Tuesday 15 October 2013

Families not welcome?

I’ve made the point in the past that pub selections for CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide seem to concentrate more and more on those offering a range of rotating guest beers, with the effect that the tied houses of the independent family brewers are increasingly squeezed out.

A contributor to the CAMRA forum who goes by the name of “curMUDGEon” (although it’s not me, it’s actually a chap from Stafford whose real name is Paul Mudge) has now produced a very interesting analysis of the representation of some of the small established breweries:

The 2014 GBG listings of Independent brewers owning less than thirty pubs are:
Bathams – 8 of 11 pubs (72%)
Holdens – 7 of 20 pubs (35%)
Timothy Taylor – 2 of 19 pubs (11%)
Donnington – 1 of 17 pubs (6%).
Looking at the larger Independent brewers, Harvey’s, quite deservedly, probably has the highest proportion of their pubs as 2014 GBG entries, 20 of their 47 pubs (which is about 43%).
A few larger Independent brewers have though fared as badly as, or worse than, Donnington, namely:
Felinfoel – None of their 84 tied houses included in the 325 pubs listed for Wales,
McMullen – None of their tied houses included in the 66 Hertfordshire pubs listed,
Hall & Woodhouse – Only one of their tied houses included in the 66 Dorset pubs listed,
Arkells – Only 3 of their 99 pubs listed (3%),
Sam Smiths – Only two of their tied houses included in the 394 Yorkshire pubs listed, this despite beer from the wood at “very competitive” prices, and with this year paying £1.80 in their Yorkshire pubs and £2.90 in London I well realise such a company doesn’t need 50p vouchers.
(there is actually one factual error in this – according to the 2014 GBG, Timothy Taylor’s actually have 26 pubs, reducing their proportion to 8%)

Looking through the 73 entries for Cheshire, there are only two family brewer tied houses, both White Lions, Robinson’s at Alvanley and Thwaites’ at Childer Thornton. There are two Marston’s, three Wetherspoon’s and four Brunning & Price. There’s even one with a declared beer range of Bombardier and Old Speckled Hen, and no mention of guests at all. In contrast, if we go back to 1984, there are seven Donnington pubs listed in Gloucestershire alone, and 13 Robinson’s in Cheshire, which illustrates just how far the balance has shifted. To be fair, the family brewers are considerably better represented in my local area.

The point was made in reply that some brewers’ pubs are excluded because they have a declared policy of using cask breathers, but is anyone really bothered about that apart from a handful of pedants? And, given that the vast majority of GBG entries are decided upon without a cellar inspection, can we be sure that none of the multi-beer pubs are using them too but just keeping quiet about it?

Obviously I am not privy to the precise factors behind the selection of every single pub, but the very low representation of many well-respected family brewers suggests systematic bias, not just a random outcome. More and more, local branches are going for an approach of quantity over quality, and making the publication essentially a Guest Beer Guide, not a Good Beer Guide.

In 1984, it overall gave a pretty decent representation of the best cask ale pubs in each county. That is no longer the case now, and thus makes the publication much less useful to the general pubgoer, many of whom, as I said in the earlier post, will be primarily looking for a good pint, combined with decent food and/or congenial surroundings, rather than the widest absolute choice of beer. I have a mental map of what to me are the best pubs across large swathes of Cheshire which bears little relation to those that appear in the GBG.

You also have to wonder whether some of the family brewers will start to question whether there is much point in cultivating good relations with CAMRA when they get so little support in return.


  1. "is anyone really bothered about that apart from a handful of pedants?"

    Well there are clearly enough pedants in CAMRA that it remains official policy to disqualify any pub with them.

  2. pyo has beaten me to it. While some branches turn a blind eye to the cask breather issue, others rigidly enforce it. Some of the breweries don't help themselves either by making quite a thing about using breathers everywhere which makes it difficult for even pragmatic branches to ignore. I believe McMullens fall into this category.

