For those not familiar with it, WhatPub is CAMRA’s online pub database and guide, which represents a major achievement of volunteer effort. There’s scarcely a real ale pub that isn’t on it, and in most areas it also provides a full listing of all licensed premises open to the public, including those that only serve keg beers*. It’s probably more comprehensive than any other online pub guide. However, for various reasons it doesn’t really compete with or replace the Good Beer Guide, as it’s a completely different animal.
The first comes from its very comprehensiveness. If you look at Chester in the GBG, it lists nine pubs in a variety of styles from micropub through traditional boozer to upmarket eaterie. There should be something to suit every taste. In contrast, enter “Chester” into the WhatPub search box, and you will be presented with no less than 269 results. It’s going to be hard work to search through them to find something that appeals. With the GBG, someone has already done the work for you to produce what I suppose must be called a “curated” selection.
The second is again a feature rather than a bug, in that WhatPub aims to describe pubs honestly rather than criticising them. This is understandable, as it doesn’t want to needlessly antagonise licensees, and in general you do get a reasonable idea of what pubs are like. Reading between the lines, you can distinguish between those given fulsome praise, and those described in terse, neutral terms. But it’s not necessarily easy to sort the wheat from the chaff, and sometimes the WhatPub descriptions can be misleading even if not inaccurate as such. I remember once visiting an externally attractive pub that sounded reasonably appealing, only to find it entirely given over to Sunday diners and stinking of gravy.
If you were in Christchurch, Dorset, the description of the Ship says “Low ceilings, exposed beams and leaded windows combine to produce a pleasant pub. At the rear there is an enclosed garden.” From that, you would get the impression of a very traditional interior, whereas in fact, although nothing is untrue as such, it’s actually thoroughly knocked through and very modernistic in style. The GBG would have rightly directed you instead to the Thomas Tripp, which is much more pubby.
The way many people use the GBG is not so much to search for pubs in a specific location, but to look for ones that sound interesting across a wider area, or along a particular route, something that its maps make easy to do. WhatPub does offer a facility to show listed pubs on a map, but once you zoom out a bit, the sheer numbers become a bit overwhelming. If you wanted to, say, find worthwhile pubs between Shrewsbury and Hereford, the map search would be of little use.
WhatPub? is obviously still a work in progress, and I’m not proposing to list things that could be improved. Perhaps I’d give priority to making the descriptions more consistent in style, and providing at least some facility for user input without opening it up to free-for-all comments in the manner of Beer in the Evening, maybe by allowing registered CAMRA members to leave star ratings. I’d also like a search facility for National Inventory entries. It’s an extremely useful and worthwhile enterprise. But it complements the GBG rather than replacing it.
* As an aside, in most areas in England and Wales, it lists all keg pubs as well as real ale ones, and I used it last year for my Keg Pub Challenge where I asked people to find a location where none of the first ten search results returned had real ale. But in Scotland it tends not to, possibly because the real ale outlets are so thin on the ground that the task may understandably prove dispiriting.