach will alienate the non-member buyers of the Guide, many of whom will be primarily looking for a good pint, combined with decent food and/or congenial surroundings, rather than the widest absolute choice of beer.