    Rhys can tell you all about Felinfoel but I gather there are two main problems - one is that many of their pubs sell processed beer on handpump and the other is that their beers just aren't intrinsically very good these days.

    I understand the Yorkshire CAMRA branches took a view about Sam Smiths because of the cask breather issue, too.

    As for Robbies - I think the issue that one major Cheshire branch has with Robbies is well known and has been debated elsewhere.

    One final point - in 1984 the GBG included rather more pubs that it does now so perhaps allowed for a greater spread (as far as I recall, the Stockport & South Manchester allocation was 35 in those days and is 25 now).

  3. I assume that the reason Hall and Woodhouse have only one pub in the GBG is the cask breather issue. My local branch (South Hants) tried to get this silly rule overturned, but having failed to do so strictly enforce it.

    Mind you, I can't see many of their pubs getting in anyway. The beer is boring and the pubs have had any character renovated out of them.

  4. Actually Hopping Hare is a superb beer, but Hall and Woodhouse appear to believe that people only want to drink good beer for three months of the year.

  5. The more significant point is why anyone would want a book of pubs?

    It hardly costs an arm or a leg to try a boozer out yourself and decide whether it's a dump or not.

    Unless of course it does. Is it more a beard friendly pub guide? Places beardies are not going to get into fights with the locals?

  6. I agree with Cooking Lager: why buy the GBG when you can get all the info and more for nothing from CAMRA's What Pub website?

  7. John, while there may well be reasons for individual cases, the overall trend is undeniable.

    There are 95 Cheshire pubs in the 1984 GBG, so a 23% reduction to the current figure of 73. As well as the 13 Robbies', there are 10 Boddington's and 4 Sam Smith's.

  8. Mudgie, I take your point but... another trend has been the growth of free houses since 1984. Back then there were far fewer so the family/regional brewers were always going to take a bigger share of the (bigger) pot. If multi beer free houses had been so prevalent then I wonder what the percentage of pubs they would have taken up?

  9. Yes, but I get the impression that a pub company pub that offers one or two guest beers will be ahead in the queue of a family brewer pub that doesn't.

  10. You may be right - I don't know. But then again there were no pubco pubs offering a couple of guest beers back in 1984 either. Bearing in mind that guest beers were almost as rare as hens' teeth in those days I suspect back then any pub offering a guest beer or two would almost have gone in the GBG by default.

  11. Clarkey's right. The game and the market has changed. What was great back in the day ain't necessarily so today.

    You should start off just by listing the spoons. Then ask yourselves if there are any gaffs cheaper and if so stick them in too.

    Then call it a done job.

  12. Martin, Cambridge15 October 2013 at 19:06

    The lack of recommended McMullens and Arkells pubs in the Guide is a particular issue for me as I'm often in Herts and Wilts and I've enjoyed AK and 3B a lot in the past. I'm happy that CAMRA branches stick rigidly to beer quality rather than equal representation, but I can't say I have much evidence of that recently. I don't think I've ever had a decent pint of Donnington, though the pubs are pretty good.

  13. Your well argued article, Curmudgeon, and the comments which follow, serve to reinforce my belief that the Good Beer Guide has long outlived its usefullness.

    I won't repeat all my arguments here, apart from saying the guide has become a book designed to appeal primarily to CAMRA members, rather than the pub-going populace at large. Most of the latter couldn't give two hoots whether a pub stock 10 different uber exotic ales; but do care that a pub is clean, comfortable, offers a friendly welcome and serves one or two well kept beers that they feel familiar with. Many also want a pub that serves decent food, especailly if they are new to an area. (Many of the guide's buyers are people who travel a lot, whether for work, pleasure or a mixture of both).

    Unfortunately, the GBG has become such a cash cow for CAMRA that I can't really see the situation changing. Unless, that is, the campaign's What Pub website/app really starts to take off (which it undoubtedly will) and renders the printed guide (which is upwards of a year out of date by the time it is published), obsolete.

