Thursday 16 September 2010

Is the Good Beer Guide still Good?

The 2011 Good Beer Guide was released today. It’s the 38th edition and this one chronicles 4,500 pubs around Britain. Inside it covers the nation in terms of pubs, breweries and beers. Each pub has a few words about it, the address, opening hours and a useful key detailing some extra information in picture form. Its annual release brings a whirl of PR, but is it still the resource it used to be?

The book is a hefty wad of paper, far from pocket-sized, which likely requires a bag, should you wish to carry it around with you. The RRP is £15.99 but you can get it on Amazon for £10.39 or £10 for CAMRA members on their website. That’s not much to spend for inside knowledge on decent places to drink and you’ll probably waste that much on bad beer in crap pubs over a year, so it’s a worthwhile investment. You can also buy a version for certain mobile phones and SatNavs and these are only £5 each. On this you can search for pubs in multiple ways, one way is via GPRS, presumably pushing a button and getting a list of the nearest GBG pubs back, which is pretty cool.

I like the GBG but I don't think I’ll buy myself a copy this year. I haven’t had the last two and I haven’t missed them. I use the internet to look for places to go, whether it’s reading blogs, Beer in the Evening or asking twitter. But... I do like to have it there as the book which promises places worth drinking in (in most cases anyway, we know there’s the odd dud and that some close over the year, but it’s 4,500 pubs put together by CAMRA members and you can’t get them all right) and the first copy I see in the shops will undoubtedly be flicked through to see what local pubs are in it and if some of my favourites are there. Actually, you know what, I might have already convinced myself that I do want it after all...

Is the Good Beer Guide still good? Do you buy them each year? Will you buy it this year? If so, will you buy the book or the mobile version? Is it your beer bible or do you look for guidance elsewhere? Is it a definitive guide to beer and pubs in Britain? Is there something better or could there be something better? What do you think...


  1. Hmmm...I must confess I don't buy it every year but probably most. The internet is very useful for finding good pubs but a guide book has its uses too, and I find the information in the GBG on breweries useful too.

  2. It's probably the case that everyone who buys it uses the GBG in different ways. Personally my main practical use for it is finding pub lunches in areas off my usual patch - decent beer and food generally go together.

    One thing that somewhat depresses me is the number of towns where the only entry is the local Wetherspoons.

  3. I do like the GBG and buy it every year, which is probably unneccesary! I do find the precis on each pub pretty useful as a guage to whether somewhere is worth a vist. It's also a pretty reliable guide to where does decent food which is an added bonus for my non-beer drinking partner!

    I do use Beer In The Evening but feel the whole site is a wasted opportunity clogged with crappy advertising and not the resource it should be.

  4. Curmudgeon, great minds (and stomachs) seem to have been simultaneously thinking the same thing! :-)

  5. Must admit the last few times i've bought it i have got the last years edition on ebay for a couple of quid.
    I am quite tempted by the mobile phone version though.

  6. I find searching for pubs on the Internet hopelessly hit-and-miss. There is nothing remotely approaching a definitive site, and BITE, which seems to be the most comprehensive, has huge gaps in coverage. Too often it's just one person going off on a long rant because they had one poor meal.

  7. I did own a copy once - 1996, I think, and I bought it in one of those remaindered book places in Bromley. Otherwise, I've never felt the need.

    I tend to go off word of mouth - I can't stand BITE but I've been known to use Google to confirm addresses and locations if I'm on a new patch.

  8. When I signed up to CAMRA, they added me to the Beer guide list, so I got the last few (I've unsubscribed now). It's great to have, but unwieldy, especially when going away, I end up writing down some pubs I like in the area I'll be in.

  9. I have never bothered since finding out that not every pub is in it every year for reasons of space. Apparently they have a rota?! If there are too many pubs, bring out regional versions, don't leave half the pubs out!

    I tried the onlive version but found it lacking in detail.
    BiTE or twitter for me all the way now.

