Thursday 22 September 2011

A tavern in every town

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.


  1. None members buy it? Why would they do that? We can find out anything we want to know off google. Why pay good money for a big cumbersome book it's a pain to cart about?

    I thought it was just a way for beards to let each other know what the score was around there neck of the woods, therefore it's not full of good pubs but pubs beards like. Nowt wrong with that, but it's not something us norms would buy.

  2. CL: since when were you a norm? You're a beer blogger, for heaven's sake!

    I agree with your point, Curmudgeon, that the GBG should reflect the best of everything that's available. Besides, we've probably all (except for CL) been in the position where you're faced with a wonderful wide range for which there isn't sufficient turnover, leading to lacklustre beers.

  3. Couldn't agree more, PC. My local used to be in the GBG, offering a range of Bass, Courage Best, Doom Bar and Otter Bitter, all well-kept and eminently drinkable. However, it has now dropped out. I do suspect that the reason for this is that such beers are currently unfashionable, on account of not being massively hopped or containing bloody coriander or lemon grass, or not being made by a one-legged hunchback in an eco-friendly Hobbit house. Grr. Rant over.

  4. I'm also a bit dismayed when I see a Wetherspoons in the GBG. I know they're not all the same, and some do make a serious effort on the cask beer front, but even so the customer experience is always pretty much of a muchness. In some towns (e.g. Runcorn) it's effectively saying "this is the best of a bad lot".

  5. The "Good Beer Guide". Given the title you'd expect it to guide you to good beer. In fact it leads purchasers to the 20 or so pubs favoured by a handful of local active CAMRA members that have not had a recent licensee change. It won't usually direct you to bad beer (unless the local branch meet upstairs) but on the other hand it's not going to direct you to all the good beer available.

    Like most people, I'm going to use the internet, or cask marque accreditation, or asking random strangers much more frequently than I'll use this guide to find "good beer".

    This needn't be a criticism; CAMRA would do well to focus on the limitations of its guide and celebrate them as a highly selective list. But in its current form Roger Protz damns any pub not in his book as bad. Not accurate and not helpful.

  6. You wanna all get the free Spoons app on your phones. Anywhere you are, you have a map to the nearest Spoons. Cushty. It's all you need.

  7. Or maybe it's just that many pubs have now raised their game and are not only keeping a range including the top micros (which knock spots off the offerings of Sam Smiths, Robinsons, Fullers and many more even when in top nick) but they are keeping them in at least as good condition as the more traditional houses.

    In our area there are 40+ pubs make the quality threshold but of the 15 places available, don't think we have any single beer houses listed and think there is only one brewery tied house.

    Quite simply with such a limited allocation those offering quality and choice have won out over those that have quality alone going for them.

  8. Well, is it that quality is really better across the board, or that offering rotating guest beers is increasingly seen as first base to qualify? In any case, it results in a skewed distribution of pubs which may well not be what buyers of the Guide want.

    And the likes of Robinson's may well wonder whether it's worth supporting CAMRA through advertising and sponsorship if their pubs have got no chance however good they are.

  9. I think most local CAMRA branches still get their GBG selections right, judging by pretty consistent beer quality in their selections.

    I'm always pleasantly surprised by the new entry of pubs serving national beers very well, without any need for micros (e.g. Spread Eagle in Etwall, Derby - Bass, Pedi & Landlord). Quite a few multi-micro pubs have lost their places due to quality over the years.

    That said, I do share the view that CAMRA branches over-promote beer exhibition pubs over good beer. Your local branch is an honourable exception (e.g. the coverage of Manchester suburbs), though the omission of the Railway on Wellington Rd North bemuses me, given the quality of its Holts !

  10. The Railway won the local Pub of the Year but did not get into the Good Beer Guide because its beer wasn't really good enough.

    In my experience the beer in there is often tired and flat, and that was the pub that we went into at 9.30 pm on a Friday night pub crawl and found it deserted.

  11. Whilst personally sharing your views on Wetherspoons getting into the GBG, I think you’re skewing things a little too much towards personal preference. Certainly I don’t think there is any danger of alienating non-member buyers; simply because they still account for the majority of sales. So the GBG must be doing something right. If it relied solely on Camra members to buy it every year, then it would really struggle!

    It has to be accepted that the general public do not mind Wetherspoons being in the guide. They provide a known brand that sells cheap drinks and food all day. If they are just after “characterful” pubs, then there is always the Good Pub Guide. And, of course, Wetherspoons do tend to sell a lot of real ale which puts them in a strong position for the beer-orientated GBG.

    And, whilst acknowledging you may be right in some instances, I also think the picture in Cheshire is a little more complex. More and more of the pubs that were once tied to estates such as Burtonwood are now free of tie. So you get pubs such as the Railway in Mobberley getting in, but with an expanded range.

    Holts, Hydes and Lees don’t have large estates in Cheshire, so I don’t think you can extrapolate anything from their exclusion. Robinsons may have a case, but even the mighty Harrington didn’t always make the guide.

    Sam Smiths, as usual, are a study by themselves. As I’m sure you’re aware, quite a portion of their estate is now keg. Even flagship boozers such as Sinclairs in Manchester. Add to that, the simple fact that some branches have rules on single handpull pubs. And thirdly, I do know of Sam Smiths pubs being excluded for using cask breathers. So I’m wary of reading too much into their lack of numbers in the GBG.

    Why does anyone buy any guide book? Because someone has done all the hard work and you don't have to. The Spoons app is good, but get with the times; the GBG is also available as an app. It's not only a lot lighter than the book, but much cheaper as well!

  12. I've come in late on this one, but I tend only to use the GBG when travelling away from home (Kent) together with recourse to BITE and Pubs Galore. I'd generally rather try a strange brewery's tied house serving Bogg's Brewery's Ordinary,Mild and Best than some pub listed as "beer choice varies":too much cope for variable quality in my book.

  13. There used to be "Try also" section in some areas, where just the name & address & brewery of the pub would be given. This should be re-introduced for Wetherspoons. There is very little point bothering to describe them.

  14. It's also annoying when Wetherspoons pubs are included without mentioning that they are Spoons. A bit like recommending "a burger restaurant" without saying it's a McDonalds.


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