  14. One point about the GBG is that getting in it is seen as a badge of achievement for licensees.

  15. Kudos for licensees is no reason why CAMRA should continue with this out-dated and increasingly irrelevant publication.

  16. "well kept" beer is all very well and good but when its well kept Doom Bar and GKIPA, its still fucking dreadful.

    You can't polish a turd.

    Ultimately there are three types of pub; pubs that either don't do real ale, offer it but don't keep it well, or offer such a shite selection you'd rather drink lager/Guinness, pubs that do decent real ale, and pubs that do great real ale, including something you would genuinely travel to drink.

  17. The poll on cask breathers should be a wake up call to CAMRA. Any technology that helps publicans keep cask ale should be welcomed. Just my opinion.

  18. '"well kept" beer is all very well and good but when its well kept Doom Bar and GKIPA, its still fucking dreadful.'

    All a matter of individual taste, of course. And does the same apply to Tim Taylor's, Donnington, Arkell's, McMullen's, Felinfoel and Sam Smith's?

    Indeed, what was the point of setting up CAMRA in the first place to defend such beers?

  19. What's "processed beer"? Always liked Felinfoel when I've had it, although for me that's going back a couple of years.

  20. Well personally, I enjoy Timothy Taylor's, can't stand Old Brewery Bitter (the only pint I've ever left half finished), and the rest I don't know well enough to comment. I can name more beers I do like than ones I actively don't like, unfortunately the latter selection includes many of the more popular national brands.

    But as I've said before, the wider the choice, the more chance there will be something that any given punter will want to drink!

  21. "the wider the choice, the more chance there will be something that any given punter will want to drink!"

    And the more chance that the beer will be undrinkable due to slow turnover.

  22. The Good Beer Guide: A list of the local active CAMRA members favourite watering holes, irrespective of beer quality. The beer in my local branch's 2013 Pub of the Year is often undrinkable, including the craft keg.

  23. ElectricPics is it bang on.

    It's a peer group recommendation. If you are not in the peer group it is meaning codswallop. If you are, it's a great set of boozers worth a visit.

    It has been since the start. Nowt has changed in that regard.

    It's just that Mudgie has noticed the peer group once was a load of beards that liked the same old man crap as him but now prefer micro brewed filth.

  24. Aye Mudgie, that's the catch. Pubs really can't win, can they? Too many beers, too few beers, too experimental a selection, too boring a selection, you really can't please everyone.

    As for the GBG, it is what it is. I've never bought it and I never intend to.

  25. Have to say that, for me, the GBG is far better than it ever was. I don't think you can make accurate comparisons with 1954 but even if you could, today's GBG would be better.

  26. Being local to the Arkells brewery I'm not surprised they only have 3 of 99 pubs in the GBG. Their beers are generally shite and served in rubbish pubs. The only saving grace they have is Kingsdown. I used to like 2B & 3B but somehow the taste changed a couple of years back.. sadly I no longer use my local Arkells pub.

  27. "The Good Beer Guide: A list of the local active CAMRA members favourite watering holes,irrespective of beer quality."

    Unfortunately there's more than a grain of truth in this comment of ElectricPics, and I've seen and heard it in action in my own branch.

    Several years ago I stopped taking any active role in the GBG selection process. This was primarily due to my now oft stated view that the Guide has outlived its usefulness (except as a cash cow for CAMRA). However, I had also become totally disillusioned by the whole selection process, and can remember sitting there at the last selection meeting I attended, back in January 2011, and thinking what the hell I am I doing here? At that stage I honestly could not have cared less which pubs got into the guide, and which didn't, and with one or two notable exceptions, I still don't!

    Going back to my original point, the actual selection can often be highly subjective, especially when influential, or voiciferous members argue strongly for one (or more) of their favourite pubs to be included. Over the years I have seen pubs come and go from the guide - changes which reflect changes at branch committee level, rather than real changes taking place regarding the pubs concerned. Like I said earlier, I am having nothing to more do with this process, and have no intention of wasting my money on any more Good Beer Guides.