    Also, these days I tend to disagree with CAMRA's idea of a good pint. A pub serving Pride, Abbot and Speckled hen would get a great camra score, and I'd probably have the lager...

  10. Apparently most buyers only buy it every three years or so. Which kind of makes sense as only about 25% of entries change annually.

    Despite the digital age, it's still the No 1 source for good pubs as there are no professional sites on the internet to comapre with its depth of coverage.

  11. For our footy away days I tend to use a combination of BITE, local CAMRA sites, local CAMRA magazines and blogs.

    If all that fails I email the local CAMRA.

    I buy GBG once every few years as it is good to have some of the brewery and beer reference information when the memory lets me down...

  12. Somebody told me that the Blue Anchor in Helston isn't in this year - incredible if true. Can you confirm or deny?

  13. I would say that the GBG is essentially a slightly grittier competitor to the Good Pub Guide.

    The main appeal is not to hardcore beer enthusiasts, but to people who want to find decent pubs with cask beer when they're away on holiday or business or out on day trips.

  14. i've got the GBG iPhone app. Very useful. I think pub and beer quality vary depending where you are. Around the Bristol area my local CAMRA Branch is spoilt for choice on what to include, so you usually get reliable pints and interesting beers. However, I visited some GBG pubs in Grimsby/Cleethorpes last weekend and standards were much lower. The local Branch probably struggle to fill their allocation.

  15. If you give people an allocation, they'll fill it. It would take a brave branch that had 100 real ale pubs to only put in 15 even if their allocation was 20.

    But you can't judge pubs on one visit - it may be that the pubs in Grimsby/Cleethorpes just weren't of the type that appealed to you.

    I think the stories that branches operate a rota system are somewhat apocryphal, to be honest.

    Some in my local branch occasionally claim we could easily put in 50 pubs, rather than our allocation of 25, but I tend to think once you get down below 35 you're on marginal territory.

  16. "I think the stories that branches operate a rota system are somewhat apocryphal, to be honest."

    I would second that. It's almost an urban myth now.

  17. I think Mudgie has this right. Whne the GBG started it really was just the beer that counted but these days it has metamorphosed into a "good pub guide" where the main criterion for entry is the quality (and hopefully, but not always, I suspect) not the quantity of cask beers available.

    Of course what makes a "good pub" is a matter of personal opinion and hence the wide variety of pubs in the GBG; there's usually soemthing for everyone in its pages.

    I do just want to comment on Stig's remark that:

    "Also, these days I tend to disagree with CAMRA's idea of a good pint. A pub serving Pride, Abbot and Speckled hen would get a great camra score, and I'd probably have the lager..."

    A pub would get a "great CAMRA score" if it served well kept cask beer - and let's not forget there are plenty of people around who happen to rather like Pride (I do), Abbott and OSH. CAMRA's idea of a good pint is a well-kept pint and I think the GBG, and indeed CAMRA in general, has to have something to say to the British beer drinking public as a whole and just just a small number of beer geeks and bloggers.

  18. Really interesting comments! It's good to see that people still find it a relevant resource even when we have so much information available to us on the internet.

    Something niggles inside me to try and think of how it could be better or different but I can't quite get my head around the idea... Perhaps an edgier, craft-focused, beer-centric version could focus closer on the best 500-1000? The scope would still be there. Perhaps a compilation book (something like 1001 Beers) with people choosing pubs in their area... Who knows.

    Time to order my copy of the 2011 GBG!

  19. "Perhaps an edgier, craft-focused, beer-centric version could focus closer on the best 500-1000?"

    Doesn't the Real Ale Pub Guide already do that to some extent? And I suspect what was effectively a guide to multi-beer freehouses would leave large geographical gaps and lose the core audience of the current GBG. I certainly wouldn't have much interest in a guide that had no place for pubs like the Anchor at High Offley.