  28. Paul, that might be the case where your branch is/was concerned but please don't paint us all with the same brush.

  29. @Geoff Orr, unfortunately you're right about Arkells, especially their pubs which are pretty dire. Agree Kingsdown is OK but I wouldn't bother with any of the others.

  30. I've been heavily involved in the GBG selection process in the past and can vouch that some awful pubs get votes and sometimes make the guide. I resigned my post a few years back and now just marvel at the poor quality beers that the unsuspecting punters must themselves drinking.

  31. Surely all branches of CAMRA should be at least considering NBSS scores now.

    @Bill - I can't recall ever actually going in an Arkells pub apart from the Highwayman at Elkstone a long time ago. What is so dire about them?

  32. Mudgie, having just been on the Arkells website the Highwayman at Elkstone looks half decent. I've never been there. However, the Arkells pubs which I have been to seem rooted in the late 1970s/early 1980s. As these were my early drinking years I suppose they have a certain nostalgic charm but time moves on and I'm perhaps not as fond of lino and formica as I once was. I wouldn't mind if you could still bloody smoke in there, that would be a proper 1970s nostalgia trip. I'd pay good money for that.

  33. Agree with Bill, I grew up in Swindon and Arkell's pubs are still filled the same brass, shire horse tat that was in there when I visited them with my dad as a kid 30 years ago. Food offering varies from place to place but the beer is dire.

    I'm amazed the Highwayman is still open, I stopped in their a few times on the way home from work and it was always quiet, and it's a big pub so you notice it.

    Arkell's are just another company that exist by ripping their tenants off on overpriced kegs of lager.

  34. John, I am not trying to paint all CAMRA branches with the same brush with regard to Good Beer Guide selection, but judging from the comment above from Birkonian it seems that my past experiences are not unique!

    Having said that, my local branch are now much more dependent on NBSS scores now than they were previously, but even in the most impartial democratic selection process there is still room for the odd individual to make an impassioned plea for their favourite local, and swing the meeting towards voting for its inclusion.

    Leaving this issue aside, I still agree with Curmudgeon's original comment that the GBG has become a Guest Beer Guide, not a Good Beer Guide.

    Time for CAMRA to show some leadership, and move on from this outdated, and increasingly irrelevant publication.

  35. "there is still room for the odd individual to make an impassioned plea for their favourite local, and swing the meeting towards voting for its inclusion."

    This can happen, and it would be equally wrong to use NBSS scores as the sole criterion, but in my branch (which is also John's) no pub will be considered eligible unless its NBSS scores make the grade, no matter how fond people are of it. We also had our own scoring system two decades before NBSS ;-)

  36. Don't agree with comments that beer quality now secondary, as I'm generally pleasantly surprised at new entries like Hungry Horses and two beer locals replacing multi-pumped old favourites in several parts of the country. Reading most CAMRA newsletters would however suggest that only variety counts.

  37. I think it varies between areas - some branches do take a rigorous approach to quality, but others seem to go all out for the presence of unusual beers.

  38. It would also be interesting to know how many branches of CAMRA now

    (a) produce a summary of NBSS scores for all GBG contenders, and

    (b) set a minimum NBSS score (and number of scores) below which no pub will be considered

  39. Martin, Cambridge18 October 2013 at 18:07

    Agree with the first of those recommendations on NBSS but the second is harder as your 4 is my 3 and so on. Out of interest, do you record/post scores on your own visits or CAMRA crawls ?

  40. Yes, I record scores for visits to local pubs and ones in neighbouring branch areas, but not generally for ones further afield.

    We also collect scores from participants on "Staggers", although those are averaged out per beer per pub so they don't distort the overall figures too much.

    On your second point, obviously people apply different standards, but if you get enough scores any variations should even out. But if you have a pub with 3 scores and an average of 2.5 I think it's fair to say it shouldn't go into the GBG.

  41. >(a) produce a summary of NBSS scores for all GBG contenders, and

    We've done this for 10+ years.

    >(b) set a minimum NBSS score (and number of scores) below which no pub will be considered

    Yes, we work on 3 - which is why the two Robinsons pubs in our branch (we're the branch that John alludes to) that had been in the GBG are not in this year.

    I will accept that the active members who do submit scores may prefer other outlets (which is what this blog is all about) but are we surprised that a guide produced by beer enthusiasts favours those pubs that offer more choice and, dare I say, more interesting beers?

  42. PS. not helped this year by our allocation been reduced by nearly 25% due to a reallocation in Cheshire. The GBG has long stopped being a good beer guide and guest beer guide fits the bill well as that's what beer enthusiasts like. It's an example of something that needs a serious good looking at to see what it's actually trying to achieve these days. I'd disagree above that the GBG is bought by beer enthusiasts. It's sales have been pretty flat despite membership doubling - it's a coffee table/habit purchase IMO.

  43. >but if you get enough scores any variations should even out.

    I doubt many branches get the volume & breath of scores they need to make them stand up to statistical analysis.

    I've pushed for years for CAMRA to make beer scoring much more accessible via mobile phones. They are getting there with whatpub.com now being pretty smart phone friendly. A dedicated app would help.

    In our branch, we've seen beer score frequently drop off despite increased membership.

    And finally, beer scores are just an indicator. They still need to be backed up by local knowledge.

  44. >Unless, that is, the campaign's What Pub website/app really starts to take off (which it undoubtedly will) and renders the printed guide obsolete.

    It's bound to and probably faster than Mr Protz and CAMRA realises. Won't be this this, won't be next but maybe in 3-5 years you won't be lugging a bit of dead tree around.

    I hope that CAMRA has a plan to keep the concept of the GBG alive though - there is nothing wrong with CAMRA endorsement of pubs in the terms of a top 20 list, just won't be on paper. Otherwise, it'll loose many USPs as well as significant income which helps campaigning.

    Many companies make a lot of money out of online publishing (Google adwords) but unfortunately, there aren't many traditional publishers who have made the change successfully to the online world and continue to thrive. Most of the big names you can think of a new companies. So you need to think new and innovative which aren't words that often spring to mind when discussing CAMRA...

  45. Yes, beer scores are not the be all and end all - as you say, they need to be filtered through local knowledge. But they do provide at least some objective basis for selections.

    I can't help feeling that there's room in the marketplace for something in between the Good Beer Guide and Good Pub Guide - "Pubs of Character", maybe ;-)

    One of the big plus points about the GBG is that it may lead you to places you might not otherwise find, such as the Crown at Churchill in Somerset, the Boat at Penallt in Monmouthside and the Dolphin in Plymouth.

  46. Don't disagree at all Mudgie. As I've publically said - I'm not against paper publications as such - there's many, many more years in Opening Times & Out Inn Cheshire magazines et al. Whilst surfing the web can take you to places you weren't looking for, the downside of a search engine is that it takes you to the thing you were looking for whereas when browsing a book/magazine, you tend to end up finding something interesting that you weren't looking for.

    Local guides are still pretty popular (like the recent Manchester guide), just question the viability and need for a national guide on paper.

    I guess I'd say I'd like some of the suggestions made here to be embraced long term on whatpub.com. It can, if done right, lead you off to other places. Bit like the Amazon idea where when you end up on a particular item, there's a list of "People who bought this, also bought this".

    WhatPub does show nearby pubs but it needs a bit more so if you looked at Poachers, Bollington (in the GBG), there would be a bit at the bottom that said something like:

    "Just down the road is the Cotton Tree which is an example of a rapidly dwindling outlet - the wet only pub back-street local"

  47. Print publications have proved a lot more durable than many doomsayers predicted, in particular the "gift market". Record shops have virtually disappeared, bookshops haven't.

    For many CAMRA branches, the annual GBG selection is seen as the ultimate result of their endeavours through the year.


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