  20. I've not seen any evidence of a rota system for GBG entries in branches I know, though a few do try and avoid giving Pub of the Year to the same pub twice in a row. My branch takes the viewpoint that if they're still the best, they get to win PotY/go in the Guide again and the others need to raise their game, which I think is the most sensible option.

    GBG allocations can be traded between neighbouring branches (at least within the same region, otherwise it gets a bit complicated) — if one branch can't fill its allocation, and a neighbouring branch has more pubs than it can fit in, then it makes sense to transfer a couple rather than put dross in while good pubs get left out. This doesn't always happen, though.

    Beer quality is the overriding consideration for whether a pub goes in the GBG. It's supposed to be regardless of range — a pub with consistently well-kept Pride and Abbot should come above a pub with six constantly-changing micros IF that pub can't keep them as well. As John Clarke said, some people prefer those beers.

    And, of course, things vary from branch to branch — everyone involved in the process is human (except perhaps first thing the next morning!) and most of us get enough of being given The Procedure Which Must Be Followed To The Letter at work! Which means some branches will tend to favour pubs with a range of micro-brewed beers, while others will tend to favour pubs with a steady range of "safe" beers. But they should all be well-kept beers: range is supposed to be more of a tie-breaker thing.

    Finally, don't forget that the process of putting the GBG together takes time — it takes our branch a couple of months (2/3 pubs in one night, one night a week — reasonable since it's our spare time and we're paying for our own beer/fuel!) to do the surveying, and then the process of editing and production takes a few more. I think everyone who's filled in a GBG survey form has seen a pub change hands just before the Guide comes out, only for quality to nosedive. At that point, the only thing you can do is withdraw it, but only CAMRA members will get What's Brewing, where those notices appear. (I assume the iPhone edition updates itself, though)

    Sorry for the length; I hope there's something useful in there, though :)

    [Oh, and in response to the post — I'm not buying the paper edition this year as the iPhone one is more useful. I tend to have it on me when I'm looking for a pub, for starters!]

  21. I buy it every year for reasons that I doubt many other people do: because for certain sorts of research, it's a unique resource. I'm asked to write a piece on the rise of golden ales and I want to know many beers have "summer" or "golden" in their name this year compared to 20 years ago? Hang on, I'll get 1990's edition down from the shelf. How many breweries were still making a dark mild in 1975? Let's have a look at the '76 edition. And so on …

  22. Martin

    Comparative research is also one of the reasons I buy it every year. The other is simply because I am something of a bookworm:)

  23. yep I buy it about once every three years (bought last years so wont be getting it this year) but its something Id always use before visiting an area I didnt know, and its been invaluable, led to me some cracking cask ale pubs that I dont think Id have found any other way, as they are inevitably often well off the beaten tourist tracks. The online sites more often recommend just pubs that serve cask ale, and thats not always the same thing as a good beer guide pub ime. my only real criticism with it over the years has been the price Camra charged compared to places like Amazon, but it looks like theyve finally got the message on that.

  24. I buy it every year on the CAMRA direct debit members' scheme which I seem to recall works out just about cheaper than buying it on Amazon. For professional reasons I find the brewery listings, which occupy a substantial part of the guide and really are unique for a print resource, the essential part of the guide. If I'm travelling it's too heavy a tome to lug with me so I look up interesting pubs beforehand and note the bare essentials.

    I consider it an essential classic, but my main issue with it is it doesn't really do what it says on the tin. It's not a Good Beer Guide but a Good Cask Beer Pub Guide -- there's no assessment of the beers aside from notes on those that have won CBoB awards. The "good" purely refers to the standard of cask dispense, even of mediocre beers. I take the point in a previous comment that this is a book for the wider public who might like drinking common national cask brands, rather than for a minority of beer geeks. But I do feel uncomfortable with a book purporting to guide the reader to good beer that includes pubs with a single handpump dispensing GK IPA in top condition while leaving out the likes of the Greenwich Union.

  25. I did a poll about GBG purchasing on my blog - you can see the results here.